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Soaring Market Generates Positive Results at Keeneland September Yearling Sale 

September 24, 2021

Keeneland’s September Yearling Sale, a bellwether event for the Thoroughbred industry, concluded Friday with gross sales of $352 million, sixth-highest in sale history, and record cumulative average and median prices. Large crowds of enthusiastic buyers and buoyant trade from start to finish of the 11-day auction drove a record high clearance rate of just over 80 percent that reflected a confident market and an excitement for owning racehorses.

Vibrant pace throughout the sale, held Sept. 13-24, produced gross receipts of $352,823,000, a 47.96 percent rebound from last year’s gross of $238,454,300 when the 12-day sale was impacted by the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s gross is just shy of the $359,787,700 realized in 2019 to signal a resumption of the bull markets of previous years. A total of 2,672 yearlings sold through the ring this year compared to 2,346 in 2020.

Records were established for both cumulative average and median prices. Average price of $132,045 represents a 29.91 percent increase over last year’s $101,643 and surpasses the previous record of $129,331 set in 2018. Median price rose 75.68 percent from $37,000 to $65,000 and smashes the record of $57,000 set in 2017.

Fifteen yearlings sold for $1 million or more, led by a colt from the first crop of City of Light who brought $1.7 million.

Keeneland September Sale

“Thanks to all our breeders, consignors and buyers, whose passion for racing clearly showed through these past two weeks,” Keeneland President and CEO Shannon Arvin said. “This September Sale felt completely different from any other in recent memory – lots of hustle and bustle. We elevated our hospitality throughout the sale, with a particular focus on the first two days, to create excitement and anticipation. We worked to set the tone and stage. Our breeders and consignors delivered high-quality bloodstock, and the buyers responded fervently. People are emerging from the pandemic with a renewed sense of vitality, and they are ready to have fun. That positivity, coupled with the increased prize money available at tracks around the country, created a pent-up demand for racehorses coming into the sale. We were thrilled to see lots of happy buyers and consignors.”

“This sale exceeded expectations in nearly every measure,” Keeneland Vice President of Sales Tony Lacy said. “The positive takeaways are very encouraging. The level of confidence across the spectrum of the industry is extremely high. The clearance rate has been very healthy, especially in the middle market. The strength of the young sires has been remarkable and shows excitement for the next generation. The diversity of buyers and the spread of equity among them are broad and deep. We’re seeing a lot of new faces and new money, and these people are excited about their participation.”

Brian Graves, General Manager of Gainesway, the sale’s second-leading consignor that sold 131 horses for $30,120,000 concurred.

“I thought (the sale) would pick up steam as the books went, and it did,” Graves said. “The middle market has been the strongest part of the market for horses all year long, and (the September Sale) just proved that there’s a lot of people in the middle. There’s a good stable, solid domestic market out there right now, and that’s good for all of us.”

The strong demand for horses was borne out in the record clearance rate, the highest for the September Sale since 2012. Records were twice set for number of horses sold through the ring during a single session: 319 in session seven followed by 325 in session nine. Keeneland officials noted the clearance rate is higher than the published figure since a large number of horses sold privately after not meeting their reserves in the sale ring. 

“It’s been a great sale – nobody can deny that. Every indicator tells us as much. Such a low RNA rate yesterday (session nine); nine percent is remarkable,” said Peter O’Callaghan of Woods Edge Farm, who sold all but one horse in his consignment, which was highlighted by a $1.05 million colt by City of Light purchased by West Bloodstock, agent for Repole Stable and St. Elias.

“(The sale is) the best it’s been in quite some time. I don’t think it’s an accident, either,” O’Callaghan added. “Horse racing did a great job going through COVID and got a lot of new eyes on the game, a lot of new bettors in the game. Handles were going up everywhere. Prize money is exploding. People are recognizing that. They know it really makes sense to own a racehorse in this country. You can make money, you can pay your way. If you win a nice race at a prominent track, you can almost pay your training fees for the year. It’s great, and long may it continue.”

Several days prior to the sale, Keeneland announced an innovative venture with Kentucky Downs aimed at further strengthening racing opportunities for this year’s September Sale graduates. They are eligible to run in a pair of $250,000 allowance races – one for fillies and one for colts and geldings – at the 2022 FanDuel Meet at Kentucky Downs.

The optimistic outlook for racing contributed to a deep buying bench at the September Sale, consisting of domestic buyers along with returning international buyers from 27 countries such as  England, Ireland, France, Japan, China, Australia, Hong Kong, Peru, Argentina, United Arab Emirates, Russia and Singapore. The sale’s 15 seven-figure horses were bought by 13 distinct buyers.

From the outset, major buyers packed the Sales Pavilion and back show rings and competed with waves of new buyers who arrived daily as the sale moved into Week 2.  

Domestic buyers, particularly end users, drove the market.

“The domestic end-user activity was sensational,” Keeneland Director of Sales Operations Cormac Breathnach said. “It’s been great to see them step up in such a big way. It’s encouraging that as an industry we’re able to maintain strong growth while we’re missing some historically significant players.”

The sale also benefited from the increased participation of partnerships and syndicates. Partnerships comprising West Point Thoroughbreds, Woodford Racing and Talla Racing purchased the top three highest-priced horses: a City of Light colt from the family of Grade 2 winner and sire Broken Vow for $1.7 million, a Quality Road colt who is a half-brother to Grade 1 winner Girvin and classic-placed Midnight Bourbon for $1.6 million and a Justify colt from the family of champion Wait a While for $1.55 million.

Jacob West’s West Bloodstock, agent for Repole Stable and St. Elias, was the sale’s leading buyer, purchasing 43 yearlings for $16,045,000. They included a son of City of Light for $1.05 million. West acquired horses for Repole and St. Elias as late as the eighth session.

Other leading buyers who represented partnerships were Donato Lanni, agent for SF Bloodstock/Starlight/Madaket, who spent $10,590,000 for 24 colts, and BSW/Crow Colts Group, a new entity that acquired 20 colts for $6,805,000.

“Partnerships were very dominant in the market, and they hugely benefited this sale,” Lacy said. “While they may take away the $3-$4 million horse, partnerships spread the money among buyers and allows investors to spread their risk. They also enable people to have fun in a more affordable way. And by bringing more people into the sport, they create a fan base.”   

Established sires continued to be highly prized with American Pharoah, Curlin, Into Mischief,  Quality Road, Street Sense, Tapit, Uncle Mo and War Front represented by yearlings who brought seven figures. Into Mischief was the leading sire by total sales with 62 colts and fillies grossing $25,967,000.

American Pharoah sired the auction’s highest-priced filly, who sold for $1.4 million to Northshore Bloodstock, agent. Consigned by Betz Thoroughbreds, agent, the filly is a half-sister to undefeated Echo Zulu, who captured Saratoga’s Spinaway (G1) eight days prior to the sale. 

Yearlings from the first crops of Triple Crown winner Justify and Grade 1 winner City of Light fetched some of the sale’s top prices to rank the stallions second and third, respectively, on the September Sale’s leading sire list in terms of gross sales. Justify was represented by 61 yearlings sold for $22,431,000, led by a colt for $1.55 million. City of Light grossed $17,525,000 for 47 yearlings, including the $1.7 million sale-topping colt and a $1.05 million colt. He sired the highest-priced horses in two sessions. 

“The market is probably the strongest we’ve seen here in the last 15, 20 years – just in depth of the buying bench and quality of the prices,” said Aidan O’Meara, Director of Bloodstock and Client Development at Stonehaven Steadings, consignor of a $1.55 million Justify colt. “We’ve never been as busy at the barns with the number and intensity of the buyers and the number of shows. The amount of back ring action in the past couple of days has been astonishing. We were very fortunate with a couple of big touches, but the market held all the way through until the last one we just sold.”

Among the other young stallions to rank among the sale’s leaders were Horse of the Year Gun Runner, champion Good Magic and Grade 1 winners Mendelssohn and Practical Joke.

“There was exceptional quality in this yearling crop that extended into Week 2,” Keeneland Director of Sales Development Mark Maronde said. “The quality of this crop, the variety of stallions represented and the professionalism of our breeders and sellers made this sale a success.”

Small, family-run farms made a splash this September by consigning homebreds that sold for seven figures. The sale-topping colt by City of Light was consigned by Rosilyn Polan’s Sunday Morning Farm. The Knelman family’s Farfellow Farms sold a $1 million colt by Street Sense to BSW/Crow Colts Group and a $700,000 colt by City of Light to West Bloodstock, agent for Repole Stable and St. Elias.

“The sale has been extremely strong,” said Jak Knelman. “It’s pretty amazing walking to the back ring and seeing everybody who is looking at horses in the barns and just purely waiting for them to come to the back ring. Purses in Kentucky and across the nation in the big markets are really exploding, and it affects the people who are raising horses. For (us with) a small band of broodmares and (being) commercial breeders, the yearling sales are really what we target. This is what makes or breaks the year. You’re sure to be looked at by everyone when you come here, and that’s all you can ask as a seller.”

Keeneland made several adjustments to the format this September that were well received by consignors and buyers. Week 1 was structured so Books 1 and 2, which consisted of two sessions each, were held on four consecutive days before the sale took a one-day hiatus. As a result, 1,102 yearlings were cataloged to be presented to buyers. Keeneland also combined the final two sessions (those horses originally cataloged to Sessions 11 and 12) into a single session on today’s final day to conclude the sale during a three-day Book 5. Both changes were made to present a critical mass of horses to buyers.

For the first time, Keeneland offered an RNA Reoffer program that allowed consignors to reoffer horses not sold on Day 1 at the conclusion of the second session. Four horses that did not meet their reserves on opening day went through the RNA Reoffer at the close the second session and one of those sold.

“The RNA Reoffer served its purpose in that it incentivized a lot of post-sale transactions,” Lacy said. 

Keeneland once again offered tools such as online and phone bidding to facilitate buying. Online bidding resulted in the sale of 135 horses for a total of $19,206,500.

Taylor Made Sales Agency, agent, led all consignors at the September Sale for the seventh consecutive year and the 23rd year overall since 1988. Taylor Made sold 304 yearlings for $37,306,500.

During Friday’s final session, 244 yearlings sold for $3,937,500, for an average of $16,137 and a median of $12,000.

Bill and Anne Scott purchased a Silent Name (JPN) filly for $120,000 to be the highest priced yearling sold Friday. Consigned by Hidden Brook, agent, the filly is out of the graded stakes-winning Awesome Again mare Ice Festival. 

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Keeneland will celebrate its 85th anniversary during the 17-day Fall Meet from Oct. 8-30. The season, which will award a race meet record $6 million in stakes purses, opens with the prestigious Fall Stars Weekend that features 10 stakes, including five Grade 1 races, worth $3.65 million. Ten Fall Meet stakes are Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win and You’re In” races, which award each winner an automatic and free entry into the World Championships at Del Mar on Nov. 5-6.

Keeneland’s 78th November Breeding Stock Sale will begin Nov. 10 and run through Nov. 19, followed by the ninth Sporting Art Auction on Nov. 21.