At last year’s Keeneland September Yearling Sale, the average price for a young Thoroughbred was an auction record $120,487 with the highest amount reaching $2.7 million for a filly by leading sire Tapit.
Reasons for the range of prices are endless and sometimes inexplicable. High-dollar horses theoretically have a better chance at race track success based on a number of factors, but budget-priced horses often blossom into overachievers worth far more than their sale price.
Here are 10 factors in selecting horses at the September Sale:
Conformation counts. A Thoroughbred’s physical build is called “conformation,” a key indicator of future success as a racehorse. Horses with balanced bodies such as legs that are neither too long nor too short bring premium prices. While all Thoroughbreds look basically the same, keen horsemen recognize desirable and undesirable traits in a racing prospect. With people, some individuals are built to become professional athletes, and the same goes for horses.
Walking is worthy. Handlers walk yearlings for potential buyers to enable them to judge the horses’ movement. A free-flowing walk – a buyer might say the horse “covered a lot of ground when he walked” – indicates a long stride suitable for successful racing.
Family matters.Pedigree is an important predictor of racing performance. Horses whose sires (fathers) and dams (mothers) were accomplished runners and/or are proven progenitors of quality racehorses bring big money. Likewise, Thoroughbreds with siblings and other close relatives that excel at the track are popular.
Color consideration. Although a Thoroughbred’s color is no indication of talent, horsemen have certain preferences. Gray horses are always in fashion, and buyers – consciously or subconsciously – might pay more for that stylish hue. Conversely, legend has it that white legs and white hooves are weak, but recent top-level performers have put that theory to rest.
Go team. Thoroughbred owners usually have a team of advisers with various expertise in judging racing prospects who will compose a shopping list from the entire sale catalog that they use to make their final selections – referred to as a “short list.” Much of the team’s research occurs weeks before the sale. Despite employing these experts to bid on horses, many buyers prefer to attend the sale in person so they can enjoy the excitement of adding new racing prospects to their stables.
Long-term goals vary. The September Sale attracts owners from around the globe, and all have goals for the horses they buy. Are they better suited to run on dirt or grass, or to sprint or race longer distances? Will they run internationally or on regional circuits?
Some look for colts to reach the Kentucky Derby (G1) or other premier races such as the Breeders’ Cup World Championship and be stallion prospects. That was the case, for example, with the past three Kentucky Derby winners – Nyquist (2016), Always Dreaming (2017) and Justify (the undefeated 2018 Triple Crown winner) – all graduates of the September Sale.
Other buyers seek fillies to add to their breeding operations after they race. Still others scout yearlings specifically to resell when they reach racing age.
Buyers have budgets. Whether spending millions on multiple horses or a few thousand on a solo purchase, prospective buyers have budgets. If the sales price of a horse they want exceeds their budget, they often will regroup to consider yearlings not on their original wish lists.
Impulse buying is possible. Horsemen might have no intention of buying a horse until they see one that catches their eye, then they will decide to bid. Similarly, they intend to buy only a certain number of horses but discover they like more than they expected. As a result, they will increase their acquisitions.
Return business plays a role. Like any loyal customer, Thoroughbred shoppers can be repeat customers. They might purchase a yearling because they had success with a relative they purchased. Or they will buy another horse from the same consignor who previously sold them a good horse.
What happens now. After yearlings sell at Keeneland, they leave the property within 24 hours to begin training to be racehorses. Many go just a few miles away, while others travel throughout North America or overseas to farms specializing in pre-training. Florida and South Carolina are popular destinations because the lack of frozen ground allows for uninterrupted training during the winter. Some precocious youngsters will be ready to race as 2-year-olds during Keeneland’s 2019 Spring Meet in April, while others will need more time to develop. They will be ready to compete when they are 3 in 2020.