09/06/2007 11:00PM

Record number to go under the gavel

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Keeneland September yearling sale, which runs from Monday through Sept. 25, is the largest Thoroughbred marketplace in the world, and this year it will get even bigger. The 2007 catalog of 5,553 yearlings sets a record, topping the auction's previous record of 5,161 horses set last year.

But can it break the other marks set at last year's sale? Last year's record gross and number sold look most likely to fall with this year's thicker catalog. But other figures could be hard to beat this season. Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum's $11.7 million bid for a Kingmambo-Crown of Crimson colt set a sale record last year; so did average price ($112,427) and median ($45,000). But this season's yearling market looks more conservative than last year's, a factor that suggests that explosive multi-million-dollar prices could be fewer and farther between.

So far this year, upper-level buyers have kept a tight hold on their spending for select yearlings. Fasig-Tipton's July auction in Kentucky had mixed results, while its flagship Saratoga sale had declines across the board. The Ocala Breeders' Sales Company's select August auction rang up mixed results, with gross and average declining after a record year in 2006 while median set a record of $50,000 this season.

Those figures make huge gains in Keeneland's select sessions, coming up Monday and Tuesday, appear unlikely, though many sellers do point some superior yearlings specifically to this auction. But there are positive signs for the rest of the Keeneland sale. Regional and state-bred sales, the chief indicator of middle-market strength, have enjoyed healthy results this summer in New York, Ocala, and Texas.

"It's always good going into the world's largest Thoroughbred yearling sale with positive vibes," said Keeneland's director of sales, Geoffrey Russell. "The European sales also have been very good at Deauville and Doncaster, as well as the regional sales here. To use the old adage, good horses are going to sell well."

Still, there are reasons for caution along with the optimism for Keeneland September sellers. One factor in the softening select market appears to be a slight oversupply of horses. In Keeneland September's record-sized pool of horses, that could translate into larger soft spots.

"It's always a concern with the size of the September sale," Russell said. "Will we have enough buyers? We make a strong effort to recruit people from not only different parts of America but also internationally through our Emerging Markets Program. But, yes, of course it's a concern. There are horses in the sale that probably aren't commercial horses. There are mares that probably shouldn't be bred commercially, and that's a fact of life."

Another fact of life for today's Thoroughbred breeders is the high price of broodmares and broodmare prospects. Breeders who extended themselves to acquire mares in the booming market of 2006 might well find it hard to get the needed return on that investment, plus any stud fee they have paid, unless they are offering a truly superior or one-of-a-kind horse that will stand out in such a thick catalog.

"It is a larger catalog, so I hope we have been able to recruit more buyers and that they will stay all 15 days of the sale," Russell said. "One of the things we have in our favor is the dollar, or the weakness of our dollar. It's now $2 to the pound, $1.38 to the euro, and our horses are doing well in Europe. So I think we'll see an influx of Europeans and also Japanese, because the yen is stronger."

Chances are, the middle-market breeders will need those international buyers. The bulk of the 400 or so horses that Keeneland has added to the catalog this year fall squarely in the "useful" category, where most horsemen aim their breeding programs. But with so much competition on the grounds, it could be harder this year for those breeders to profit or hit a home run. And that, as always, will be key to the success of the September sale.

The auction starts daily at 10 a.m., except on Sept. 14, which is a dark day.