09/26/2004 11:00PM

All-time top sale ends with $324 million gross

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Keeneland's runaway September yearling sale, which became the top-grossing Thoroughbred auction in history last week, concluded Monday afternoon with records across the board.

The 14-day sale sold 3,370 yearlings for a total of $324,904,300, blowing away the previous gross record of $317,666,000 for 3,461 lots, set at Keeneland's 1999 November breeding stock sale. In addition to the world-record gross, the 2004 Keeneland September auction set sale records for top price when Lane's End, agent, sold an $8 million Storm Cat-Welcome Surprise colt to Hideyuki Mori, agent; for average price of $96,411; and for median price of $37,000. The buyback rate was essentially level, finishing at 22.7 percent this year versus 22.3 percent in 2003.

The previous records for average and median were $92,329 and $34,000, respectively, set at last year's September yearling sale. Entering this year's auction, Keeneland officials had expressed the hope that the 2004 sale might be close to last year's returns, and the boom they got instead seemed to surprise them.

"There is almost no way to describe it," the auction house's director of sales, Geoffrey Russell, said after the final figures were released. "Any way you analyze it, the sale was a tremendous success. It was strong from day one to day 14."

Russell had said going into the sale, which opened with a pair of select sessions on Sept. 13-14, that the catalog was especially strong for middle-market horses, a fact he later believed helped fuel the large gains in the auction's later days.

"We were confident the middle market would be strong, because that market has expanded tremendously in the last couple of years," he said. "The success of horses like Funny Cide and Smarty Jones have given people the belief in buying superior horses in the middle market that they can have some fun with."

Russell said the booming select sessions initially surprised him. Those two days resulted in the record $8 million Storm Cat colt, three others that sold for $3 million or more, and a total of 26 seven-figure lots. That far outstripped market expectations after the more conservative spending at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale in August.

"The next step is for the people who invested in these horses to be able to get some money back at the races," Russell said. "Purses need to increase. We always have to expand our fan base. That's everybody's job."