09/15/2011 8:13PM

Keeneland: Through five days, sale well ahead of 2010; Stronach buys Thursday topper for $1.35 million

Keeneland/Coady Photography
Hip No. 941, an Unbridled's Song filly out of the Storm Bird mare Lady of Choice, sold for $1.3 million at Keeneland on Thursday. She is the highest price filly to sell at the auction, which began Sunday.

LEXINGTON – The Keeneland September yearling sale showed no signs of slowing down on its fifth day of selling Thursday, with a pair of million-dollar-plus yearlings providing a surprising bump to figures that would have been strong even without them.

Average price for the 209 horses sold on Thursday was $162,873, a 38.1 percent increase over the average price for the fifth session last year. Median was $130,000, a 30 percent increase over the fifth-session median last year. Gross for the 209 horses sold was $34,040,500, a 46.5 increase over the gross for last year, when 197 horses went through the ring.

“This was a great session today, any way you slice it,” said Walt Robertson, the vice president of sales.

KEENELAND SALE: Video report and live updates

Though there were spots of weakness in the final 75 hips to go through the ring, overall prices for the Thursday yearlings held up throughout the day, in part because of Keeneland’s decision to randomly distribute all of the horses who qualified for the standards of Book Two over three days, instead of grouping them into tiers in which the standards loosen as the sessions proceed. And, as part of a strategy by Keeneland to trim supply, yearlings in this year’s Book Two were sold over three days, whereas Book Two yearlings sold over four sessions last year.

“The new format, the three days, the tightening down of the criteria of the horses that are in Book Two, that all helped dramatically,” said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland’s director of sales.

The Thursday session was the third consecutive to post higher numbers than the comparable session from last year. Only the second select session, held on Monday night, posted lower figures than the comparable session in 2010.

Overall through the first five days, Keeneland has sold 753 horses for gross receipts of $145,216,500, a 22.4 percent increase over the gross for the first five days of the sale last year and an amount that exceeds by $3.2 million the gross for the first six days of the sale last year. The cumulative average price has been $192,851, a 17.6 percent increase over the average last year. And median has skyrocketed 36.4 percent to $150,000, an indication that the upper middle-market has strengthened considerably.

The jump in the figures is welcome news to Kentucky’s breeders, who have weathered a precipitous decline in bloodstock prices over the past three years because of the impact of the recession. In addition, the yearlings in this year’s sale were produced on 2009 stud fees, which had been lowered somewhat due to the downturn in the market, and so breeders are not just getting higher prices for their yearlings, but their margins are widening.

Russell also said that breeders have become realistic about what to expect from the market, a contention that is backed up by the data on buybacks, for both the Thursday session and overall. On Thursday, the buyback rate was 25.9 percent, down from 29.9 percent last year, and overall, the buyback rate has been 27 percent, down from 31.6 percent last year.

“The feel has been very good,” he said. “The reserves that are being set have all been very reasonable reserves. I mean, we’re blowing by these reserves.”

Though the crowds on the sales grounds have thinned out measurably over the past three days, and though the pavilion is no longer filled with any more than 100 people at a time, the two million-dollar-plus yearlings created a sharp buzz by selling within 30 minutes of each other early in the afternoon. The yearlings, an Awesome Again colt and an Unbridled’s Song filly, were the second-and third-highest priced horses to sell at the auction so far, bringing $1.35 million and $1.3 million, respectively, and they were also the second and third million-dollar-plus yearlings to sell outside of the auction’s select sessions on Sunday and Monday night.

“The fact that we had two million-dollar-plus horses at this point in the sale speaks volumes,” Robertson said.

At last year’s auction, three horses sold for one-million dollars or more, one each on the first three days of the sale. No horse sold for a million dollars or more during the Wednesday session this year, but two sold on Sunday, one on Monday, and one on Tuesday, along with the two that sold on Thursday.

Frank Stronach, the owner and breeder who recently converted approximately $850 million of stock in a company he founded into cash, purchased the Awesome Again colt, bidding over the phone through his agent Mark Roberts, the manager of Stronach’s Adena Springs South in Florida. Stronach owns and stands the colt’s sire, who he bred and raced as well.

“Frank was pretty set on the animal,” Roberts said, adding that he personally thought the colt was “probably the nicest horse in the sale.”

The colt’s dam, Legs Lawlor, a minor winner in Ireland by Unbridled, is a daughter of Evil Elaine, the dam of 1997 Horse of the Year Favorite Trick.

The Unbridled’s Song filly was bought by Ben Leon, the Miami health-clinic owner who, through late afternoon on Thursday, had spent $8,175,000 on 13 yearlings at the sale, the second-highest total by any buyer so far. Ten of those purchases have been fillies, which he is buying as part of his plan to form a high-class broodmare band from horses that have yet to race.

When asked what he liked about the $1.3 million filly, Leon said, “Everything, everything.” Leon only recently entered Thoroughbred racing and breeding, and he also breeds Paso Finos.

The filly, who is the highest-priced filly to sell at the auction, is out of Lady of Choice, a Storm Bird mare who has produced the graded stakes winner Multiple Choice among her ten other foals. Another of her foals, Proposal, has produced three stakes winners.

After a day off on Friday, the September auction will resume on Saturday, running consecutively through Sept. 24.