Breeding industry bounces back with record-setting Keeneland yearling sale

A photo provided by Keeneland shows the bay filly from Take Charge Lady that was bought for $2.2 million at the Keeneland September yearling sale.
A photo provided by Keeneland shows the bay filly from Take Charge Lady that was bought for $2.2 million at the Keeneland September yearling sale.

For 12 days, it felt like old times inside the Keeneland sales pavilion.

After five years of rebuilding efforts following the economic crash that manifested during the 2008 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, the latest edition of the most telltale Thoroughbred auction showcased the strength that has returned.

The 2013 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, which concluded Saturday, could have doubled as the official welcome-back party for the breeding industry. Spurred by a successful new Book 1 format, a breadth of buying power and quality offerings at all levels, the sale surpassed levels not seen since the stock market debacle of '08 wreaked havoc on what was an inflated marketplace.

This year's total gross of $280,491,300 generated from 2,744 head sold is the highest since the 2008 auction and the seventh-best total of all time for the September sale. The median came in at a record $50,000, while the average of $102,220 is the third-best ever.

Though the days of the $300-plus million in gross receipts — which were the norm during the peak of the market from 2004-2008 — may be unobtainable in the current climate, the level of bidding during this September sale was as electrifying as some of its heyday runs.

"The market is excellent. There is just a lot of money around, a lot of new money signing expensive tickets that we haven't seen the last few years," said Peter O'Callaghan of Woods Edge Farm, which consigned the War Front colt that sold to representatives of Coolmore Stud for a sale-topping $2.5 million. "It's been a sluggish market for four or five years, and you've had to kind of ride it out, and it's really come back around to us, thank God.

"I think when the economy took a bad turn those last several years ... even though all these men were still very wealthy, they maybe didn't feel as wealthy, or they were just conducting themselves in a much more conservative manner," O'Callaghan continued. "Now they have a lot more confidence in the economy, and at the end of the day, people love racing."

The signs of a full-on market recovery were bursting forth from the first session to the time the last horse was hammered down.

The collective strength at the top end assured that plenty of buyers still had shopping to do well into the second week, as gross receipts surpassed the total gross for each September sale since 2008 during the seventh session.

Eighteen yearlings sold for $1 million or more, the most since that same total in 2008, with 15 different buyers representing both domestic and international interests responsible for purchasing those seven-figure standouts.

A chunk of the credit for such results was given to the new Book 1 format Keeneland implemented this year which spread the select portion of the catalog out over the first four days as opposed to the single- or two-day sessions in the past. However, what kept the bidding spirited was the fact the catalog featured some of the best quality yearlings — both in terms of conformation and pedigree — in recent years.

"The idea of the format was to get buyers on the sales grounds and to create a buzz. We successfully got the buyers on the sales grounds, and the horses created the buzz," said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales. "I think the strength of the sale is based on the quality of the horses that were here on the sales grounds. People don't spend lots of money for average-quality horses.

"They're willing to give good money for good horses, and our consignors brought an exceptional group here. When you have your two leading buyers buying horses in week 2, that tells you the quality continues on all the way through."

The Shadwell Estate of Sheik Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum led all buyers by gross for the second straight year with 27 purchased for $11.6 million. Taylor Made Sales was the leading consignor for the ninth time in the last 10 years, selling 254 horses for $31,313,500.

Now that market footing is back to being steadfast, how and if it sustains such upward swings will be paramount.

With the foal crop for 2013 projected to be down 2.2 percent from last year at this time, supply and demand should remain in balance. What breeders are concerned about is whether stud fees will begin to skyrocket in this improved economy, making it more difficult to sell for profit.

"I'll tell you one thing, the breeders have needed to catch a break, the breeders that have weathered this whole thing," said Kitty Taylor of Warrendale Sales. "It's nice to see them being rewarded, because a lot of these folks have hung in through the long haul when it was really ugly."