08/02/2001 12:00AM

July sale poised for return to prominence


LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Keeneland July yearling sale, which opened the selected yearling auction season on July 16, has long symbolized the Thoroughbred sport's exclusivity. The Keeneland July auction ring was where Seattle Dancer sold as a yearling in 1985 for what is still a world-record price of $13.1 million. With its tuxedoed bid-spotters, multi-million-dollar prices, and record average of $710,247 this year, it still feels much like the world's premier yearling auction.

But its catalog size has dwindled in recent years, leaving many to ponder whether the July sale, while still a powerful market, might have narrowed its role from the world's primary boutique yearling auction to a tantalizing and very select preview sale for Keeneland's increasingly dominant 13-day September yearling auction.

"July always was the sale that told you what the best of the Thoroughbred market could be," said Michael S. Brown, bloodstock agent and owner of the Racing Update statistical service. "It still represents the best, but only a piece of the best. It's a glittery preview, the tone-setter for the season. It's like the movie trailer that gets people juiced up for September, and, for sellers, it's good business to be a part of the preview."

The shrinking July catalog vexes some buyers, especially overseas ones, who are eager to make purchases in July but find the small selection unsatisfying. Those bidders, and their obvious willingness to spend money for good yearlings early in the season, may be the force that brings sellers back to Keeneland's barns in July. Even Demi O'Byrne, agent for Michael Tabor and John Magnier, publicly chastised sellers last month for opting out of July, saying they'd made a mistake.

"Their point is valid," Keeneland director of sales Geoffrey Russell said of O'Byrne's comment. "Those buyers like the July sale because they have more time to look at the horses, and it's a good sale to present a horse in a setting that isn't as rushed as September. People who haven't sold at July in the past couple of years and who sell horses at that level have missed out on a major marketing opportunity,"

The Keeneland July sale offered a record low of 144 lots this year, and sold 89. Some major sellers, most notably perennial leader Lane's End Farm, have opted to sell at Keeneland's September sale instead. Lane's End owner Will Farish, one of several Keeneland directors who sell in September rather than July, cited as a factor in his decision the chance to give his yearlings - especially late foals - extra time to mature.

As premier stock has migrated from July to the fall sale, the September auction's first two days now rival July in terms of revenue. Last year's top five September prices, led by a $6.8 million Storm Cat-Hum Along colt, easily outstripped July's $3.6 million sale-topping Mr. Prospector filly. In 1999, September's $3.9 million high mark surpassed July's $3 million top price.

Fasig-Tipton, which conducts the other premier yearling sale in North America at its Saratoga auction in August, also has equaled or surpassed Keeneland July sale-toppers in recent years. In 1999, Fasig's $3 million Saratoga topper equaled Keeneland July's highest price, and last year's $4.2 million top lot at Saratoga passed the July sale's $3.6 million high.

Clearly, there are good markets available later in the year that have rewarded sellers for their top horses. That tempts sellers to wait, especially if they have an outstanding horse with a late-spring birthdate.

Still, the defections puzzle some longtime Keeneland July buyers. "I think a myth has developed that September is a stronger or better market for quality horses," said James Delahooke, a prominent English-based agent who hopes that Keeneland July's record average this year will bring sellers back into the summer catalog. "The events of July this year prove that it's a myth. I think quite a large number of breeders, some of them Keeneland's directors, were sheeplike and followed a few consignors who departed the July sale - to their own cost, in my view. Keeneland has to somehow discipline breeders, and especially their own directors, to support the July sale.

"As it stands now, the sale barely has a role. It's hardly worth crossing the Atlantic to watch 80 horses change hands. What it should be is a sale with 250 or 300 of the best horses."

Delahooke and others expect that the July sale's strong performance this year has proven its viability. With proof that there's money on the table, they're expecting and hoping that sellers will flock back to July. Buyers' calls for more July offerings, coupled with the large number of foals some popular stallions are siring annually, may give breeders with fashionably bred early yearlings plenty of incentive to apply for the July auction.

Russell says he already has gotten some calls from people planning to return to July, though there's no word yet on Farish's plans. Lane's End officials were unavailable for comment.

"I think this year kind of turned some heads," said Brown, who maintains that for sellers with a well-bred January or February foal the July auction will pay off. "For the July sale, you want a horse that's pretty forward and looks like you can get him to his peak so he'll show well in the second of third week of July. Then you won't have to wait eight more weeks for your money."