01/08/2010 12:00AM

Year starts with a wrap-up of sorts

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Keeneland's January all-ages auction, which runs Jan. 11-15, will give its participants one last look at 2009. And as in 2009, it's likely to have them hoping for better things to come in 2010.

Most consider the January auction another, later installment of the November breeding stock sales. It's more a tail-end report on the previous season than a predictor of the upcoming sale season. That starts in earnest next month when the 2-year-old sale circuit begins.

Based on 2009's context, sellers can expect to see overall declines again at the Keeneland January auction, with a few bright spots to keep hope alive that the market has bottomed out after two years of severe declines that left many breeders, consignors, and stallion owners reeling.

The 2010 January catalog numbered 1,753 when published, cutting the auction to five days from last year's six. The number has waned further because of scratches - there were 319 outs by noon Friday for a total of 1,434 horses remaining. One notable withdrawal was Azeri's Ghostzapper yearling, a half-sister to recent Santa Anita maiden winner Take Control.

The smaller catalog reflects today's conditions in Thoroughbred breeding: Hard economic times have prompted breeders to cut production, and quickly. That should help sales in the long term, at least.

In the near term, sellers hope the January auction outperforms its 2009 edition in average and median prices. A year ago, the six-day auction sold 1,338 horses for $32,824,000, a drop of 53 percent on a significantly smaller catalog than in 2008. The $24,532 average was 48 percent lower, and the median fell 44 percent to $9,500.

The November sales at Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland were, in some respects, better than anticipated. The top of the market saw horses bring upwards of $1 million, topping out with Honest Pursuit's sale-topping $3.1 million price tag at the Keeneland November auction. The buy-back rates improved at both Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland. Fasig-Tipton saw substantial declines that were explained partly by the fact that they were coming off a 2008 sale featuring world-record-priced Better Than Honour ($14 million) and another $5.7 million horse in Stardom Bound. But Keeneland's November results, bolstered by the Overbrook dispersal including Honest Pursuit, suffered only shallow dips, and the median remained the same as 2008's at $20,000.

That performance raised consignors' hopes that the market is at least approaching the corner, if not turning it. Keeneland's sale director, Geoffrey Russell, thinks it's too early to tell, but he does spy some potential bright spots in November that could put some shine in the January market, too.

"The November sale turned out to be a good sale," he said. "There was very strong trade in weanlings, and we hope that will carry over to the short yearlings. Weanling-to-yearling pinhookers [resellers] did very well last year. And the broodmare- and racing-prospect side of the market has always been good."

One of those is Distorted Passion, the 5-year-old Distorted Humor mare who comes into the sale off a win in the Interborough Handicap on Jan. 1.

The sale also introduces yearlings by a group of stallions that Darley spent an estimated $100 million to acquire in 2007: Any Given Saturday, Hard Spun, and Street Sense.

Other sires with their first yearlings here are After Market, Corinthian, Discreet Cat, Half Ours, Jazil, and Lawyer Ron, whose untimely death last year makes his progeny an exclusive group.

Keeneland's January auction won't benefit from a major dispersal like Overbrook's, but it will mark the end of an era with the last batch of horses to sell from the late Allaire du Pont's Bohemia Stable dispersal. Walnut Green, agent, will offer Bohemia's Grade 2 winner Shiny Band (in foal to Harlan's Holiday); multiple graded-placed Up We Go, dam of Grade 1 performer Down (in foal to Not for Love); and stakes performer Why You's dam, Why the Wind (in foal to Yes It's True). Also in the catalog are Bohemia yearlings: a Mr. Greeley-Shine Again colt, an Include-Crowned filly, a Harlan's Holiday-Let's Coast filly, a Yes It's True-Up We go colt, and a Stevie Wonderboy-Why You filly.

"Everybody knew going in to 2009 it was going to be a difficult year," Russell said. "People may have come out feeling it wasn't as bad as they anticipated. That's not to say it was good. It's painful to go through, but we knew a correction was going to happen. What exacerbated it was the financial crisis, and we couldn't control that."

There may yet be 2009-style pain to endure, but sales participants are at least more acclimatized to the lower market than they were in 2008 when the global financial meltdown struck. After the January all-ages horses have gone through the ring, they'll be looking toward the 2010 yearling season to read this year's tea leaves.

The January sale will take place at the Keeneland sale pavilion from Monday to Friday. Sessions start daily at 10 a.m.