Keeneland Books 1 and 2: So far, so good

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Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote in a 1964 Supreme Court ruling that hard-core pornography was “hard to define, but I know it when I see it.” That’s how I feel about a solid, successful horse sale, such as we’ve seen over the first two books of the Keeneland September yearling auction.

By themselves, the numbers are OK, though not spectacular. It’s more the feel of the sale, the comments from a range of buyers that good prospects are hard to buy because of the competition from throughout the horse racing world. As one veteran pinhooker told me, “I’m getting my head bashed in every time I bid on a horse.” It’s not easy money for consignors, but it’s far from the bloodbath we’ve seen them take in the not so distant past.

Much has been made of the near total absence of last year’s top two buyers, John Ferguson and Benjamin Leon’s Besilu Stables. Together they accounted for 11.7% of the gross expenditures in the first two books sold in 2011. Ferguson, leading buyer last year with 36 yearlings purchased on behalf of Sheikh Mohammed for $8,870,000, has bought just two this year for a grand total of $400,000. Besilu, which purchased 13 for $8,175,000 in 2011, hasn’t bought a single horse this year. 

Without those two major buyers, the sale has done quite well. At this stage in 2011 (when the first two books encompassed five sessions), there were 32 individual buyers that spent $1 million or more, topped by Ferguson and Besilu.

In 2012, there has been an increase up to 35 in the number of individual buyers spending $1 million or more, led by Sheikh Mohammed’s brother, Sheikh Hamdan, whose Shadwell Estate Co. Ltd. purchased 17 yearlings for $8,250,000. In 2011, Shadwell was third leading buyer in the first two books, with 17 yearlings and $6,355,000.

There has been a noticeable increase in spending by several auction regulars, including agent Steve Young, who in 2011 Books 1 and 2 bought three yearlings for $827,000 but in 2012 spent $2,340,000 for nine yearlings.  Another active buyer this year, Charlotte Weber’s Live Oak Plantation (8/$2,870,000) bought just one yearling for $400,000 in 2011.

But the busiest buyer in the first two books of the 2012 Keeneland September yearling sale was the Russian-based Raut LLC, which purchased 20 yearlings for $1,679,000. Last year, Raut bought a similar number later in the sale, 19, spending just $396,500.

There are always Thoroughbred buyers whose budgets expand or retract from year to year. But the market for top-class racing prospects has much more depth on the international market than just one or two major figures. There were years when consignors were petrified about the prospect of the absence of leading buyer Sheikh Mohammed’s participation at the top end of the market, and this year has shown that it can survive on its own four-legs.

Books 1 and 2 produced seven $1-million and up yearlings compared with six last year, and 23 yearlings that sold for $625,000 and up compared with 20 at this stage in 2011.

Gross revenue will be down at the end of the sale, but that’s due to a smaller catalogue. Through the first two books, Keeneland consignor have sold 655 yearlings for $132,853,000, an average price of $202,829 and median of $150,000. That’s a decline in revenue from the $145,216,500 at this stage last year, but a modest 5.2% increase in average from $192,851 (the median was identical).

The overall clearance rate is 62.7% (655 sold from 1,044 catalogued). That is slightly lower than last year’s 65.7% for books 1 and 2 (753/1,146). That percentage of horses sold from the number catalogued will increase as the sale moves forward.

A good sale is hard to define, but I know one when I see it, and the 2012 Keeneland September yearling sale has been a good one … so far.

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