Keeneland sale generates optimism for horse market

The horses-of-all-ages sale at Keeneland ended Friday with improvement in earnings and total number of horses sold.
The horses-of-all-ages sale at Keeneland ended Friday with improvement in earnings and total number of horses sold.

It is still a tough world, this Thoroughbred marketplace, where bids are fought for and taking a bit of a hit is more common than raking in profits.

But even the most testing of times don't go on indefinitely. When Keene land's January horses-of-all-ages sale concluded Friday, there were signs that things might not be great, but they are at least getting better.

Because of the fluctuations in its quality from year to year, Keeneland's January auction isn't normally viewed as a barometer for the entire market. Still, there is no denying that 2011 got off to a more positive start than last season's after the five-day event concluded with gains in gross and average and with the median dipping slightly.

A total of 1,021 horses sold for $25,250,350, surpassing last year's total of $23,895,100 generated by 982 horses sold. The average of $24,731 was up from $24,333 in 2010; the median fell from $8,000 last year to $7,500.

Bolstered by a strong opening session in which three Grade I winners — including the $1.4 million sale topper Ave — went through the ring, the January sale showed that buyer confidence was returning slowly but surely.

Getting lower-end horses sold remains troublesome. There were plenty who struggled — and failed — to even generate the $1,000 minimum bid. A total of 385 horses did not sell because they failed to reach their reserve price.

Still, the mantra that the money will be there for the good horses remains true. And now that the industry has had time to adjust to the new reality brought on by the market correction, a leveling off might be taking place.

"The market continues to show positive signs of recovery from the one-two punch of the recent global financial crisis and the industry correction," said Keeneland Director of Sales Geoffrey Russell. "As we've noted before, the market is resilient. People are still very discerning, but they want to buy horses. That fact is supported by the prices paid for quality individuals, particularly young, stakes-winning mares and yearlings with good physicals."

Foreign buyers were a strong force throughout the sale, particularly the Yoshida family of Japan, who purchased three of the auction's four highest-priced horses.

And there were still shoppers taking advantage of quality stock that cost about half the price they might have paid just two or three years ago.

"That's why I'm here. There have got to be some opportunities," said David Anderson of Ontario-based Anderson Farms, which purchased the Unbridled's Song mare Song and Danz for $400,000. "I'm thinking, while people are zagging, I'm going to maybe do some zigging."

How the market plays out over the next several months is still anyone's guess.

Considering that there appears to be a strong demand for foals and 2-year-olds about to hit the racetrack, there is reason to believe stability could improve in 2011.

"Everybody's filter is getting finer. You have to bring a really good horse out here and, if you do, then there is money for them," said Ned Toffey, general manager of Spendthrift Farm. "But I think the horse business is full of optimists and so, for the good horses, there is still plenty of interest. I think there is plenty of reason to be optimistic."