11/04/2011 3:02PM

Optimism heading into Fasig-Tipton, Keeneland November sales


LEXINGTON, Ky. − United States unemployment hovers at 9 percent, and Europe roils with economic uncertainty, but the Thoroughbred economy is looking up. Between the 2008 recession and 2011, the North American foal crop has dropped by an estimated 23 percent, putting supply more in line with demand. Last month, after a decadelong wait, Genting finally opened its gaming facility at Aqueduct. The nation’s summer and fall yearling sales generally performed better than expected. Now, with the November breeding stock sales set to open Sunday in Lexington, officials from Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland say renewed confidence could inspire growth in the Thoroughbred marketplace.

“People had to view the yearling sales as a positive move from the previous couple of years, and they demonstrated renewed confidence,” said Boyd Browning, chief executive of Fasig-Tipton, which kicks off the November sales with a one-day auction Sunday.”

“There’s a buzz again about horses,” said Geoffrey Russell, sales director at Keeneland, which hosts its November auction Nov. 7-17.

Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland have cataloged more than 4,000 horses. Together, the two November sales are among the world’s most important Thoroughbred breeding stock auctions. This year, their catalogs glow with stars such as champion Blind Luck, Zenyatta’s weanling half-sister, and 18 Breeders’ Cup runners, including Royal Delta and Turbulent Descent.

Fasig-Tipton’s one-day auction opens at 4 p.m. Sunday at Newtown Paddocks, the company’s Lexington headquarters, and Keeneland’s two-week sale begins the following day at 10 a.m. in the sale pavilion adjacent to the racetrack. Both will stream live at the companies’ websites, www.fasigtipton.com and www.keeneland.com.

The yearling season’s statistics are key to the November sales, because commercial breeders and resellers form the backbone of the U.S. breeding stock buyers’ list. If they have had a profitable year, they are more likely to reinvest by upgrading their broodmares or buying weanlings to resell, or pinhook, to the following season’s yearling auctions. In 2011, signs from the U.S. yearling market − and from some important auctions overseas − were greatly improved. Yearling buyers continued to be highly selective, but the trend line was decidedly − and in many cases, very sharply − up in 2010. The world’s largest Thoroughbred yearling sale, Keeneland’s benchmark September auction, had a smaller catalog and sold 5 percent fewer horses. But its gross sales and average price rose 13 percent from last year, and the median jumped by 20 percent. On the back of lower stud fees, these sale gains meant that, in theory at least, commercial breeders had a better shot at profit than they did in 2010.

“It was stronger than people anticipated going in,” said Russell, who identifies the yearling market’s turning point even earlier, with the 2010 September yearling sale. “Since then, there’s been improvement in sales worldwide, which is very good. . . . Traditionally, when September is good, November is good.”

Still, turning a profit remained challenging: Blood-Horse reported that only 20 percent of Keeneland’s September yearlings made money after the cost of stud fees and raising them, but noted that this was significantly better than the 13 percent that were profitable in 2010. Pinhookers fared better. Forty-six percent of their resale yearlings made a profit, the trade publication reported.

“I think you can use the same quote we’ve been saying for the last 10 years: There will be significant demand for quality weanlings with reasonable sire-power that vet well,” Browning said. “It will be competitive for those. For the average one, it’s not going to be significantly different this year than last year. But there is always interest in weanlings, and you’ll continue to see an active marketplace there.”

Commercial breeders who didn’t have a profitable yearling season might sit out the November sales as mare buyers, but Browning and Russell said they believe many will be shopping now that the yearling market appears on more solid footing.

“I don’t know if they’ll spend aggressively, but I think they will spend,” Russell said.

Overseas buyers may have some concerns about issues such as the European debt crisis and, in Japan, the recovery from March’s devastating earthquake and tsunami. But Russell and Browning said they believe the dollar’s current weakness against foreign currency will keep international participation high.

“That plays very much in our favor,” Russell said.

As last year, wealthy homebreeders are likely to remain the dominant force at the upper end of the mare market. In 2010, buyers like Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum’s Darley Stud, his brother Sheikh Hamdan’s Shadwell operation, Japanese breeders Teruya and Katsumi Yoshida, and Adena Springs owner Frank Stronach all were heavy-lifters in November, and signs are good that they will continue to cherry-pick the top of the broodmare market.

At both Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland, they’ll have an ample supply of well-bred horses to choose from. That, too, is a result of improving confidence in the Thoroughbred market, Russell believes.

“It’s helped us in recruiting these good racemares for the sale,” he said. “We haven’t seen that for a couple of years, because people were apprehensive of the market. Now I think they’re seeing that there’s more confidence in the market, so they feel there’s an opportunity to sell mares of that quality again. Having two dispersals of the quality of the Ned Evans dispersal and the Saud bin Khaled dispersal also help us to attract other mares like Unrivaled Belle (Hip No. 261), Blind Luck (210A), and all those other Grade 1 winners.”

The Evans dispersal at Keeneland features Quality Road’s dam, Kobla, carrying a full sibling to that Grade 1 winner (142), Grade 1 winners Buster’s Ready (63), Cat Moves (69), Summer Colony (19), and Malibu Prayer (161), and well-related weanlings. Keeneland also will handle the dispersal of the late Saud bin Khaled’s Palides Investments horses, most notably 2011 Alabama winner Royal Delta (427), who was to arrive fresh from the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic.

Keeneland’s 3,920-horse sale also features the Grade 1-winning mares Hooh Why (349) and Life at Ten (152) and Group 1 winner Gypsy’s Warning (338).

Proven broodmares selling at Keeneland include the dams of Ice Box (9), I Want Revenge (167), Saint Liam (202), Royal Delta (313), Lear’s Princess (416), and Zazu (423).

The many Grade 1-connected weanlings in Keeneland’s catalog are led by an especially exciting filly: Zenyatta’s half-sister by Henrythenavigator (36).

Fasig-Tipton’s 155-horse catalog also is packed with Grade 1 winners and their relations. Racing and/or broodmare prospects include Grade/Group 1 winners Sassy Image (17), A Z Warrior (69), River Jetez (85), Crisp (88),C. S. Silk (89), Funny Moon (105), and Hilda’s Passion (115).

Weanlings include a half-sister to English Channel (73) and a half-brother to Euroears (49).

The sale’s broodmares feature Grade 1 winners Zaftig (57) and Mona de Momma (140), plus the dams of Weemissfrankie (29), Banned (81), Drill (82), The Factor (109), Plum Pretty (125), Boys at Tosconova (126), and Blue Bunting (136), among others.

Also among the notable broodmares is Turbulent Descent’s dam, Roger’s Sue (13), and it appeared that her famous daughter also would sell as Hip No. 47. Turbulent Descent’s trainer, Mike Puype, had said the filly probably would scratch, but she remained in the auction Friday afternoon.

Other Breeders’ Cup runners also abound. Fasig-Tipton’s other 15 are Ask the Moon (66), Awesome Belle (67), Dubawi Heights (97), Elusive Kate (64), Euroears (152), Fort Loudon (154), Grace Hall (107), Her Smile (114), Pachattack (6), Rapport (10), Satans Quick Chick (18), Self Preservation (21), Tamarind Hall (40), Tanda (41), and Ultra Blend (48). Fasig also will offer 2010 Juvenile Fillies Turf winner More Than Real (141).

Among those at Keeneland are Golden Mystery (1881) and Royal Delta (427), as well as 2008 Juvenile Fillies Turf winner Maram (164).

“I think it helps,” Browning said of the 2011 Breeders’ Cup at Churchill. “But even when it’s in California, there are just great stories that emerge and some horses get big updates to their catalog pages. In the few days before a horse gets sold, there’s nothing like a live or current update from the Breeders’ Cup to really get people energized, particularly if they’ve been there, watched a horse run in person. It helps give people some emotional involvement with the prospective sales horse, and that’s always positive.”