01/14/2003 12:00AM

July select off for '03; foal loss is cited

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Keeneland Association announced Tuesday that it would not hold its prestigious July select yearling auction in 2003, ending weeks of speculation that the sale might be canceled.

Plans call for the auction to resume in 2004 with a revised format, possibly including a limited number of horses selected for superior conformation as well as pedigree.

Keeneland officials blamed mare reproductive loss syndrome for compromising the July auction this year. The disease, whose cause is still unknown, created an abortion wave among thousands of Kentucky broodmares in 2001 and resulted in an estimated 20- to 30-percent drop in the following year's foal crop. Those horses would have been yearlings in 2003.

The July sale's hiatus means that Keeneland will hold only one select yearling sale in 2003, during the first two sessions of its annual September auction.

Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales, said the decision to abandon the July sale for one year came after company officials, seeking to revamp the auction format, heard from consignors that they would have few horses to nominate this year. But the July sale's entry numbers had dwindled in the past several years, even before MRLS surfaced in 2001, as more consignors held their best stock back for the burgeoning September auction.

"Anybody looking at July in the last couple of years would agree that there has been a waning of numbers," Russell said. "The September sale has become a major marketplace, make no mistake, and we're pleased with that sale. But we also feel July is a special sale that deserves its niche in the industry, and we're looking for ways to strengthen it."

Keeneland has added an early closing date of March 1 to its traditional closing date of May 1 for this year's September yearling sale. Russell said that the early closing date was intended for early-developing yearlings who typically would be nominated for the July sale.

"If they nominate their yearlings by March 1, we will tell them by May 1 whether those yearlings are eligible for the select sale," Russell said.

The Keeneland July sale has long been viewed as the world's premier Thoroughbred yearling sale. In 1985, it produced a $13.1 million price when Robert Sangster bought Seattle Dancer, a figure that still stands as the world-record auction price for a yearling. But the sale gradually has dwindled as the September auction has grown. Last year, buyers loudly criticized the July catalog, saying the physical quality of the yearlings on offer had diminished dramatically. The 2002 auction sold a record-low 87 lots. Gross revenue dropped by 33 percent, the average price fell 46 percent, and the median fell by 42 percent. More tellingly, buy-backs climbed to 40 percent.

Given that recent history, many major sellers and buyers are happy to hear that the July auction is undergoing renovations.

"We completely support Keeneland's decision," said Bill Farish of Lane's End Farm, perennially a leading seller at Keeneland auctions. Farish's father, Keeneland director William S. Farish, shocked local breeders in 2000 by moving all his commercial yearlings to the September sale. Lane's End more recently has sold at both July and September.

"Given the much smaller percentage of early foals last year, the pool of July sale-type yearlings is greatly diminished," Bill Farish said. "We look forward to exploring the future of the July sale with the Keeneland staff as the number of early foals rebounds."

"Part of me feels sad and disappointed," said Craig Bandoroff consignor for Denali Stud, "because as long as I've been selling horses, July is the sale we all aspire to have a big horse. But times have changed, and the market has changed. For the short term it's a good thing, and for the long term it might also be a good thing."

Buyers echoed those sentiments.

"They needed a break," said Buzz Chace, a buying agent who has represented some of America's most active buyers, among them Aaron and Marie Jones. "For sure they had the people there last year who would buy, but there were only a handful of really nice horses there."

Chace welcomed changing July's format, saying he would like to see Keeneland aggressively recruit a smaller group of horses with high-fashion pedigrees and superior conformation, with X-rays and endoscopic exams to back them up, for the July auction.

Those and other options are on the table, Russell said. "We're going to spend the next year talking to everybody and getting their ideas," he said. "Nothing is stupid, and everything will be up for discussion. One thing the conversations so far have shown is that there people have great interest and concern for the July sale. They are strongly for it, and they want it to come back."