There is no doubt the Thoroughbred marketplace has a ways to go before it can fully shake the throes of its current correction.
But in the aftermath of the Keeneland November Breeding Stock sale that concluded Sunday, there was also evidence that a tinge of optimism had begun to creep back into the auction arena.
While it wasn't exactly cause for celebration, the results of 2009 Keeneland November sale had more than a few participants breathing sighs of relief.
Though the overall numbers continued their expected decline amid global economic struggles, the fact the cumulative gross of $159,727,800 was down 13.92 percent compared to last season was a sign consumer confidence was in line for a comeback.
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Considering the November auction took the full brunt of the economic downturn last year when its gross fell off by more than 45 percent, there was hope this year's exercise with its smaller catalog of 4,702 horses — down more than 1,000 from 2008 — would be spared such a drastic impact.
Thanks to the popularity of the Overbrook Farm dispersal, increased participation from foreign buyers and solid prices for top weanlings, Keeneland's November sale actually surpassed some expectations.
"We anticipated it would be down but the percentage we are down is an acceptable level," said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales. "Going into this we were very concerned about the domestic buyer because of the lack of credit out there, and we made a concerted effort with our international clients, which reaped great rewards."
"I think it's a little better than I anticipated," added Frank Taylor of Taylor Made Sales. "The good babies (weanlings) sold extremely well. It's better but we still need to get through this time when all these foals were bred on these big stud fees."
Even in a down market, quality offerings will draw top dollar and the Overbrook dispersal with its litany of well-bred, accomplished mares proved just that.
Of the five horses that reached the seven-figured level during the sale, four were from the Overbrook dispersal including Honest Pursuit, a daughter of Storm Cat who sold to the Wertheimer brothers for a sale-topping $3.1 million.
Overall, the Overbrook offerings — which were consigned by Eaton Sales — accounted for $31,760,000 in gross sales from 148 sold, including $20,957,000 during the second session alone.
"The Overbrook Farm dispersal I think added what this industry needed: a little confidence to the market," Russell said. "I think people prior to this sale weren't able to appraise what horses were worth, and I think the Overbrook consignment established the boundary and people were able to appraise off them. That helped dramatically."
For the first time since 2001, Eaton Sales led all consignors by gross with $38,940,500 in sales, ending Taylor Made's seven-year run in that position.
The rate of horses not sold also improved, coming in at 21.59 percent compared with 27.91 percent in 2008.
Weanling-to-yearling resellers actually enjoyed some strong results this year and, thus, showed a willingness to reinvest their profits. Several foals sold in the $200,000-$400,000 range, including a daughter of Bernardini who went for $440,000 to Hubert Guy.
While it remains a struggle for sellers to find homes for horses at the lower end of the market — particularly older mares — the softer prices at all levels are helping to lure buyers who have previously stayed on the sidelines.
"We knew the market was going to be down so we thought this was the right year to buy," said French bloodstock agent Jean-Pierre De Gasté, who was buying on behalf of HRH Prince Badr bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia. "We were expecting this, and we were waiting for the market to come down. The market has become realistic."