When Big Isn't Necessarily a Good Thing

One of the Keeneland September yearling sale's biggest strengths is its large number of horses. With thousands of yearlings on offer, there is a horse to suit nearly every taste in pedigree and conformation and to fit every pocketbook. The auction is a one-stop shopping destination that often has been compared to Wal-Mart with its large variety of merchandise -- from food, to clothing, to the latest electronic gadgets.

But this year, what traditionally has been the September auction's biggest strength will be its greatest liability. Even though the number of horses cataloged, 5,189, is down from a year ago, the supply probably will outstrip demand, which has been declining because of the wretched economy that, finally, is showing some signs of bottoming out. Downturns at many other yearling auctions have been 20% or more and even have topped 30%. Keeneland seems destined to experience similar setbacks.

Fasig-Tipton's Saratoga select yearling sale was an anomaly in the marketplace of 2009. Sale company officials, to their credit, created a perfect, Disneyland-like atmosphere with a small number of high quality horses, newly renovated facilities, and an appearance, for the first time in more than 20 years, by big-spending Sheikh Mohammed, whose associate heads the company that owns Fasig-Tipton. The auction provided a welcome relief from all the bad news, but its results did not reflect the grim reality of the current Thoroughbred auction environment.

Keeneland, with its open door September policy that welcomes all types of yearling to its sale ring, wouldn't have been able to change its fate much by getting a major buyer of  he past to return and make a personal appearance or by attracting a few better horses than usual. The sheer number of yearlings that will be sold would have diluted the impact of any positive development.

So, does all that mean that the September sale will be a long, drawn out slog, with nothing for its participants to anticipate. Not necessarily. The presence of the Overbrook Farm dispersal horses will give buyers an opportunty to purchase yearlings with bloodlines that are rarely available at public auction. The offspring of that nursery's great pensioned sire, Storm Cat, also will generate some excitement because the opportunities to own one of the stallion's sons or daughters are dwindling. There are only three horses in his final crop that will be in the yearling class of 2010, and there's no guarantee that any of their owners will decide to sell them.

Among the other horses in the September sale, there will be a few pleasant surprises, with a handful bringing much more than their consignors expected because of their physical attributes or timely updates in their pedigrees. Unfortunately, when a catalog has thousands of horses in it, the vast majority are ordinary or inferior individuals. The inferior always suffer, but this year the prices for the ordinary probably will be down more than usual because with money tight and training expenses remaining high, fewer people will be willing to take a chance on something that doesn't already look like the real deal.

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