The Thoroughbred auction arena is full of mixed signals for those trying to get a read on the yearling market.
Some much-needed signs that stability is trickling back into the battered marketplace have been met with reminders that the downturn isn't over yet.
By the nature of its volume, the Keeneland September yearling sale — the largest auction of its kind — always serves as a realistic barometer.
But just like the sales that have preceded it, there is an underlying belief the Keeneland sale could be one giant mixed bag.
This year's sale begins its 14-day run Sunday amid a host of changes. The format was revamped in an effort to inject new life and glamour into the auction arena.
The first two select sessions will be at night beginning at 7, with only about 100 horses selling each evening. The "Book 2" portion of the catalog will be spread out over four day sessions Tuesday through Friday, with the traditional off day now falling on Saturday.
After the market crashed during the September sale two years ago, the commercial industry has been struggling to regain its footing as it battles to sell horses at a time when many buyers have seen their respective funds take a hit.
While this year's Fasig-Tipton July yearling sale — which posted reasonable but not precipitous drops — indicated the bleeding was beginning to stop, Fasig's boutique Saratoga select auction exposed the vulnerability that still exists as the gross revenue declined 38.3 percent from its spectacular results of 2009.
Although many sellers have adjusted their expectations and reserves to fall in line with what buyers are willing to spend, there is no getting around the fact that even the best offerings these days aren't worth what they used to be.
"It's like every other asset, horses have a different value than what they did a few years ago," said Craig Bandoroff of Denali Stud. "But, so far this year, I do think there has been a good market for good horses.
"What you worry about at this sale is the volume and are there enough buyers for as many horses as you're going to put through the ring. But I have been pleased so far with the level of the demand in light of the state of our industry. I think it can be healthy. But is it going to be pie in the sky? It's not."
Even prominent buyers, most notably Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, have reigned in their spending of late, making the already thin level of competition at the top end of the market a greater concern.
One bright spot that has emerged with the success of some of the regional sales, however, is the crucial middle market buyer is starting to reappear.
"One thing I do think that is helping us is we are seeing a buyer now for the $100,000 to $50,000 horse where we lost that guy for a few years," said Tommy Eastham of Legacy Bloodstock. "Those guys are coming back. I do think it is a great opportunity to get in. I mean, we're selling horses that were previously $300,000 horses for $100,000 or something along those lines."
Considering the 4,857 yearlings cataloged for the September sale were bred when stud fees were still at their high point, many sellers might have to sacrifice making a profit if they truly want to get their offerings into new homes.
Just because the trend has shifted in favor of the buyers, though, doesn't mean the competition level has dried up completely.
"For many years, (buyers) like us would walk out and we'd be punch drunk, like we just got a left hook from Mike Tyson, and we'd look and see it was a great sale," said Terry Finley, president of West Point Thoroughbreds. "It was a great sale for the sales company and a great sale for the sellers ... the only entity it wasn't a great sale for was the end users.
"Certainly, the end users are in a better spot. We're not in a great spot, but we're in a better spot than we were five years ago."