07/27/2017 11:46AM

Changes, optimism abound at yearling sales

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Fasig-Tipton photo
The Fasig-Tipton Saratoga selected yearling sale produced this year's Belmont Stakes winner, Tapwrit.

Change is nothing new to the yearling sale calendar, but it’s been a while since so much has happened at once.

Three of the four major North American auction houses – Keeneland, Fasig-Tipton, Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co., and Barretts – bring a new wrinkle into this year’s season.

Fasig-Tipton will add a new auction to the calendar in the Turf Showcase, a sale geared toward yearlings with turf-appealing pedigrees or physicals. The single-day auction will take place a day before the marathon Keeneland September yearling sale.

Keeneland September, the industry’s bellwether yearling auction, continues to adjust its elite Book 1, reducing it to a boutique single session of 200 horses after last year’s first set of offerings spanned three days and 607 offerings.

Finally, OBS moved its signature yearling sale from August to mid-October, replacing the spot once occupied by the company’s fall mixed sale.

No matter where or when the horses are selling, the typical market calling cards of selectivity and polarization remain firmly in place.

“You still let your horses be the driver on your placement,” said Headley Bell of Mill Ridge Sales. “I just think there are traditional places that you’ve always done, and then you consider the new venues, but I would say your traditional places are going to be your mainstay. At least for us they are.”

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The consensus among consignors was the shifts in schedules and formats would not have a significant impact on staffing and logistics.

Buyers also were largely unfazed by the changing landscape. Because many already have well-established methods in terms of horse selection, the decision to attend certain sales was made before the catalogs even came out.

“It won’t change it at all,” trainer Ken McPeek said about his yearling sale preparation. “We’re still going to work every session, sort through them, and see what we think. I’m looking forward to the Turf Showcase and seeing if we can get something to take us to Ascot.”

Samantha Siegel of Jay Em Ess Stable, a buyer who targets dirt horses, said she had not given much thought to the Turf Showcase. However, as a buyer who typically shops a tier or two below the potential sale-toppers, Siegel said the changing makeup of the Keeneland September sale’s first books will require her to adjust her approach at that auction.

“I think Book 1 will always be Book 1, and if I go in there, I’m swimming against the tide,” she said. “It’s tough for me. I haven’t really made up my mind for what I’m doing for Keeneland yet. We’ll take things as they come and see what kind of year we’re having, but I expect to be there at some point in September.”

While returns are still not at the levels they were before the Great Recession, the yearling market enters the meat of its calendar with the wind behind it.

The 2-year-olds in training portion of the marketplace was largely steady, but outstanding at the top. All seven of the major juvenile sales posted gains in average sale price, and the high-population OBS spring 2-year-olds in training sale posted record returns in gross, average, and median, and also sold the most expensive offering in OBS history.

The 2016 yearling market outperformed expectations and showed strength deeper down the quality ladder than expected. The bottom fell out quickly for horses in the lowest tiers of the market, but morale seemed to be high at the end of the season after some uneasiness at the start.

Optimism continued through the first auction of this season, the Fasig-Tipton July yearling sale. Sellers noted an uptick in activity on the grounds prior to the auction, and that came to bear with across-the-board gains.

Tommy Eastham of Legacy Bloodstock said the increased momentum has helped change the culture of horse ownership in recent years, particularly when it comes to buying at auction.

“I think it’s cool to be a horseman again,” he said. “What I’m starting to see leading into the yearling market is the return of the domestic businessman – the guys that were buddies in high school that used to put in $20,000, $30,000, $40,000 apiece and buy a few horses and go race together and hope to have a big time. We kind of lost those for a little while.

“It’s been a little bit spotty, but I’m starting to get those phone calls of, ‘We’re coming back and want to buy a few, if you’ve got a few you want us to look at.’ There’s been a lot of interest, and people want to see horses on the farm. There’s definitely some trade going on. I think it’s a positive time in the horses business.”

One of the sales that has not been a recent target for ground-shaking change is the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select yearling sale, one of the high-end pillars of the season for 97 years.

“There has been a few adjustments to the format over the years,” Fasig-Tipton president Boyd Browning said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve tinkered with it. It’s been a very strong and consistent marketplace for many years, and embraced by both buyers and sellers alike.”

This year’s renewal will take place Aug. 7-8 at the Humphrey S. Finney Pavilion in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., beginning at 6:30 p.m. Eastern each day.

The catalog features 227 entries, down 9.9 percent from the 250 entered in last year’s sale.

“I’m expecting a good sale,” Browning said. “We’ve got really good, quality horses. We couldn’t be happier with the horses cataloged, both in terms of pedigrees and physical conformation. We’re just very pleased with the quality of foals we saw during the inspection process.”

The Saratoga sale is known for its high-profile graduates, as evidenced by the placards hanging over many of the stalls across the sale grounds indicating where horses of note spent time during their time as auction prospects. This year’s star alum is Belmont Stakes winner Tapwrit, who sold at the 2015 auction for $1.2 million.

Last year’s Saratoga sale finished with 156 yearlings sold for revenues of $45,570,000, down 3 percent from last year’s gross of $46,755,000.

The average sale price was down 9 percent, to $292,115 from $322,448, while the median declined 5 percent, to $237,500 from $250,000. The buyback rate rose to 23 percent last year after finishing at a phenomenally low 15 percent in 2015.

Mandy Pope of Whisper Hill Farm bought last year’s sale-topper, a $1.45 million Medaglia d’Oro filly out of the stakes-winning Thunder Gulch mare Whisper to Me. She was consigned by Denali Stud, agent.

Later named Whisper to Mama, the filly is a half-sister to Grade 2 winner Overheard. She is training toward her first start at GoldMark Farm in Ocala, Fla.