Keeneland official optimistic going into year's first Thoroughbred sale

James B. Keogh of Grovendale Bloodstock inspected a yearling by champion Summer Bird at the Catalyst Bloodstock consignment Saturday.
James B. Keogh of Grovendale Bloodstock inspected a yearling by champion Summer Bird at the Catalyst Bloodstock consignment Saturday. Herald-Leader

After a back-breaking bout of volatility, the extended status quo that seems to be settling over the Thoroughbred marketplace is not necessarily seen as the worst thing.

With the public auction arena beginning its 2013 season with the Keene land January Horses of All Ages sale on Monday, many participants expect to see more of what they've witnessed for the past 12 months — a stable but still selective market taking baby steps toward greater returns on its investments.

Building off the upswings that began in 2011 following the economic crash of 2008, the 2012 auction year by and large continued to produce encouraging results in various key areas.

Strength at the top end not only helped bolster select juvenile and yearling auctions, but breeding-stock sales flirted with its 2007 heyday, most notably when Mandy Pope paid $10 million for 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace during the Fasig-Tipton November sale.

But the going is still less than forgiving for horses on the lower end. And even with production costs declining because of decreased stud fees, selling horses for profit still is not the norm for commercial breeders.

The increasingly smaller foal crops, though, means supply and demand are the best allies of the marketplace. And a surprise bonus came through last week, when fiscal-cliff tax legislation passed by Congress reinstated incentive programs for horse owners.

"I think having continued stability in our major racing jurisdictions would help," said Andrew Cary of Select Sales Agency. "Kentucky is still in limbo with whether casinos will come in, and that always keeps people uncertain here about our future. But I think there is going to continue to be more of the same trends we've seen with quality being highly sought after and I think the smaller foal crops will keep averages higher.

"I think it will be more of the same that we saw last year. But now at least you can do some long-term planning rather than just hoping you'd make it to the next month."

Selling horses for profit remains a challenge, but there is an increasing number of buyers at all levels now that the supply has contracted.

Last year's Keeneland January sale saw huge across-the-board gains, including a 50.48 percent increase in gross, with a not-sold rate of 19.7 percent, a 27.8 percent improvement from 2011.

"Even when things are good it's a tough game, but I think as long as the numbers are in better balance, that is one of the biggest key issues," said Craig Bandoroff of Denali Stud. "The fact that you can sell them now and that the bottom of the market has kind of moved up ... those are big factors. You want to sell at a profit, but at the end of the day you want to move them. I think the profit number will pick up, hopefully."

This year's Keene land January sale has 1,893 lots cataloged, up from 1,594 in 2012, and probably will be aided by the complete dispersal of stock from Issam Fares' Fares Farm. The Lexington farm was the breeder of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin.

Quality dispersals can be a gold mine for an auction, and the Fares Farm consignment, which is being handled by Lane's End as agent, features such notable stock as a yearling half-sister to Curlin by leading sire Distorted Humor.

"I'm certainly optimistic about what is going on," said Walt Robertson, Keeneland's vice president of sales. "We've got a nice dispersal, some other real nice mares and some great babies.

"We've always said there is not a buyer for every horse, but there is a buyer for more of them now than there used to be."

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