The 2019 renewal of the Keeneland September Yearling Sale didn't keep up with last year's record-setting edition when it came to the measurables. Even so, the returns from this year's auction established a steady cruising altitude for the marketplace, showing it's fully clear of the Great Recession that brought the Thoroughbred industry to a screeching halt a decade ago, and it proved it can still hit some of the pre-bust economy's most dizzying heights.
A lot has changed from then to now, but two pillars remain unweathered from the glory days of the mid-2000s: The first is that horse that ticks all the proverbial boxes will bring serious money. The second is, if the horse ticks them with authority, Godolphin and the Coolmore partnership will meet in the back ring to do battle for them.
Those two core tenets helped drive returns at this year's 13-day sale to near-record heights, but the average and median returns finishing within range of their all-time high points display it was not strictly a top-heavy marketplace.
A total of 2,885 horses changed hands over the course of the marathon sale for revenues of $360,004,700, down 5 percent from last year's renewal when 2,916 yearlings sold for $377,130,400. It finished as the fifth highest-grossing edition of Keeneland September in the auction's history, and it was the second-best performance since 2008, trailing only last year's sale.
The average sale price kept a neck-and-neck pace with last year's record return of $129,331 until the final hours of the auction on Sunday, but it ultimately finished as the second-best average in the history of the Keeneland September sale at $126,095, down 3 percent.
The median sale price finished at $45,000, down 10 percent from $50,000. The figure tied for the sixth-highest in the sale's history, equaling the marks achieved in 2006 and 2012.
The buyback rate finished at 24 percent, unchanged from last year.
“I would say we're very pleased with the level of trade that occurred from the beginning and carried through all the way through Book 6,” said Bob Elliston, Keeneland's vice president of racing and sales. “A lot of trade is occurring here at each segment of the market, and that's what Keeneland does, and we're pretty proud of that.”
At the top of the marketplace, 22 horses sold for seven figures, which was down from last year's 27. However, it still marked the second-most yearlings to reach that mark since 2007. Horses sold for $500,000 or more declined to 137 from 146, while purchases at $250,000 and above dipped to 453 from 492. Total six-figure purchases finished at 978, down from 1,077.
One of the consistent aspects of the Keeneland September sale over the past half-decade is an annual retooling of the auction's early books. After opening up the catalog for four packed days of Book 1, Keeneland tightened up its select portion to three days, and also decreased the number of horses offered in Book 2.
Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales operations, said tightening up the top portion of the catalog helped push more quality into the middle market sessions, both in terms of horses and buyers.
“The new format, I think, worked very well,” Russell said. “Book 1 was a sale within itself. There was so much more energy on the grounds on Saturday and Sunday than I've seen in a long time. It just had a great buzz.”
While the market appears to have reached a steady level comparable to the pre-recession boom, that does not mean money was flying from the pavilion seats for anything on four legs. Sellers and buyers throughout the auction's two weeks noted that money and competition was there for the best offerings of a given session, but maximizing revenues from horses with holes in their resumes remained as difficult as ever.
“Anything with quality that you're able to get through the vetting, and have a good day in the barns and in the back ring, exceeded our expectations,” said Tommy Eastham of Legacy Bloodstock. “It's just typical of what the horse business is. It's polarized, and everybody left in the business is pretty smart.
“The recession of 2008 probably removed some of the not-so-educated horsemen, but the economy is good, and people want to buy good horses,” he continued. “Purses are going up. It's Book 6 and we've still been showing the whole time and still have the demand for horses. I think it's still going to take a good horse to get through it all and achieve a big price, but the reward is pretty high if you can get through it.”
Pope Secures Record-Priced American Pharoah Filly For $8.2 million
While Godolphin and Coolmore regularly traded blows when the air got thin in the Book 1 market, it was Mandy Pope of Whisper Hill Farm who walked away from central Kentucky with the auction's most expensive prize.
At the end of an extended bidding battle that had bidspotters yelping around the pavilion like popcorn in a kettle, the hammer fell on an American Pharoah filly out of 2016 Broodmare of the Year Leslie's Lady for $8.2 million. It was the highest price ever commanded for a filly at the Keeneland September sale, and tied for the fourth-most expensive horse in the auction's history.
“She was the only horse in the sale I really wanted,” Pope said. “This is probably going to put me out of shopping in November. I think I've pretty much gone through my broodmare budget…I'm getting older. I'm going through the final phases of what I'm going to do with my life, and this is what I want to do.”
The previous record price for a filly at the Keeneland September sale was Moon's Whisper, a Storm Cat filly who sold to Shadwell Estate Co. Ltd. for $4.4 million at the 2000 renewal. Her hammer price tied her for the fourth-highest overall price with Act of Diplomacy, a Storm Cat colt who sold to Godolphin at the 2006 sale.
Godolphin also bought the three horses Wednesday's top horse looks up to on the all-time chart: The Kingmambo colt Meydan City ($11.7 million, 2006), the Storm Cat colt Jalil ($9.7 million, 2005), and the Danzig colt Plavius ($9.2 million, 2006).
In addition to the star runners under the produce record of Leslie's Lady, the Tricky Creek mare is the dam of three additional stakes-producing mares. Beyond anything the filly could do on the racetrack, Pope said the residual value she presented as a future broodmare prospect made her a horse worth taking a stand.
“You can't fault her,” Pope said. “She's perfectly balanced, she's gorgeous. She's not too big, not too small. Obviously, we're hoping Beholder hits as a broodmare, and she certainly has tremendous value should she not make it to the races, for whatever reason. Like anything else, it's a big gamble. Fingers crossed, lots of prayers, and please wish us well.”
Pope said the filly would be sent to her Citra, Fla., farm, where she recently had a new training center constructed.
Clarkland Farm of Lexington, Ky., bred the sale-topper and offered her at the Keeneland September sale. It was a return to the top of the sale for both the Clarkland Farm operation and Leslie's Lady, who were responsible for 2016 Keeneland September topper Mendelssohn, who sold to the Coolmore partnership for $3 million.
“It's something we never dreamed of in our life,” said Clarkland's Fred Mitchell. “We dream of breeding a nice horse and this is what it's all about for the little consignors and the small guy. The farm has been in the family since 1774 and it'll be there for the children for the rest of their lives. We're keeping two fillies out of the old mare, this is the last one to sell out of her. The fillies will stay there for the kids and grandkids.
Sheikh Mohammed, Godolphin Show Up In Force
If history is any indicator, when Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum shows up to the Keeneland September sale in person, business is likely to pick up.
It was true in 2018, when the ruler of Dubai showed up to the September sale for the first time in several years as part of a swing through the U.S. that also included the World Equestrian Games, and it was true in 2019, where his Godolphin operation was the leading buyer, with 10 purchases totaling $16 million. It was the second consecutive year that Sheikh Mohammed's operation was the sale's leading buyer.
Godolphin secured four of the auction's five most expensive offerings, only missing the overall topper to fill out the slate.
Among the new horses picked to one day run under the Godolphin blue were a $4.1-million Curlin colt out of New Zealand champion sprinter Bounding, a $2.9-million War Front colt out of Kentucky Oaks winner Believe You Can, a $2.5-million half-brother to champion and Darley stallion Nyquist by Tapit, and a $2.15-million Medaglia d'Oro colt out of Grade 1 winner Tara's Tango.
Keeneland's staff was notified that Sheikh Mohammed was in central Kentucky on the Saturday evening before the beginning of the sale. His international inspection team had been on the sales grounds well in advance of his arrival, and pointed him toward their top picks for his own inspection. When he made the call to bid on a horse, Sheikh Mohammed and his entourage filled the back ring of the pavilion.
Russell noted the change in atmosphere from the Godolphin camp when its leader is in town, but Russell said that effect can be felt from outfits playing at any level.
“Having principals here, yes there are agents, but when they have their principal with them, it's a huge change because they have more confidence,” he said. “All of a sudden, if you're told to go buy a horse for $200,000, if he's right next to you he might say, 'Bid again.' If he wasn't here, you couldn't bid again.”
Many of Godolphin's purchases came at the conclusion of bidding battles with deep-pocketed rival Coolmore, and Elliston said those high-dollar scraps could be part of the appeal for the Sheikh when it comes to deciding whether he will attend the sales.
“He's a competitive gentleman,” Elliston said. “He rides competitively with his endurance horses, and he loves the racing and winning races. I think what Book 1 of Keeneland September offers him is the highest level in the auction ring. He knows the world's top buyers are here. He has wonderful homebred horses, but as these great yearlings come to market, he knows they're here and there are other strong buyers looking for those, and I think he probably enjoys the competition part of that, as well.”
American Pharoah, War Front Top The Sire Lists
The second-crop year is typically a regression period for young stallions after the initial spike of the previous season. For Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, he only got stronger.
The 2015 Horse of the Year and resident of Ashford Stud led all sires by gross sales during the 2019 Keeneland September sale, with 55 yearlings sold for a combined $24,044,000, edging out Spendthrift Farm's Into Mischief with 68 horses bringing $23,438,000.
In such a tight race, it goes without saying that the sale of the record-priced $8.2-million sale-topping filly had a big hand in tipping the race in American Pharoah's favor. Removing the sale-topper from the equation, American Pharoah would have still finished sixth by gross among the Keeneland September sires.
His final gross was a 23 percent improvement over the performance of his first crop in 2018, when 47 yearlings brought $19,585,000. He finished third by gross that sale.
Claiborne Farm's War Front was the top sire by average sale price, among those with 10 or more sold, with 14 yearlings changing hands for an average of $579,643. It was the second consecutive September sale in which War Front accomplished the feat, and the third time in five years, after reaching the top for the first time in 2015.
The most expensive War Front of this year's sale was Hip 258, a colt out of Kentucky Oaks winner Believe You Can who went to Godolphin for the auction's third-highest price at $2.9 million.
Hill 'n' Dale Farms' Curlin was the leader by number of seven-figure horses, with five. He accounted for the auction's second-most expensive offering, Hip 274, a colt out of the New Zealand champion Bounding who sold to Godolphin for $4.1 million.
Frosted, a Darley resident, was the leading first-crop sire by gross, with 44 yearlings bringing $10,025,000. Fellow Darley stallion Nyquist was the leader of the freshman class by average, among those with 10 or more sold, with 24 horses averaging $251,375.
Taylor Made Once Again Leads Consignors By Gross
For the fifteenth time this century, Taylor Made Sales Agency finished as the leading consignor by gross, with 290 horses sold for revenues of $40,660,900. That was well clear of second-place Gainesway, which moved 160 yearlings for $29,739,000.
Leading the way for the Taylor Made consignment was Hip 519, a half-brother to Grade 1 winner Guarana by Pioneerof the Nile who sold to e Five Racing for $2.1 million.
This year marked the fifth consecutive year that Taylor Made has been the leading consignor by gross.
To view the auction's full results, click here.
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