07/15/2001 11:00PM

Keeneland's new pitch: Consignors get a stipend

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - In an effort to attract buyers to its July Selected Yearling Sale, Keeneland has tried a new promotional gambit, offering consignors a stipend that could be used to pay travel expenses for potential buyers.

Consignors to the two-day July sale, which began Monday evening, said the auction company offered them $2,000 for each horse in their consignments, stipulating that the money be used to benefit the entire sale, not just the individual consignment. At Keeneland's suggestion, some consignors used the stipend to pay airfares for likely bidders while others used it to play host to buyers at dinner parties.

"The idea is that they have the relationships and the contacts," Keeneland spokesman Jim Williams said of the auction's consignors. "They have the ability to get the people here who are interested."

The move was part of a stepped-up marketing campaign that included a heavier advertising schedule and meetings with consignors to brainstorm ways to promote the sale. One reason behind the aggressive promotion is the shrinking catalog: The July auction drew its smallest catalog of 164 horses this year. The number of lots has dropped each of the last four years. Average price has risen, reaching a record $621,015 last year. But fear of high buyback rates - last year's rate rose slightly to 28 percent - and a shallow, top-heavy market has spurred the need to bring a wide range of buyers into the arena.

"Keeneland needs to be aggressive," said John Phillips, whose Darby Dan Farm cataloged five horses and took advantage of the stipend. "It's important for Keeneland not to take things for granted or be complacent about buyers, sellers, and consignors. This gesture was much appreciated.

"It's one thing to say to someone, 'Gee, come to the July sale,' and it's another thing to say, 'Come to the July sale and we'll pay for it,' " Phillips added. "And we did get some people here."

It is not clear how much money Keeneland spent on the effort, which received good reviews even from consignors who didn't participate.

"I thought it was a good thing to do, but it was somewhat limited in how you could use it," said John Stuart of Bluegrass Thoroughbred Services. "I did approach some buyers I knew, and they said they were already coming and taking care of themselves. But Keeneland has been great about helping consignors make this a good sale."