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Keeneland November: Major racing, major sale collide
Hosting the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland for the first time has been a major undertaking on the part of many, but the races are only half of the equation.
This year’s Breeders’ Cup is historic not only for its venue, but for being held in conjunction with a major North American auction, with horses showing for the Keeneland November breeding stock sale during the two race days. The ends of the production cycle meet on the same property, with the premier race meet almost immediately followed by the country’s most populous auction of broodmares and weanlings to build for future editions of the Breeders’ Cup.
Sellers responded to the call by putting together the biggest Keeneland November catalog since 2010, with the 4,476 entries marking an 11 percent increase in offerings from the 4,027 in last year’s catalog.
“The catalog, I think, is very strong,” said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland’s director of sales. “We’ve got some nice mares covered by the most popular stallions, then we’ve got a wonderful selection of some unique, one-of-a-kind weanlings. There’s always been an uptick in the sale when the Breeders’ Cup has been held in Kentucky, so we’re hoping for an even bigger uptick now that it’s at Keeneland.”
This year’s Keeneland November sale will be held over 12 days, from Nov. 2-13, one more session than in 2014. The first two sessions that comprise Book 1 will commence at 11 a.m. Eastern, with the remaining days of selling beginning at 10 a.m.
Keeneland was announced as the host venue of the 2015 Breeders’ Cup in June of last year. Tom Thornbury, Keene-land’s associate director of sales, was one of the main liaisons between the auction company and the Breeders’ Cup organization, and said the two parties worked step by step to find the best way to coexist from the outset.
“Breeders’ Cup has been great to work with,” Thornbury said. “They looked to us for the answers, ‘What’s going to suit you all the best?” which is terrific. It’s not like they just come in and take over, which everyone thinks they do.”
The first hurdle to clear was logistics: How does one fit one of the world’s biggest weekends of racing and one of the world’s biggest breeding stock sales in the same space?
Thornbury said the decision was made early in the process to place the horses scheduled to race on the Breeders’ Cup cards in the Keeneland training center barns across Rice Road, leaving the main barns for sale horses.
In previous years, horses entered in both the Breeders’ Cup and Keeneland November sale required at least a trailer ride, if not a flight, to arrive at their stall for the auction after racing over the weekend. This year, they could be led from stall to stall by foot.
“Rogers Beasley [Keeneland’s vice president of racing] suggested that early on, and it made perfect sense, because you could segregate the racing stock from the selling stock, and it doesn’t create a logistical problem for us in moving those horses out and moving sale horses in,” Thornbury said. “The Book 2 horses who want to be on the grounds Sunday will have access Sunday. If we had had the Breeders’ Cup horses in the sale barns, Book 2 horses might not have had the opportunity to come in until Monday. It really worked perfectly to use Rice Road.”
Next comes the human element – buyers, consignors, staff, veterinarians, and all the other folks who make a sale go. Sale traffic will be directed through Gate 3 off Rice Road – the gate that opens into the backstretch barns and training track – with sale-specific passes required for parking.
“We wanted to be as close to a normal scenario as possible, but at the same time, it can’t be, because of the influence of the Breeders’ Cup, so how do you make it possible to do both – for a buyer to come look at some horses and look at some races?” Thornbury said.
To little surprise, Thornbury said many of the prominent industry members coming to Central Kentucky for the Breeders’ Cup have plans to stick around for the sales, something he said could add a dramatic flair to the proceedings.
“What we found is that a lot of principals are coming, whereas in the past they might be represented by an agent or by someone who buys in their stead,” he said. “An agent may have a target number and stay at that number, whereas a principal may get excited and say, ‘Press on.’ We’re excited about that aspect because it means spirited bidding, which makes an auction alive and electric. I really think the electricity we gather through Breeders’ Cup is going to carry over.”
Finally, there is the interplay between the sale and the Breeders’ Cup races. While the Keeneland staff has planned for foreseeable impediments, hosting an event of this magnitude in the midst of an event of the magnitude of the Breeders’ Cup, all for the first time, is bound to be a learning experience for all parties involved.
Likewise, devising a game plan to cover it all, on top of the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky selected fall mixed sale across town, could present more twists and turns than usual.
“I have to say, it’s a little bit daunting,” bloodstock agent Patrice Miller of EQB Inc. said about her strategy for canvassing this year’s November sales. “The answer is I don’t know. I’m gonna wing it.”
Horses will be available for inspection on both days of the Breeders’ Cup, even during the card itself. Golf carts will be at hand to shuttle interested parties between the grandstand and the sales grounds should they want to inspect horses between races.
Despite a large, diverse crowd descending upon the Keeneland property over the weekend, neither Russell nor Thornbury expects an abundance of “tire-kickers” and tourists on the sale grounds during showing hours. Thornbury said screens would divide much of the space between foot traffic and the barn areas, and many of the race fans will be delivered directly to the grandstand via shuttle, completely bypassing the barns.
No matter the turnout, Tom VanMeter of consignor VanMeter-Gentry Sales said he’d welcome it with open arms.
“I think it’ll be a little like Saratoga where you have a lot of laypeople coming around, taking pictures and wanting to pet them, but that’s just kind of part of it,” VanMeter said. “You don’t know if that guy that’s coming over there with his wife and is nosing around might be the next big guy. We’re always happy to share what we have and talk them through things, find out who they are and what they’re doing.”
While there were plenty of outside factors that made the lead-up to this year’s Keeneland November sale different from past renewals, Thornbury said the biggest change in his day-to-day routine was increasing the communication lines with consignors and buyers to better learn their needs heading into uncharted territory.
“We generally don’t have that much communication prior to the sale,” he said. “It’s generally, ‘Here’s where you’ll be located, here’s when you can ship in, and we’ll see you at the sale.’ In this case, it’s been a lot of conversation, which is all positive.”
From Day One, Russell and Thornbury said the goal was to have the Breeders’ Cup and the November sale augment each other’s strengths and take advantage of its location in the epicenter of the North American Thoroughbred breeding industry. It won’t take long to find out how much of an effect the proximity will have, but Thornbury was optimistic that Keeneland was heading into a landmark renewal of its signature mixed sale.
“Long term, I think we’ll look back on it and say this really moved the needle. This really gave the sale some juice,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt, not only for sales, but for the entire community, if you look at hotels and restaurants. The city’s gearing up and welcoming it with both arms. There’s just a feeling of communal interest. For every aspect of things, it just adds a lot of electricity and a lot of excitement.”
Last year’s Keeneland November sale finished with 2,512 horses sold for total revenues of $205,899,500, up 4 percent from the 2013 installment. The average sale price rose 2 percent to $81,966, while the median tied the all-time high figure of $35,000.
Highlighting the sale was Irish Group 3 winner Aloof, in foal for the first time to War Front, who sold to Mandy Pope’s Whisper Hill Farm for $3.9 million. The 5-year-old Galileo mare was consigned by Paramount Sales, agent.
The auction also featured a Tapit filly out of the stakes-winning Storm Cat mare Serena’s Cat who set the North American record price for a weanling at public auction, going to Bridlewood Farm for $3 million. Later named Serena’s Harmony, the filly is a half-sister to Grade 1 winner Honor Code and Grade 2 winner Noble Tune, and hails from the family of champion third dam Serena’s Song. Hill ‘n’ Dale Sales Agency consigned the record-priced filly as agent.