09/09/2016 8:06AM

Keeneland September to provide true measure of yearling market


The yearling market has been a story of highs and lows in 2016, but the truest measure of its status will come during the Keeneland September yearling sale.

The North American Thoroughbred industry’s bellwether auction will take place Sept. 12-25. This year’s edition comprises 13 sessions, adding a day from last year’s sale.

Leading the way will be the sale’s select Book 1, which comprises three sessions, from Sept. 12-14, and begins at 11 a.m. Eastern each day. After the sale’s traditional dark day on Thursday, Sept. 15, the auction continues daily with Books 2-6, with a 10 a.m. start time.

A total of 4,479 yearlings are cataloged for this year’s edition, marking a 7.6 percent increase from the 2015 catalog, which had 4,164.

“We advertise our September sale as the gold standard of the industry, and I think that’s the way we look forward going into this sale,” said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland’s director of sales. “This is where the cream of North America’s yearlings are sold, and based on the success of our graduates this year, that stands up.”

:: DRF BREEDING LIVE: Real-time coverage of the Keeneland September yearling sale

That success includes Keeneland September alumni winning all three legs of this year’s Triple Crown: Nyquist in the Kentucky Derby, Exaggerator in the Preakness, and Creator in the Belmont Stakes.

While ontrack achievements continue to accumulate, the horses that will occupy the Keeneland stalls in the coming weeks will be surrounded by an air of uncertainty.

Returns in lower-market and regional sales have become increasingly unsteady over the past year, while buyback rates at many of those auctions have reached uncomfortably high levels.

The upper echelon of the market is largely expected by industry participants to be fine, but the later sessions that trade in lower-level stock run the risk of a disconnect between buyer and seller expectations.

“The early books will be consistent with what we’ve seen over the past couple of years,” said Darby Dan sales and bloodstock director Carl McEntee. “If you understand the market and place your reserves in the right spots, I think you’ll do fine in the earlier books. I am a bit concerned at what point trade will slow down a little bit, and I don’t know how many people are going to be buying into the later books. I think everyone’s definitely concerned about that.”

Fully aware of the uncertainty at that level of the market, Russell said the Keeneland staff has taken steps to cultivate buyers past the auction’s halfway point, which has involved logging lots of miles.

“We would obviously prefer it to be a seller’s market, but this is the marketplace we’re in at the moment, and we’ll just have to adjust and go forward,” he said. “We’ve made a concerted effort to try and go to the regional markets to get them to come to the sales. We’ve traveled to places like Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, and the Southwest area to try and get people to come here for the second week because they’ve had a lot of success from the second week in those markets. We’re hoping that our aim there has worked.”

With nearly three weeks from the first ship-ins to the last horse sent on its way, the Keeneland September sale is a marathon event for its day-to-day participants.

Walker Hancock, president of Claiborne Farm, has worked the sale at various levels, from showing yearlings to managing a consignment, and learned over the years how to cope with the run of long days on the sale grounds.

“Have some good foot insoles,” Hancock said. “We’re in Books 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6, so I’ll be there pretty much every day except for the last, because we don’t sell any on the last day of Book 6. You’re going to be tired. You’re feet are going to hurt. It is a grind.

“I take some Claritin because of all the dust and shaking people’s hands, and then you’re touching your face or eating. I usually go into the sale feeling 100 percent healthy, and I come out of it feeling like I need to cleanse myself. I never leave feeling 100 percent.”

For bloodstock agent Mersad Metanovic, the key is knowing the catalog well before hitting the sale grounds and having a good grasp on the needs of his clients to streamline his search.

“I like to know who the breeders are and where those breeders have their horses, where they took care of them,” he said. “I look at the pedigrees and try to flesh out what I can propose to my clients. I’m going through a lot of pedigrees and trying to figure out what’s working and what’s not with the sires that are out there right now.

“It really depends on what my orders look like to determine how I’m going to go about it.”

For Darby Dan’s McEntee, the simple acts of keeping one’s nose to the grindstone on the sale grounds and managing one’s schedule wisely in the time between sessions are important to staying the trip.

“It’s tough mentally on the sales consignors, and it’s tough physically on the staff,” he said. “I try not to overwork people. I’m understanding if people need an afternoon, but, basically, I think all you can do is put your big-boy pants on, get tied on, and go to work. My father had a good saying, ‘You’re a long time dead,’ and I kind of work under that theory.”

The Keeneland September sale can be taxing, but its status as the industry’s measuring stick is well earned, serving as the end result for a large number of commercial breeders following years of anticipation, from planning the mating to the fall of the hammer.

After all that, two weeks isn’t much time at all.

“It’s a time that a lot of people make their money, and a time a lot of people rely on,” Hancock said. “It’s a fun time of year. You see everyone, you talk to everyone, there are a lot of nice horses that go through the ring. It’s a very fun time, but it’s definitely a grind.”

Last year’s sale saw 2,745 yearlings sold over 12 sessions for revenues of $281,496,100, up 0.5 percent from the 2014 renewal to mark the seventh-highest gross of all-time. The average sale price rose 3 percent to $102,549 for the auction’s third-best performance, while the median went unchanged at $50,000 to equal the record for a second time.

The buyback rate rose slightly to 24 percent, while the number of seven-figure horses increased from two to seven.

A Tapit colt out of the Mr. Greeley mare Silver Colors topped the 2015 sale, going to Mandy Pope’s Whisper Hill Farm for $2.1 million. He was consigned by Gainesway, agent. The colt was later named Tapit High and has been training toward his debut at GoldMark Farm in Ocala, Fla.

Prominent graduates from last year’s sale include Group 1 winner Lady Aurelia; Grade 2/Group 2 winners Champagne Room, Nonna Mela, Gunnevera, and Roly Poly; and Grade 3/Group 3 winners Levante Lion, Too Much Tip, Bitumen, Classic Empire, and Syphax.