Keeneland November sale: Top end strong, but some gaps in quality

At its peak, the opening day of the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale on Tuesday was a positive showcase, selling more seven-figure offerings than it did at the start of last year's ultimately successful exercise.

However, the first Book One session overall revealed some gaps in quality as gross, average and median all declined during the opening session of the 11-day sale.

Led by the sale of graded stakes winner Naples Bay to representatives of Coolmore Stud for $3.6 million, seven fillies and mares cracked the million-dollar barrier, one more than hit that mark during the corresponding session in 2013.

The overall gross of $41,398,000 was down 2.03 percent from a year ago. The average of $306,652 represented a drop of 17.99 percent, with the median declining 22.73 percent to $170,000.

"I think the declines are typical of a breeding stock sale — they vary from year to year what is in there," said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales. "We sold more million dollar horses this year than we did last year. Last year we had a dispersal, this year we didn't."

The numbers didn't reflect the vibe, but there was a general positive feeling about the diversity of buying power and the diligence shoppers still have to show if they want to land the most desirable prospects.

Naples Bay was the kind of horse anyone would stretch for. Consigned by Claiborne Farm, agent and selling in foal to leading Claiborne stallion War Front, the 6-year-old daughter of Giant's Causeway is a half-sister to Grade I winner and sire Medaglia d'Oro.

Walker Hancock of Claiborne said Naples Bay "had every quality to be a great broodmare." The Coolmore Stud crew agreed, prevailing in a protracted contest that climbed steadily in $100,000 increments.

"She comes from a great family. She's in foal to War Front, so we're looking forward to seeing that," said Coolmore's M.V. Magnier, who signed the ticket. "She could easily go back to (Coolmore sire) Galileo, but we'll decide that. She deserved to make that price."

Naples Bay highlighted an afternoon that also demonstrated the global ambitions of China Horse Club, as representatives of the racing and business lifestyle club went to $2.8 million to obtain multiple Grade I winner Iotapa for its ever-expanding operation.

Founded by Teo Ah Khing, the architect who designed Dubai's Meydan Racecourse, China Horse Club has been aggressively buying horses across the globe and notably partnered with Coolmore Stud on ownership of beautifully bred English and Irish Derby winner Australia.

Iotapa is a most desirable addition to the program. The dark bay daughter of Afleet Alex won the Grade I Vanity and Clement L. Hirsch this summer and ran third behind Grade I winners Untapable and Don't Tell Sophia in Friday's Breeders' Cup Distaff.

"She may be part of our program here in America. But the purpose very much is, we are promoting the best of racing and the best lifestyle elements of what we do to our audience, our members," said Eden Harrington, general manager of China Horse Club. "Breeding is certainly part of our operation. And this is the biggest marketplace there is for breeding, so in due course it would make sense, and a mare of this stature would make sense."

The rate of horses not sold was an admitted disappointment for Keeneland officials on the day as it increased from 20.98 percent in 2013 to 25.41 percent Tuesday.

"That is a factor of the market when you are at the top end of the market," Russell said. "These are horses that have residual value to people, and they are willing to protect them for that level."

Where last year's sessions were bolstered by the high-end dispersal of stock from E. Paul Robsham Stables, the amount of breakout horses for the select portion of the sale might ultimately decline as well.

"I would hope we continue on as the first day started," Russell said.

The sale continues at 11 a.m. Wednesday.