If there is one segment of the Thoroughbred industry that has benefited from the overall softening of the marketplace, it is the buyers who have seen the pendulum swing in their favor.
Although the correction in the auction arena has made conditions more favorable for obtaining promising stock, participants during the first three days of the Keeneland September yearling sale can attest to it being no haven for bargain hunters.
As the non-select portion of the Keeneland sale got under way Tuesday, those interested in the better offerings remained discriminating yet diligent.
A ridgling son of Smart Strike became the third horse to sell for seven figures, eliciting a final bid of $1 million from George Bolton.
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Though the market remains difficult for horses with lesser pedigrees or physical strikes against them, the most desirable yearlings attract a host of buyers. Bolton had to fend off a challenge from trainer Bob Baffert to secure his purchase.
"The good ones are not easy to buy ... the buyers are here and the buyers want the best horses," said Bolton, who bought the Smart Strike ridgling for himself and an undisclosed partner. "I think the value of horses has bottomed out. The stallion market is maybe half of what it was in '07, but it's not going any lower."
Consigned by Greenfield Farm, the session-topping Smart Strike yearling is out of the Grade III-winning Seattle Slew mare Ask Me No Secrets.
"I think this horse is a stallion prospect even though he's in Book 2. He's beautifully bred," said Bolton, who was formerly one of the partners that owned two-time Horse of the Year Curlin.
With the select sessions offering just more than 200 yearlings instead of the approximately 400 horses that usually are cataloged in Book 1, there was hope that ample money would remain on the grounds for the revamped Book 2 — now spread over four days instead of two.
The success of the new format won't fully be known until the sale ends, but positive residual effects appeared early as Baffert bought a bay colt by Stormy Atlantic for $500,000 on behalf of an undisclosed client early in Tuesday's session.
"I was hoping he'd bring around $350,000-$400,000, but there is money left over," Baffert said. "There are no steals, believe me. Everyone wants the really, really good ones."
While not as brisk as the select sessions, Keeneland's third day of selling produced respectable results. The overall gross from the sales of 331 horses came in at $71,597,000. The average, $216,305, was up 6.6 percent from this time last year. The rate of horses not sold was 31.89 percent.
The cumulative median of $150,000 is equal to the pace in 2009, but the new format makes direct comparisons difficult.
"There was a more businesslike tone, which we expected," said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales. "The key is to remember Book 2 spans four days and the quality on Friday will be comparable to the quality on Tuesday. The market remains very selective, but when buyers see a horse they really want, it becomes very competitive."