09/01/2011 11:30AM

Keeneland September sale faces a few jitters

Coady Photography/Keeneland
Last year's Keeneland September sale saw a 3 percent increase in total sales. This year's sale, which begin Sept. 11, could be affected by recent swings in the stock market.

Glowing headlines from Fasig-Tipton’s Saratoga select yearling sale barely had time to register Aug. 10 before the Wall Street Journal provided a less happy pronouncement that day in its Marketplace section: “Luxury Sales at Risk.”

One luxury item, Thoroughbred yearlings, sold very well at the Saratoga select auction, where average and median rose 16 percent and 4 percent despite a roller coaster week on Wall Street. But the Wall Street Journal headline, along with the bucking stock market, reinforced a disquieting sense that Saratoga’s 132-horse auction might not have much bearing on the wider Thoroughbred market. Now, as the world’s largest Thoroughbred yearling sale at Keeneland prepares to offer 4,319 yearlings Sept. 11-24, the questions are whether the market’s upper crust can continue Saratoga’s buoyant performance and whether the stock market’s volatility will put bidders, particularly those in the middle and lower markets, in a bearish mood.

In 2010, the Keeneland September auction sold 3,059 yearlings for $198,254,900, up 3 percent despite a smaller catalog. The $64,810 average was up 7 percent, and the median was up 14 percent.

This year, Keeneland has cataloged an even smaller group of yearlings, thanks to a shrinking foal crop, recession, and crash in bloodstock prices. The thinner catalog should help supply come closer to meeting demand, if demand holds level or is stronger than last year. Some signs from earlier sales this year are positive: In addition to the Saratoga select sale’s gains, prices for New York-breds at Fasig-Tipton’s New York-bred preferred sale also were up, Arqana’s flagship (and reformatted) Deauville select sale performed well, and the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company’s August select session also saw increases.

“One message we can take is that there is still strong interest in top-quality horses, and we believe we have a lot of top-quality yearlings,” Keeneland’s director of sales, Geoffrey Russell, said.

Saratoga’s underbidders, he said, could find the larger Keeneland catalog appealing.

“If they were unsuccessful in buying there, we hope that they still have the cash and will come down here to buy with us,” he said.

Not surprisingly, the September catalog has a quantity of yearlings by Darley stallions as breeders play to the tastes of the select market’s most powerful bidder, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the Darley owner. Bernardini, the champion 3-year-old of 2006 and an early success at stud, has 53 yearlings in the sale, including a son of champion Beautiful Pleasure (37) and three-quarter-brothers to champion Surfside (61) and Grade 1 winner Sweet Symphony (43).

But Keeneland’s September sale is the first major test of the general market, and wider economic concerns – including recent large swings in the stock market – could prove more of a factor there if middle-class buyers feel less wealthy.

“The stock market is of great concern to all of us,” Russell said. “A little stability wouldn’t be a bad thing to see, and let’s hope we’re getting over the jitters. But the strength of overseas currency versus the dollar at the moment will, we hope, encourage the stronger economies in the world who are interested in Thoroughbreds to come here. We should gain on that.”

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Bidding from Australia and Japan has been strong in recent years, and Russell said he expects that to continue in 2011. Persian Gulf states other than Dubai also could be playing, and Russian buyers could be in a position to step up their investments, Russell said.

Not too far from Wall Street, there is some good news for racing. Aqueduct’s new gaming machines are set to open within weeks of the Keeneland auction, giving New York Racing Association purses a big push. Owners and trainers expressed their enthusiasm by spending more this year at Fasig-Tipton’s New York-bred sale in Saratoga, but Russell points out that bigger purses in New York will benefit more than just New York-breds – and that could help Keeneland’s sale beyond the catalog’s 70 New York-bred yearlings.

“With the projections NYRA has been throwing out, there could be $1 million a day in purses at Saratoga,” Russell said. “Not all that money is going to go to New York-breds, so to participate you’re going to need quality animals. It will increase the value of New York-breds, but the majority of that money goes to total purses. When you put money up, quality follows.”

The September sale can showcase some important calling cards this year. Previous auction graduates have advertised the sale well. All three 2011 Triple Crown race winners hailed from the 2009 auction: Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and Belmont victor Ruler On Ice went for $100,000, and Preakness hero Shackleford was a $275,000 buyback.

This year, the two select days alone have more than 75 yearlings who are closely related to Grade 1 or Group 1 performers. A number of these come from a pair of noteworthy dispersals, that of the late Edward P. “Ned” Evans’s Spring Hill Farm and the late Saud bin Khaled’s Palides Investments. Spring Hill’s 2011 yearling crop features a full brother to Quality Road (Hip No. 183), a Medaglia d’Oro half-brother to Malibu Prayer (68), and a full brother to Christmas Kid (158), among other well-connected youngsters.

The Khaled consignment will benefit from a huge update, courtesy of recent Alabama Stakes winner Royal Delta. Hip No. 55 is Royal Delta’s half-sister by Darley’s young Kentucky Derby-winning sire Street Sense. Khaled’s dispersal also includes an Arch half-brother to Lear’s Princess (103).

Buyers, like breeders, have favored established sires recently. The always fashionable A.P. Indy is nearing his exit from the yearling sales; this year’s crop is his next-to-last. Among them are a pair of fillies out of first-time mothers: Grade 1 winners Dream Rush (165) and Zaftig (139). Another Lane’s End stallion, Smart Strike, has a full brother to champion English Channel (39), among others.

Medaglia d’Oro has a hefty draft of 95 yearlings. Among the 18 selling in the select sessions, he has half-siblings to Grade 1 winners Gozzip Girl (128), European champion Stravinsky (168), and Group 1 winner Mrs. Lindsay (21). He also has a daughter of Grade 1-winning millionaire Hollywood Story (179).

Galileo has been a hot sire globally and has just two yearlings in the sale: a colt out of Grade 1 winner Adoration (27) and a filly from champion Halfbridled’s family (531).

Zenyatta’s sire, Street Cry, has a colt out of that great mare’s half-sister Balance (147), as well as a half-brother to 2006 Horse of the Year Invasor (106) and a half-brother to War Chant out of champion Hollywood Wildcat (72).

Numerous other established sires have Grade 1-connected yearlings on offer. Unbridled’s Song has a full-sister to champion Stardom Bound (94), half-brothers to champions Sweet Catomine (15) and Proud Spell (201), a filly from the immediate family of two-time champion Ashado (16), a son of champion Maryfield (192), and a daughter of champion Folklore (170). Tiznow’s group includes a full brother to Well Armed (22), a half-brother to Awesome Humor (180), and a daughter of River’s Prayer (107). The Distorted Humors feature a daughter of champion Fleet Indian (62), a half-sister to 2001 Horse of the Year Point Given (133), and a half-brother to Grade 1 winners E Dubai and No Matter What (25). Dynaformer’s Hip No. 42 is from the immediate family of Any Given Saturday. Highlighting Indian Charlie’s select group is the first foal out of Proud Spell (207).

Between them, Giant’s Causeway and Tapit have 31 yearlings in the select sessions. These include a daughter of Take D’ Tour (123) and half-siblings to Pomeroy (210) and Nehro (129), all by Giant’s Causeway, and a half-brother to Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird (194) by Tapit.

First-crop sires have lost some appeal with bidders since the recession, but many bidders will still be intrigued to see the first crop by two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, dual classic winner Big Brown, sprint champion Midnight Lute, Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Raven’s Pass, and others. Among the most eye-catching pedigrees for those first-crop sires are Curlin’s half-sister to Great Hunter (141) and half-brother to Southern Image (203), and a pair by Raven’s Pass who are half-brothers to Carry on Katie (56) and Dixie Chatter (91). Henrythenavigator’s first crop includes a half-brother to champion Smarty Jones (74).

The September sale will undergo slight format changes this year as Keeneland fine-tunes the auction’s 2010 changes. Book 1 will consist of two evening sessions, totaling 211 yearlings, that take place Sept. 11-12 starting at 7 p.m. Book 2, consisting of 935 yearlings cataloged in alphabetical order by dam, will run Sept. 13-15, with sessions starting at 11 a.m; each Book 2 consignment will be stabled in a single barn. After a dark day Sept. 16, Book 3 will run Sept. 17-24, with sessions beginning daily at 10 a.m.

The auction can be seen live on Keeneland’s website at www.keeneland.com.