09/08/2006 12:00AM

At the biggest sale yet, anything is possible


The two-week Keeneland September yearling sale, which runs from Sept. 11 to Sept. 25 in Lexington, will offer a record 5,161 yearlings this season.

The September sale is well known as the world's largest Thoroughbred sale, and now it is bigger than ever, breaking Keeneland's previous record of 5,111 yearlings catalogued at the 2000 November sale. Given its size, the September sale also is the ultimate market for yearling buyers, who flock to Keeneland from around the globe in search of horses to fit a variety of budgets. Sessions will begin at 10 a.m. daily, except on the dark day of Sept. 15, in Keeneland's sale pavilion. The first two sessions, on Monday and Tuesday, are the auction's select sessions, in which the biggest prices light up the board.

This year the stars seem to be aligning very well for this auction, raising hopes among sellers that 2006 prices will beat out even last year's buoyant returns. In 2005, the auction set records for top price with a $9.7 million Storm Cat-Tranquility Lake colt that Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum bought from Mill Ridge, agent; for average price ($108,420); and for median ($40,000). It also set an industrywide record for gross sales, $384,349,900, and for million-dollar lots, 40.

Can the 2006 Keeneland September fare so well? Certainly there are optimistic indicators. Maktoum already was on the sale grounds Friday, as was his brother Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum. Sheikh Mohammed, in particular, has enjoyed a summer racing bonanza, highlighted by Bernardini's victories in the Preakness, Jim Dandy, and Travers, and Dubai Escapade's easy Ballerina win.

Maktoum is traditionally a big spender at the September auction, one of the few sales he attends in person in the course of the year, and his recent winner's circle appearances could make him especially bullish in the auction ring - or so upper-market sellers hope.

"The Maktoum family has let it be known that having U.S. classic success has whetted their appetites to increase their North American racing stables," said Keeneland's director of sales, Geoffrey Russell. "Their having an interest in the Thoroughbred industry in general is a great boost for everyone involved in the industry."

The September sale isn't just about the top level of horses. The industrial-sized catalog also depends on middle- and lower-market buyers to turn a profit, and this year there are some positive signs from that part of the Thoroughbred economy, too. Many pinhookers, who buy yearlings to resell (or pinhook) at the following spring's 2-year-old sales, came out of the 2006 juvenile sales with spending money. Those sales continued to set records themselves this year, most notably when Coolmore's $16 million purchase, The Green Monkey, shattered the previous world-record Thoroughbred price of $13.1 million, set back in 1985. Some pinhookers - such as The Green Monkey's sellers, Randy Hartley and Dean De Renzo - might well play in the upper levels of the yearling sale now, if they are feeling wealthy enough. But most of those who did well at the juvenile sales will return to hunt for yearlings costing between $50,000 and $400,000, making them essential to middle-market health.

Another key to that important middle part of the bell curve are the regional yearling markets that precede Keeneland September, and they have so far performed well. Fasig-Tipton's July sale set sale records for average ($115,954) and median ($90,000). Its buyback rate fell from 39 percent last year to 25 percent, and the top price was a robust $760,000. The select session of the Ocala Breeders' Sales Co.'s August yearling sale set sale records for gross ($10,427,500) and average ($59,247). And Fasig-Tipton's Texas yearling sale also had gains, achieving an $11,871 average and a $5,500 median, equivalent to the lower market at Keeneland September.

So there are plenty of good signs in the market these days. Prices have held up well or improved, high-end bidders like the Maktoums and Coolmore are still scouring the market, and relatively new players such as Ahmed Zayat and Scott Guenther are joining them. And sellers seem happy with the prices they are getting, at least in select sessions.

"There's great strength in the markets, both here and in Europe," Russell noted. "Any time the sales are positive, it gives consignors a good feeling.

"We think it's a very good catalog that starts off very strong," he said. "And it looks like all the major players in the world are slowly congregating here, and we look forward to a very good sale."

This year, too, there is an extra buzz in the air over new sires. The first-crop sires of 2006 are a stellar bunch, with the likes of 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft; 2002 juvenile champion Vindication; 2003 champion sprinter Aldebaran; 2003 Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker; and Grade 1 winners Sky Mesa, Harlan's Holiday, and Whywhywhy. Some of them have already added to their formidable race records with early success in the sale ring. At Fasig-Tipton's Saratoga sale, the topper was a $1.6 million Empire Maker filly out of Sluice. The only Mineshaft at that auction, a daughter of Unbridled Lassie, brought $1.45 million. And, earlier at the same sale, a Sky Mesa-Darling My Darling filly sold for $1.15 million.

The bidding may be even more aggressive for similar stock at Keeneland September. Though the catalog is large enough to offer a wide selection of yearlings by the same sires, the auction is also the last major yearling sale on the calendar, and therefore presents the final chance to buy some of those truly desirable pedigrees.

Given the recent past performances, could this year's top price set another record for Keeneland?

"We always live in hope," Russell said. "Everything's possible."