'New reality' at Keeneland

The saying goes that anyone who expects the worst won't ever be disappointed.

So although the mood during the Keeneland January Horses of All Ages sale was subdued at times, the fact that everyone knew what they were in for kept the collective attitude from completely bottoming out.

The strain of an ailing global economy continued to manifest itself in the Thoroughbred marketplace as the six-day January auction ended Saturday with significant across-the-board declines.

The overall gross of $32,824,000 was a 53.4 percent plummet from last year's total of $70,446,000. It is the lowest gross for the January sale since 2003.

The cumulative average dropped by 48 percent, and the median fell by 44.1 percent.

"It's abrupt, but it is what it is," John Sikura, president of Hill 'n' Dale Sales, said of the market drop. "There has been acceptance by both buyers and sellers that we're in a new reality."

It might not have been pretty, but what transpired during the January sale was hardly unexpected.

When the Keeneland November breeding stock sale saw its gross decline by more than 45 percent, the industry braced itself for things to get worse before turning around.

Many were able to find buyers for their horses — the "not sold" rate dropped by 9.2 percent compared to 2008 — but several sellers lost money in the process.

If there is a bright side, it's that there are still people out there willing to dive into the bloodstock game.

"After the November sale, we knew exactly where we were going to be. So what we've seen in the prices has really been no surprise," said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales. "The phrase we've used is this is real hard cash here so ... this is probably a real true reflection on the value of horses at the moment.

"Most importantly, I think, is that there has been trade," Russell said. "The horses are moving, they are going on. There are a lot of regional programs that can afford these horses now, where in the past they haven't been able to."

In an addition to struggling with the overall economic crisis, the January catalog was lacking in overall quality.

For the first time since 2004, only one horse, former Horse of the Year Azeri, reached the seven-figure, yet the final bid of $4.4 million during the opening session failed to meet the reserve price for her.

Yet, for the horses that did boast a combination of good physical stature and an admirable race record or pedigree, there were buyers lined up trying to come home with a steal.

"I had a couple orders to buy mares in the $5,000, $10,000 to $20,000 range and they actually were hard to buy," said Dan Kenny of Four Star Sales. "There were an enormous number of horses scratched from the sale, so my gut feeling is those were better horses than the ones that were left in the sale.

"You had this unprecedented number of horses where there was really no reason to own them. They couldn't run, they didn't come from a good family. When you looked at it in that way, trying to buy something that was perceived as a bargain wasn't easy to do."

Many are weary of making the long-term investment that comes with buying broodmares, so horses that are closer to the track are proving to be a more popular commodity.

That might help buffer the upcoming 2-year-olds in training sales against precipitous drops, but a full-blown market rebound is not expected any time soon.

"I'm hoping the 2-year-old market will be decent, but I don't expect it to be like previous years," Kentucky-based bloodstock agent Mike Ryan said. "I still think quality will sell."