08/29/2009 12:00AM

Strong top over unsteady bottom


The yearling market has sent vastly mixed signals so far this year, and results will probably be mixed again at Keeneland's 2009 September sale, the world's largest Thoroughbred yearling auction, which runs Sept. 14-28 with a catalog of 5,189 horses.

Based on auctions for all ages of stock last year, there are reasons to expect the market at Keeneland September to continue the industry's downward trend of prices, anywhere from 15 to 30 percent lower than last year. But upturns at Fasig-Tipton's recent Saratoga select sale and smaller but significant increases at Arqana's Deauville select auction in France provide some evidence that the select market is comparatively strong, a good sign for sellers with exceptionally bred and conformed yearlings.

"The word we've used all year is that it's going to be an interesting year, and so far we haven't been disappointed," Keeneland's sales director, Geoffrey Russell, said. "On the macro-economic side of things, I think people are starting to get more confidence back. There's more consumer confidence and light at the end of the tunnel, so hopefully that confidence in the general economy will spill over into the Thoroughbred market.

"There are buyers out there who are seeing this as a very good opportunity to purchase horses and are taking advantage of it. There's only a thin representation to look at so far this year to base analysis on, but from what we've seen so far, the top end seems to be doing all right. The lower end does seem to be having a problem."

In the current climate, the 2008 Keeneland September results look better than they did at the time of the sale. The 2008 auction sold 3,605 horses for $327,999,100, down 15 percent from the 2007 sale, while average fell 10 percent to $90,984 and median dropped 12 percent to $37,000. The sale-topper was the $3.1 million filly Chimayo (A.P. Indy-Chimichurri, by Elusive Quality).

The double-digit losses looked grim in September 2008, but later sales, including Keeneland's November breeding stock and January all-ages auction and the spring juvenile sales, sustained even deeper losses. For example, Keeneland's November and January medians dropped 43 percent and 44 percent, and select juvenile sale medians this year were down between 17 percent and 35 percent.

The 2009 yearling sale season began with similar glum news. At Fasig-Tipton's July select sale, gross fell 26 percent, average dropped 16 percent, and median dropped 27 percent. Fasig-Tipton's more recent New York-bred preferred sale also had precipitous declines: gross decreased by 20 percent, average by 25 percent, and median plummeted 40 percent.

But Fasig-Tipton's flagship Saratoga select sale was a happy aberration.

Fasig-Tipton, now owned by a Dubai company closely linked to Dubai ruler and avid racehorse buyer Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, pulled off spectacular gains at its two-night select auction, posting a startling 46 percent increase in gross, an 11-percent rise in average, and a 10-percent upswing in median. This was thanks in large part to the presence of Maktoum himself. Representing the sheikh, his friends, and associates, Maktoum's representative John Ferguson spent $11,850,000 for a dozen yearlings at the Saratoga select sale, or 23 percent of the auction's gross. Maktoum's brother, Shadwell Estate Co. owner Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum, bought another five yearlings for $1,835,000.

Sheikh Mohammed's unusual personal appearance at the sale - he hadn't visited in at least 20 years, according to Fasig-Tipton officials - and his aggressive spending there gave a certain theatrical quality to the auction. Will Keeneland September, with 5,189-yearlings compared with Saratoga's 235-horse catalog, be able to duplicate the gains? It seems unlikely, but there are some good signs for the select market at Keeneland.

Whether or not he attends in person, as he often has, Maktoum will probably continue to buy at Keeneland September, particularly during the sale's Sept. 14-15 select sessions. He seems especially inclined to support yearlings by his own sires, and these are plentiful throughout the catalog. Darley first-crop sires Bernardini, Henny Hughes, and Rockport Harbor have a combined 159 yearlings in the September catalog, and Street Cry, sire of Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, has 43. Red-hot Medaglia d'Oro, a recent addition to the Darley roster, has 55.

There has understandably been a lot of focus on Maktoum, but the best news out of the Fasig-Tipton July, Saratoga, and Deauville sales, from Keeneland's viewpoint, is that quite a few other international and American buyers have been bidding strongly for yearlings. That factor should buffer the September sale's upper market from drastic declines even if wealthier buyers are spending more conservatively than they did before the wider economy collapsed and the bloodstock bubble popped.

Maverick Racing, Dogwood Stable, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, Donald Dizney, Buzz Chace, Spendthrift Farm, Fox Hill Farm, and IEAH Stables were among the domestic six-figure spenders scattered liberally across the results sheet at Saratoga. A number of those were also buyers at the July sale.

Another spark that could ignite big bids at Keeneland September is Storm Cat. Perennially a favorite stallion at auction, Storm Cat is now pensioned, and his 2009 yearlings are his last sizable crop (his final crop, yearlings of 2010, consists of just three foals). The September catalog has 32 Storm Cats, including a colt and filly that are the first foals out of 2006 champion older mare Fleet Indian and multiple Grade 1 winner Island Fashion, respectively. Others include a colt out of 1995 champion 3-year-old filly Serena's Song; a half-sister to 2005 champion 3-year-old Afleet Alex and half-brothers to 2001 Horse of the Year Point Given and 2006 champion juvenile filly Dreaming of Anna; colts out of 2002 champion 3-year-old filly Farda Amiga and Grade 1 winner Starrer; and a filly out of 1996 grass champion Wandesta.

Storm Cat yearlings topped the Saratoga and Deauville select sales, and a few could add sizzle in Keeneland's select sessions, a last hurrah for the grand old sire.

If boutique markets appear to be stabilizing, the regional markets are still in some turmoil, as evidenced by the New York-bred sale. That signals rough waters for Keeneland September's open-market sellers. Their buyers are more likely to have taken hits in the recession. Those who are buying at regional markets so far this season have been willing to spend for the best quality they can buy, but, as in other market strata, they are highly selective. The open portion of Keeneland's September sale does stand to benefit from pinhookers, the yearling-to-juvenile resellers.

"I think pinhookers will be very selective," Russell said. "They can only spend what they earn. But they'll be active, because that's their business."

Pinhookers took it on the chin earlier this year when the juvenile market fell roughly 30 percent from 2008, and many are unwilling now to compete with the likes of Maktoum and wealthy end-users for top-of-the-line yearlings sporting perfect bodies and perfect pedigrees. Pinhookers must remain selective on conformation because they are reselling to exacting buyers in the 2-year-old sales. But their tighter budgets this year will prompt many pinhookers to compromise on pedigree and look later in the sale for athletes that the bigger buyers might have overlooked.

While they were less in evidence at the Saratoga select sale, pinhookers Murray Smith, Nick de Meric, BC3 Thoroughbreds, Ciaran Dunne, and Ricky Leppala, to name a few, signed tickets at July, the New York-bred sale, or both. Trainers, too, were scouring those catalogs for bargains, and chances are good they will find some at Keeneland September.

Keeneland has aggressively courted overseas buyers: Citizens of 48 countries attended Keeneland auctions last year. Those buyers, especially from South America and Russia, have contributed significantly to the middle and lower end of the market, but these buyers are more of a wild card this year as international economies have also endured downturns. Keeneland is counting on recent successes of its graduates overseas, notably in the emerging Russian market, and the prospect of a buyer's market to give those bidders extra incentives.

But with a continuing oversupply of yearlings and a dull economy that has dried up many middle-market buyers' discretionary spending, these combined expenditures might not be enough to prevent losses in Keeneland's open market. As one bloodstock agent put it, "You have to have the bullet-proof horse." Horses with athletic walks, no significant flaws, and exemplary veterinary exams should still command good money, even on non-select days. But others will find it even harder to stand out in the crowd this year, when there are fewer buyers looking for luxury goods like racehorses.

"The good news is that people now realize that good horses come from all strata of the economy," Russell said. "That's been proven year after year. We're in the four corners of America and in Europe and Asia at the moment trying to find new markets and encourage people to come."

In an effort to make it easier on buyers and sellers this year, Keeneland will offer a new service called Kee-Bid, which will allow bidders to submit an online offer through Keeneland's website for horses that do not meet their reserve prices in the auction ring. The program is similar to that offered by Arqana, where a "make an offer" link on the online sale summary appears next to horses bought back by their sellers.

Keeneland's 5,000-horse catalog is made up of yearlings by 289 stallions, and it offers the season's best chance to assess first-crop sires' progeny in significant numbers. In addition to the Darley stallions mentioned earlier, other first-crop sires this season include Grade 1 or Group 1 winners Aragorn, Artie Schiller, Badge of Silver, Bluegrass Cat, First Samurai, Flower Alley, Holy Roman Emperor, Hurricane Run, and Silver Train.

The sale will have a dark day on Friday, Sept. 18. Sessions begin at 10 a.m. Eastern and run continuously throughout the day.