01/07/2011 3:55PM

Some hope for stability as Keeneland auction begins

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LEXINGTON, Ky. − The Keeneland January all-ages auction, which will run from Jan. 10-14, takes place while Thoroughbred breeders and sellers are nursing a fragile hope that the commercial Thoroughbred market might claw its way back to health.

That hope hangs on slender threads. Overall, the public Thoroughbred marketplace ended with downturns in gross and average again in 2010, but those downturns were much less severe than in 2009; average price, for example, fell just 3 percent at 2010 auctions compared with 21 percent the year before. And higher-quality horses still are capable of selling for seven figures, evidence that the sport’s wealthiest players are still spending. Those are good signs, as is the continued interest in promising racing-age stock throughout 2010.

“Last year’s results brought a little stability to the market, and I would hope that would continue on in the new year,” said Keeneland’s director of sales, Geoffrey Russell.

Still, last year’s bloodstock market remained in a slump, and the core buyers at Keeneland January − commercial breeders − are likely to be conservative in purchasing mares again this year. Many are coming off losses or only slight gains at the 2010 yearling sales, and the lack of available credit from wary banks is also likely to suppress spending, especially for the broodmares and broodmare prospects that form the bulk of the January catalog.

“The credit issue’s going to be with us forever,” Russell said. “The rebounding of the industry is going to be reliant on the rebounding of the economy and the strengthening of our racing product. Credit is a thing of the past, so it’s going to be about discretionary dollars from here on.”

If past is prologue, breeders with cash on hand will still pay a premium for mares with close Grade 1 connections or obvious potential upside. There are two likely candidates: Grade 1 winner Negligee (Hip No. 125), whom the Hill ’n’ Dale agency offers as a broodmare prospect, and Calumet Farm’s Antoniette. A 16-year-old Nicholas mare, Antoniette got the best kind of catalog update when her daughter Switch won last month’s Grade 1 La Brea Stakes by four lengths. Antoniette (Hip No. 267) is in foal to Roman Ruler, according to her catalog page.

Two of the catalog’s Grade 1 winners are in the catalog as racing or broodmare prospects. Wickedly Perfect, winner of the 2010 Alcibiades, and 2010 Flower Bowl winner Ave are in the Three Chimneys agency’s consignment. Wickedly Perfect, a 3-year-old daughter of leading freshman sire Congrats, also won the Grade 3 Sorrento last year and finished second behind Tell a Kelly in the Grade 1 Debutante Stakes. Five-year-old Ave, by Danehill Dancer, also was a Group 3 winner at 3 and was multiple graded-placed last year.

Yearlings could be a strong segment of the market, Russell said. At Keeneland’s November breeding stock sale, racehorse owners dipped into the weanling market, pushing out profit-conscious resellers. Those resellers could be back for newly turned yearlings, called short yearlings, as pinhooking prospects.

“The January sale has always been a good spot for short yearlings,” Russell said. “I think there are still several pinhooking ventures who have some cash left, and I think the quality yearlings will sell well.”

Racing-age horses are not the largest segment of the January market, but there are 325 of them in the catalog, and they could provide a sign of how the racehorse market is faring.

Jockey Club statistics released Jan. 5 might have dampened some buyers’ enthusiasm for racing-age horses. For the third consecutive year, wagering on U.S. races, purse distribution, and racing dates all fell. Total wagering on U.S. races was down 7 percent from last year; more troubling, wagering has fallen off by 25 percent from its 2003 peak. Purses fell 6 percent last year, and race days dropped by nearly 8 percent.

But opportunities to run for casino-subsidized purses will increase when New York’s long-awaited Aqueduct casino opens, and other jurisdictions with slots-rich purses might prompt some to replenish their racing stock. But, as ever, the racing-age market is likely to be highly selective.

“Based on the November sale results, horses of racing age who had potential ahead of them sold very well, and we’d anticipate that would happen here in January,” Russell said.

The January sale will take place at Keeneland’s sale pavilion in Lexington from Jan. 10-14, with sessions starting daily at 10 a.m.