12/19/2003 12:00AM

Consignors say July sale should be canceled again

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Regular consignors to the Keeneland July select yearling sale have told Keeneland they would prefer not to have the July sale in 2004, but they'd like the option to bring it back in the future if market conditions warrant its revival.

The Keeneland July sale, once the most prestigious Thoroughbred yearling auction in the world, has become secondary to the company's September auction in recent years and was canceled altogether in 2003.

Keeneland polled a group of about 20 regular consignors at a meeting Wednesday and found many who felt that the September yearling sale's strength indicates no current need for a July auction. Keeneland's associate director of sales, Tom Thornbury, said the company probably would not make a decision about the July sale until after the January mixed sale, which runs from Jan. 12-16.

The Keeneland July sale was canceled in 2003 for the first time, ostensibly because of a shortage of early yearlings due to mare reproductive loss syndrome, or MRLS. But the auction's future had been in some doubt anyway. Keeneland's September yearling sale has grown dramatically in recent years in terms of number of horses, popularity with buyers and consignors, and quality of offerings.

This year, in the July sale's absence, the September auction sold 2,969 yearlings for $274,125,300, a dramatic 30 percent increase from last year's gross, when 2,934 sold. The average price also soared by 29 percent, and median rose 13 percent. Those powerful gains came after a year in which the top of the market slid by about 30 percent, but consignors also took the September sale's strong numbers as a sign of the auction's predominance in the yearling market.

The September sale's success in 2003 prompted widespread speculation that its July counterpart would be canceled again. The September sale, which covers about two weeks and seven catalogs each year, starts with two select sessions that have proven as popular and fashionable as Keeneland's July sessions used to be.

In the private meeting Wednesday at Keeneland, consignors were nearly unanimous in their recommendation to keep the July sale off the calendar again in 2004, according to one attendee who asked not to be identified.

"I was very strongly under the impression that they were going to do what an awful lot of people had suggested, which is to put the summer sale on hold and revisit the issue on an annual basis," the consignor said. "If the September sale was as big and strong as it was on the heels of MRLS, the numbers are only going to get stronger now. Even without the July sale, the September sale will continue to grow numbers-wise as we get back to a full foal crop, and, as it stands now, September's second and third catalogs are full almost to the point of overflow."

The seller said most at the meeting felt that, as the effects of MRLS recede and the foal crop grows, the sheer number of horses consigned to the September sale could become unmanageable. Under those circumstances, the seller said, it would be good to have a July sale as an outlet for September's upper-middle-market horses.

"If that happened, we could go back and have a summer sale, but not of the same type as it was before," the consignor said. "Its catalog would now consist of September's second- and third-catalog horses."

Consignors at the meeting generally agreed that, for now, the September sale is so popular for consignors and buyers alike, it should be allowed to reign as Keeneland's only auction dedicated to yearlings.

"The September sale is so perfect because of what it is and, more importantly, when it is," the attending consignor said. "We have those extra two and a half months to get the horses ready that we don't have for the July sale. The September sale is the best sale in the world right now, so let's not mess with it."

"We're a ways away from making a decision," Thornbury said. "The meeting was an educational experience for us, and we'll convey what we heard to Keeneland's officers and directors. There was lots of conversation. Everybody had a lot on their minds and felt free to speak up. It wasn't a wasted exercise, and I think a lot of good came out of it."