10/06/2011 10:53AM

When Keeneland's July sale was king

Courtesy of Keeneland Library
Seattle Dancer sold for $13.1 million at the 1985 Keeneland July sale after a partnership led by Robert Sangster outbid a syndicate represented by D. Wayne Lukas. The price stands as a world record for yearlings.

LEXINGTON, Ky. − In late June 1943, a group of yearling consignors convened at the Lafayette Hotel in Lexington, Ky. They were in a hurry. The Fasig-Tipton summer yearling sale, held for years in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., was coming to Kentucky in just six weeks, thanks to the wartime cancellation of Saratoga’s race meet, railroad restrictions, and gasoline rationing.

Fasig-Tipton would handle the gavel, but Kentucky consignors had to work out logistics. When the consignors met at the Lafayette Hotel, Leslie Combs 2nd and Thomas Piatt reported they had arranged for taxis to bring buyers from downtown hotels to Keeneland, and the consignors agreed to contribute $10 for each yearling sold to pay for catering to feed buyers and sales staff at Keeneland. The question was, would it all work? In Saratoga, moguls and movie stars had only to cross Union Avenue from Saratoga’s racetrack to get to Fasig-Tipton’s sales grounds. But would yearlings alone, with no races and no high-flying social scene, be enough to draw buyers to the Bluegrass? Even the Blood-Horse called the suggestion “wishful thinking.”

Keeneland’s first summer sale was supposed to be a temporary wartime measure. But Keeneland July, the “emergency” auction of 1943, stayed on the calendar for the next 58 years. During that time, the July sale challenged Fasig-Tipton’s supremacy in the bloodstock market, sold world-record yearlings, and placed Kentucky firmly at the center of the Thoroughbred trade. The July sale saw the emergence of the Maktoum brothers and their rivals at Coolmore Stud, still the bloodstock market’s dominant forces. Its sale-toppers included such horses as Nureyev, A.P. Indy, Sir Ivor, Royal Academy, and Fusaichi Pegasus. Cheaper prices bought Sunday Silence ($17,000), Thunder Gulch ($40,000), The Minstrel ($200,000), Terlingua ($275,000), and Alysheba ($500,000). For many years, as buyer William Helis once put it, the July sale was “the place for those who are really interested in buying horses.”

The sale was a hit from the beginning. It was a simple affair, conducted under a tent in Keeneland’s paddock, but its sale-topper, a $66,000 Blenheim II-Risk colt, made the third-highest U.S. yearling price ever. A $10,200 colt from that sale − the first horse Fred Hooper ever bought − went on to win the 1945 Kentucky Derby under the name Hoop, Jr.

Daily Racing Form reported Lexington was filled to capacity for the initial auction: “The heart of the Blue Grass is now housing what is probably the most representative group of all times − track heads, breeders from other states, many of the best-known trainers in the country, and owners, army officials, and Hollywood movie stars are assembled to watch, bid, or buy yearlings being offered by breeders. It looks good, and we expect to report some fine sales. The question, ‘Will they ever go back to Saratoga?’ is heard on all sides.”

Bringing Kentucky-bred yearlings to Keeneland certainly was more convenient than shipping them by rail to Saratoga. But that didn’t mean it was easy. The Thoroughbred Record noted that one major seller, Mereworth Farm, “elects to walk their youngsters the nine and four-tenths miles separating their Yarnallton Pike establishment from Keeneland. Shipping can be, and is sometimes, dangerous. Accordingly, a caravan consisting of forty sales babies, forty-odd handlers, station wagons, and a compliment of police cars and motorcycles ‘moved in’ on the scene of action nearly a week before the sale.”

In 1944, held for the first time without Fasig-Tipton, the July sale featured author Joe Palmer as announcer while legendary auctioneer George Swinebroad wielded the gavel. It set a record gross of $2,286,000 and sold future juvenile champions Beaugay, a $22,000 filly, and Star Pilot, a $26,000 colt. Average price? $5,231.

By the 1960’s, the July sale had established its reputation as a must-shop auction along the lines of Saratoga. In 1964, Swinebroad hammered down a world-record yearling for $170,000. Buyer Velma Morrison of Boise, Idaho, had prudently waited until bidding for the Bold Ruler colt petered out. Then in swooped Velma: She got him on a single last-minute bid that prompted Swinebroad to say as he banged the gavel, “The horse goes to One-Bid Mama.” Morrison named her new colt One Bold Bid.

The July sale attracted many famous bidders, but some came in under everyone’s radar. Take W.P. Rosso of Virginia. Best known as a claiming-horse owner, he spent the days before the 1968 auction looking at yearlings alongside the era’s big fish. But Rosso “seemed to several sellers to be merely a tourist taking up space,” Swinebroad once recalled. “They asked him politely to move on so some of the big money could look at their yearlings.”

The supermarket chain owner went on to buy four yearlings and outbid mining magnate Charles Engelhard for a record $405,000 Sea-Bird filly. He paid in certified $100,000 checks that he pulled out of his shirt pocket.

“I learned early you never know where your money’s going to come from,” Swinebroad later said.

Swinebroad, sadly, didn’t live to see one of his most famous predictions come true: the sale of a $1 million yearling at Keeneland. It happened in 1976, a year after Swinebroad’s death, when Bluegrass Farm brought one of the first Secretariat yearlings to market.

“The Secretariat colt was led into the ring shortly before 9 p.m., and even while announcer Tom Hammond was reading the pedigree, auctioneer Tom Caldwell was fielding opening bids from his spotters,” wrote Daily Racing Form correspondent Logan Bailey.

Canadian bidder Joe Burnett opened his bidding at $716,000. It was a significant figure because, at the previous year’s sale, Burnett and partners had pulled up short when bidding on the world-record yearling, $715,000 Elegant Prince. They’d have had him if they’d bid $1,000 more, and clearly they didn’t intend to lose this time around.

Bidding escalated quickly, but when it paused at $1.4 million, Caldwell said, “How we doin’, George?” in homage to Swinebroad and his prediction.

In the end, Burnett and his Blue Meadows Farm partners got the colt.

“He’s Canadian-bound,” Caldwell observed as he dropped the hammer, and Canadian Bound became the colt’s name.

Seller Nelson Bunker Hunt called the world-record price “a great thrill” and added, “It’s a lot harder work selling horses than buying them, but then it is also more profitable.”

Canadian Bound’s 1976 sale ushered in the era that defined Keeneland July as a billionaires’ competitive playground where seven-figure yearlings were common. No one expected an eight-figure yearling, so when Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum’s $10.2 million final bid for Snaafi Dancer set a new world record in 1983, there was no more room on the electronic price board for the troublesome, but highly profitable, extra figure.

“I think this record will last a while,” Snaafi Dancer’s breeder, Donald Johnson, told the Los Angeles Times. “I think this has given ’em something to shoot at for a long time.”

Two years, as it happened, by which point Keeneland had added space for an eighth digit. In 1985, the July market reached its peak when a half-brother to Seattle Slew became the subject of an extraordinary bidding duel between a partnership led by Robert Sangster and a syndicate represented by D. Wayne Lukas.

“After Lukas broke the world record with a nod at auctioneer Tom Caldwell’s request for $10.3 million, Caldwell joked to the audience, ‘You ain’t seen nothin’ yet,’ ” Daily Racing Form’s Dan Liebman reported.

Lukas – representing L.R. French, Mel Hatley, and Eugene Klein – eventually let Sangster’s group have the colt, later named Seattle Dancer, at $13.1 million. The price is still a world record for yearlings, though the 2-year-old The Green Monkey eclipsed it in 2006, when Coolmore Stud paid $16 million for him.

Describing Keeneland July in the mid-1980’s, a Time magazine reporter wrote: “Preston Madden of Hamburg Place ushered prospective buyers past ferns and bunting into an air-conditioned, mirrored tack room. As butlers proffered champagne from silver trays, Madden screened footage of his past turf champions. Tom Gentry, the showman of the bluegrass, hawked his yearlings like a carnival huckster, giving away Tom Gentry T-shirts, Tom Gentry hats, and Tom Gentry Slush, a rum and lime concoction. Seth Hancock, breeder for Claiborne Farm, conducted business more sedately. His yearlings were paraded six at a time before sharp-eyed trainers searching for tiny flaws: a foot that was slightly crooked, a back with too much sway, undersized hindquarters, oversized hocks.”

But the bloodstock bubble soon burst. By 1991, July’s average and median had fallen to early-1980’s pre-boom level. Still, the auction never lost its million-dollar cachet: Until its demise in 2003, the Keeneland July sale-topper always brought seven figures.

In 1990, the sale-topper was a $2.9 million yearling destined to be 1992’s Horse of the Year: A.P. Indy. When winning bidder Noel O’Callaghan signed the ticket on behalf of client Tomonori Tsurumaki, he said, “He’s not interested in breeding. He’s a racing man.”

A.P. Indy, of course, became a highly fashionable sire before his retirement in 2011, and his yearlings have fetched even bigger bids than his in Keeneland’s auction ring. Since 2003, though, they’ve done it in September – most recently topping the 2011 September sale with a $1.4 million A.P. Indy-Malka colt.

After several years of speculation, Keeneland finally pulled the plug on its famous July sale in January 2003. The auction had set a record average of $710,247 just two years before. But the increasing popularity of Keeneland’s September yearling sale, market losses at boutique sales, and the equine disease mare reproductive loss syndrome, which caused fetal abortions and cut the foal supply, made the sale less viable. In 2002, the July auction sold European champion One Cool Cat for a hefty $3.1 million, but its bottom line was fatally weak: The average price plummeted 46 percent, the median sank 42 percent, and buy-backs shot upward to 40 percent.

It was an inglorious end to the auction that had launched Keeneland’s horse-selling business and put Lexington not just on the map, but at the center of it, as far as Thoroughbred sales were concerned. Will the July sale ever come back? Don’t rule it out. It’s been almost a decade since the gavel has fallen at Keeneland in July, but, officially, the July auction is “on hiatus” until a new group of consignors, harking back to their 1943 forebears, puts it on the calendar again.