Optimism prevails at halfway mark, Keeneland January Horses of All Ages Sale

Ponche de Leona topped Tuesday's Keeneland sales, bringing in $775,000.
Ponche de Leona topped Tuesday's Keeneland sales, bringing in $775,000. Keeneland Photo

A lack of top-end offerings might have softened some key figures during the first two sessions of the Keeneland January Horses of All Ages Sale, but the consensus opinion of the current Thoroughbred market remained buoyant Tuesday as the first major mixed sale of the year reached its halfway point.

Ponche de Leona, dam of 2013 Breeders' Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man, established a new high price for this year's auction when she sold to Betty Moran's Brushwood Stable for $775,000. Such staunch but realistic prices have been the story of the opening sessions as mid-range bidding continues to reign in absence of seven-figure spending.

While the cumulative median is equal to a year ago at $35,000, the overall gross ($30,509,100) and average ($60,057) have taken a hit compared to 2013 figures, with the gross down 13.68 percent and the average down 23.71 percent. Still, both buyers and sellers are judging the health of the sale by what they see — competitive bidding with middle-market horses bringing a premium.

"I think the market has been unbelievably strong top to bottom," said Reiley McDonald of Eaton Sales, which signed the ticket for Ponche de Leona on behalf of Moran. "There hasn't been a lot of ultimate quality in this sale, so I think that carried a lot of the medium-end horses higher."

Where last year's January auction benefitted from the dispersal of stock from heralded Fares Farm, Ponche de Leona represented one of the handful of potential breakout horses in the current catalog.

Purchased by Steve Marshall's Black Rock Stables for $300,000 while in foal to Macho Uno at the 2011 Keeneland November sale, the daughter of Ponche failed at the 2012 Fasig-Tipton November sale to meet her reserve after bringing a bid of $1.4 million.

Currently in foal to Distorted Humor, the 15-year-old gray mare had Mucho Macho Man become a multiple Grade I winner in 2013 and has also produced stakes-placed winner Mucho Mans Gold.

"It was right in the ballpark of what we thought she would bring," said Hanzly Albina of Blake-Albina Thoroughbreds, which consigned the mare. Albina along with agent Nick Sallusto purchased Ponche de Leona for Marshall in 2011.

"We thought (Mucho Macho Man) was a really good prospect as an older horse at the time, and actually told Mr. Marshall, 'Buy this mare and he'll win the Breeders' Cup next year and we'll sell the mare.' We ended up loving the mare. She's such a beautiful mare, good size, so we kept her ... and it turns out he won (the Breeders' Cup this past November). Everyone I thought would be interested in a mare at that level looked at her."

Ponche de Leona foaled a filly by Tapit in 2013, and McDonald said he and Moran would strongly consider sending her back to Gainesway's top stallion this year.

McDonald was knee-deep in the day's best offerings as his Eaton Sales later consigned Sweeter Still, who sold to Phyllis Wyeth's Chadds Ford Stable for $750,000. A half-sister to Group I winner Kingsbarns, Sweeter Still was the only mare in the sale in foal to leading international sire Galileo and will be bred to Union Rags — who was campaigned by Wyeth — this season.

With two days of selling remaining, prices for foals remain a strong point, particularly as resellers restock inventory after a profitable 2013 season. The clearance rate also is on pace to come in under last year's level, with 20.50 percent of horses failing to meet their reserve, compared to 25.66 this time last year.