09/10/2010 3:36PM

Shift to evening session may spark more interest in Keeneland yearling sale

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Photos by Z/Keeneland
The Keeneland September yearling sale will begin for the first time with two night sessions featuring the select portion of the sale.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Keeneland’s September yearling sale, the world’s largest Thoroughbred yearling auction, gets underway Sunday night amid hopes that a new format and bargain-seeking buyers will help sellers profit on the last crop of yearlings bred on relatively high stud fees before the market bubble collapsed.

Keeneland has reformatted the sale dramatically. The most obvious change applies to the sale’s first two days, the auction’s select sessions, from daytime to evening sessions and limiting them to a total of 211 horses, or about 100 per night. The next four days, comprising Book 2 of the auction’s set of catalogs, offer about 325 horses a day for a total of 1,302 yearling selling daily in sessions starting at 10 a.m. The dark day this year falls on Saturday, Sept. 18, and the auction then continues Sept. 19-26.

Yearlings selling this year were conceived in early 2008 and therefore are the last crop bred before the global financial crisis hit full force during that year’s September sale. Since then, Thoroughbred prices have deflated rapidly. Over the last two decades, annual North American yearling sales revenue peaked in 2006 at $579,476,050. Even then, sale officials were warning of an oversupply of yearlings, and that had begun to affect sales even before the global financial crisis when 2007’s North American gross fell 3 percent. Since then, as many economies sank deep into recession and credit became much harder to come by, yearling prices have fallen off severely. Between 2007 and 2009, total North American yearlings sales fell 50 percent, from $562,026,375 to $279,733,957. Average price in the same time frame dropped by 23 percent to $44,901, and median declined 33 percent to $10,000, the lowest levels in eight years.

Yearling purveyors say there is a positive flip side to this, from the buyer’s point of view.

“The cost of entry into the Thoroughbred market is more favorable than it’s ever been,” said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland’s sales director.

But with purses also falling steadily this year, there are still economic worries for Thoroughbred sellers.

The yearling auction season has seen mixed results this summer, but there have been signs of much-needed stability as some key auctions’ numbers hit close to last year’s figures. Fasig-Tipton’s July sale saw reductions of 2 percent in average and 9 percent in median; its Saratoga select auction saw a steeper drop for average, which fell 16 percent, and median was off 8 percent. Deauville’s average fell 25 percent, and median lost 17 percent.

But regional auctions have shown some surprising strength. Fasig-Tipton’s New York-bred preferred sale and the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association auction both performed well versus last year’s figures. Most impressively, the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company’s August yearling auction posted rousing increases of 30 percent in average and 60 percent in median, and the Washington Thoroughbred Breeders Association sale pulled off 25 percent and 29 percent gains, respectively, in those categories.

Those heartening results at smaller regional markets might give week-two Keeneland sellers something to cheer about. For the select sessions and the rest of week one, consignors and market-watchers will be keeping a keen eye on Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum’s bidding habits. A slowdown in his spending at Fasig-Tipton’s Saratoga select sale and at Deauville has sent a chilly breeze through Keeneland’s select-session consignments, as Maktoum’s spending can make or break the bottom line for sellers.

The September sale opens Sunday at 7 p.m. Eastern with its first of two select sessions; the second takes place at 7 p.m. on Monday.