It is no secret the Keene land January horses-of-all-ages sale regularly hits both ends of the spectrum with a handful of standouts mixed in with some spotty commercial offerings.
The dual nature of the exercise was evident again Monday as a few Grade I stars bolstered what was at times a sleepy opening session to help the first major Thoroughbred auction of the year get off to a strong start.
Ave, winner of the Grade I Flower Bowl Invitational in October, was the only horse to crack seven figures when she was sold to Shadai Farm in Japan for $1.4 million.
Another Japanese-based operation, Katsumi Yoshida's Northern Farm, snagged the day's other top purchase when it obtained Grade I winner Wickedly Perfect for $800,000.
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While bidding on many horses failed to reach the six-figure mark — especially through the first 100 horses — the action picked up decidedly once the mares and yearlings with the best looks and pedigrees started to roll through the ring.
The overall gross of $10,687,600 from the sales of 187 horses was up 62.12 percent from last year's opening session total of $6,592,600 generated by 178 sales. The average of $57,153 jumped 54.31 percent from the corresponding session in 2010 while the median of $20,000 was unchanged compared to last year.
"I think it's a fairly typical January sale in that there are some stars and there are some culls," said Case Clay, president of Three Chimneys, which consigned Ave and Wickedly Perfect. "I think as the week goes on, there will be some culls. Hopefully for pinhookers (resellers) there are some gems out there where they can make a lot of money.
"Today has been kind of a get 'em sold kind of day with a couple of stars."
In addition to her win in the Flower Bowl, Ave was a Group III winner in Europe. The 5-year-old daughter of Danehill Dancer opened at a modest bid of $25,000, but the price rose steadily, with representatives of Shadai outlasting underbidder Lincoln Collins.
Yoshiro Nakaji, who signed the ticket on behalf of Shadai, said through a translator that Ave would be retired and bred in Japan.
"I think that was a strong price, but it makes sense," Clay said. "She has an incredible European pedigree, she was a graded-stakes winner in Europe and a Grade I winner in America, so she's a very international mare."
Negligee, winner of the 2009 Grade I Darley Alcibiades Stakes at Keeneland, brought the third-highest price when she was bought by Hunter Valley Farm on behalf of an undisclosed client for $625,000.
Having three Grade I winners in the opening session was certainly a boost, but there was still evidence of polarization within the market.
A total of 101 horses failed to meet their reserves, up 15.1 percent from this session in 2010. And with four days remaining, sales officials aren't celebrating a market turnaround just yet.
"You have to understand that you have to look at all of Book 1. You can't just look at session one versus session two," said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales. "You have to add it all together because last year, session two had all the high-end priced horses. So we'll see where we are tomorrow."