September Song – By Evan Hammonds

We could sense it from the moment we opened the doors to the Keeneland sales pavilion for Book 1 of the September yearling sale. While the feeling wasn’t exactly the crackling, electric atmosphere of the old days of the July yearling sales in the 1980s or of certain nights when the power of suggestion takes over at Saratoga at the Humphrey S. Finney Pavilion, it was pretty darn close. There was a buzz in the air…a buzz that has been missing from the Thoroughbred auction arena for some time.

Consignors felt it, buyers sensed it, and by the time Sept. 11 had turned to night, some $54 million changed hands for 95 yearlings that had gone through the auction ring. That’s a heady figure for any given business on any given day.

The momentum for this year’s yearling crop to come to market—with nearly 20% of the entire crop cataloged to go through the ring at Keeneland over 12 sessions—has been building throughout the year. It started with stronger 2-year-old sales and higher-than-anticipated gains in the first few major yearling sales. There seems a more concerted effort by the industry to row as one in promoting the American-made Thoroughbred.

Let’s hope it continues.

“When we opened the door to start showing on Friday, it was like opening the floodgates,” said Tom Thornbury, Keeneland’s associate director of sales operations. “We haven’t seen that in a while. Usually there are the real sharp guys who like to get in early, but this was a flood.

“It’s a lot of different things,” he said of what has attracted buyers to Kentucky in September. “Our little friend in North Korea didn’t light up another candle. The hurricane (Irma) was not as bad as we thought it could be. The value of the dollar is down considerably against the yen and other currencies. It’s an advantageous time for an international buyer to be here.”

A key component is the weak dollar, which gives foreign entities buying power. Just one of many examples on the day came from John Stuart of Bluegrass Thoroughbred Services who sold a War Front—Theyskens’ Theory colt for $1.2 million to Sheikh Hamdan’s Shadwell Estate midway through the first session.

“He sold with no reserve,” Stuart said. “There are buyers from everywhere. There are more buyers here than I’ve seen at this sale in a long time.”

While Stuart admitted he had a “special horse,” he also noted he had “a great variety of buyers. My three finalists were Shadwell, a Japanese group, and an American buyer. There are plenty of people here from all over.

“The market’s good, but it is still hit or miss,” he concluded.

Another consignor confessed his team caught a few “red lights,” or RNAs, that crimped the good vibe that was going on throughout the sale arena. His outfit wasn’t alone.

While the money is there for the right horse, especially if it is by Tapit or War Front, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of froth in the rest of the market. Consignors hoping to get just over the edge to the next level with an additional bid or two ended up satisfied, but not ecstatic.

There are also plenty of undercurrents at play in today’s market. Some transactions aren’t always as they seem—we’ve never been to a horse sale yet where they are. Partnering—both buying and selling—has changed the dynamic over the last few years. A good number of recorded sales are actually people buying out partners, so the dollar figures might not be 100% complete.

But this Sept. 11 was the right day. Let’s hope the momentum can carry through for the remainder of the selling season.