Far be it from me to tell someone how to spend their money, but I sometimes can't help but play a little game of armchair millionaire when there's a horse sale going on.
It happened earlier this month during the select portion of Keeneland's September yearling sale when Benjamin Leon made headlines with his $4.2 million purchase of an A.P. Indy colt on the opening night of the auction under its reconfigured format.
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Leon, a native of Cuba who made his fortune in the health care business in South Florida, is a newcomer to the Thoroughbred industry though he is well known in the Paso Fino world as an accomplished breeder. He first hit the radar screen during Fasig-Tipton's Saratoga yearling sale in August, where he also bought the sale-topper, another colt by A.P. Indy, for $1.2 million.
He wasn't finished at Keeneland after he and bloodstock agent J.J. Pletcher outbid Coolmore for the $4.2 million A.P. Indy colt. Buying under the name of Besilu Stables (the name he uses for his Paso Finos), Leon purchased two more yearlings for a total of $860,000, bringing his aggregate spending at Keeneland up to $5,060,000, and ranking Leon as the sale's second-leading buyer, behind Dubai Sheikh Hamdan's Shadwell Estate Company Ltd, which bought 22 horses for $8,230,000.
So in the course of just over one month, Leon spent $6,260,000 for four unraced Thoroughbred yearlings. Todd Pletcher, J.J.'s son and a future Hall of Famer, will train the Besilu Stables horses.
Leon's big splash at Keeneland is good news for the industry on multiple fronts. First, there is always a need for new investors to prime the pump for the commercial breeders, especially those who play at the top of the game and breed to the best stallions with the highest appeal. Second, momentum is an important part of the commercial market, and the dramatic bidding war on the sale-topping colt, which took place during the early portion of the auction's first night, got the sale off to a very good start. That was extremely important for a market that came into the sale in a fragile state, and in some ways set the tone for the remainder of what has been good, solid horse trading.
So what does all of this have to do with American Graded Stakes standings?
Leon, I anticipate, wants to win events like the Kentucky Derby, Breeders' Cup or other Grade 1 races. You don't spend that kind of money to win on a Thursday afternoon. He is hoping to have bought Saturday horses.
But Saturday horses, those who win Grade 1 races, are not so easy to identify, and it's difficult to reach that level with just a handful of runners. These races are rare and the horses can sometimes be fragile.
So far in 2010 there have been 30 individual Grade 1 winners sold at public auction. Their prices range from a low of $8,000 for Evening Jewel (sold at the Keeneland September yearling sale before being resold privately as a 2-year-old) to $650,000 for Tuscan Evening (sold last year at Fasig-Tipton's November mixed sale). The average price of the 30 Grade 1 winners sold at public auction is $196,200 and the median price if $155,000.
The sum total these 30 Grade 1 winners brought when they sold at public auction was $5,886,000, which is $374,000 less than Leon spent on those four unraced yearlings.
I want Leon to have a long, successful, and enjoyable experience in Thoroughbred racing. I hope that $4.2 million colt turns out to be a Grade 1 winner down the road, just as his sale-topping daddy did after selling for $2.9 million at the Keeneland July yearling sale in 1990. It can happen. And by virtue of the fact that astute horsemen like the Coolmore group and Bob Baffert were underbidders on the colt, if any horse in the sale was worth $4.2 million this one surely was. But the odds are against him.
Would Leon have a better chance of winning Grade 1 races if he had spread that $6,260,000 around on more horses? By shopping in the $200,000-$300,000 range, he could have a stable of between 20 and 30 horses and be in better position to deal with the attrition that comes with racing and training. Of course, by doing so he would be increasing expenses because it obviously costs far more to operate a 20-horse stable than one with just four runners. But this can be a game of numbers, and 20 in my book is a better number than four.
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