Many horses are withdrawn from Keeneland sale, but others bring top dollar

For the most part, there is no denying it is a buyer's market right now in the Thoroughbred auction industry.

But as some of the more notable shoppers will attest, there is precious little room for lowballing where the top-quality stock is concerned.

Its selection of horses may have been cut in half, but the Keeneland April 2-year-olds in training sale still produced its share of quality Tuesday evening as a son of Smart Strike topped the second and final session when he sold to trainer Bob Baffert for $475,000.

A total of 99 horses were withdrawn from the sale, shrinking the already compact catalog of 216, but the reduced numbers did heighten the quest for the best remaining stock.

Consigned by Jerry Bailey Sales Agency, the Smart Strike colt, who is out of the Belong to Me mare Private Feeling, impressed onlookers when he worked an eighth of a mile in 10 seconds flat during the under-tack show last Thursday.

Baffert, who bought Vallenzeri — the first foal out of 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri — for $1.9 million Monday evening, said he had to work a little harder than expected to claim the bay Smart Strike colt on behalf of owner Mike Pegram and partners.

"I didn't really want to pay that much. I told them I was going to go to $400,000, so I went over my budget a little bit," Baffert said. "The market is still strong for the good horses. Good horses are recession proof."

Much like Baffert, Centennial Farms found itself in an expensive battle before purchasing a son of Rock Hard Ten for $440,000 earlier in the session.

"I think anyone who wants to come and buy a nice horse they want to race and have fun with, those are a bargain," said Dr. Stephen Carr, manager of horse operations for Centennial Farms. "But if you want to go to New York for the better races, those horses are going to cost more."

The top end of the market may be holding steady but — as has been the case for the last several months — the overall numbers continue to decline against the backdrop of a struggling economy.

The total gross of $11,805,000 was down 27.57 percent from last year's figure of $16,299,000, while the overall average ($178,864) and median ($117,500) fell off by 15.50 and 21.67 percent, respectively.

In addition to the 99 horses withdrawn, 51 horses failed to meet their reserve, resulting in just 66 horses sold overall.

"As one consignor said, this is no different than any other sale, it's just a smaller catalog so it stands out more," said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales. "There is nothing seriously wrong with these horses (who were withdrawn), but if they didn't perform well (in the under tack show) or came up with minor problems, the sellers feel they're not going to get top dollar for them now. In 30 days they're probably going to sell these horses."