After some time to reflect on the select portion of the Keeneland September yearling sale, I've decided to give it a grade of B+. Designed to provide more excitement and glamour, the nighttime sessions delivered on the former and produced - as Dogwood Stable Cot Campbell said - "a glimmer" of the latter.
The auctioneers and bid spotters didn't wear tuxedos, and while many buyers and consignors spiffed up their clothing for the two evenings, no one would have mistaken the sale for the Academy Awards, Emmy, Grammy or even the MTV Video Music Awards. The sale pavilion was crowded, which is great if you're trying to create a buzz but an annoyance when you're a journalist trying to chase down a buyer on a deadline and someone pushes a baby stroller in front of you. (Yes, I do know that nobody cares about journalists.)
Helping to boost the excitement level was the emergence of a big-spending new buyer, the happy, outgoing Benjamin Leon Jr., who was a refreshing change from the sometimes sullen and secretive shoppers who don't seem to understand why they're attracting a lot of attention when they buy a gazillion-dollar (back in the good old days) horse. A public auction means public, and Leon was delighted to be the spotlight.
The roughest spot was the transition to book two of the sale catalog. The second select session got over late in the evening and a lot of people had to be ready to be back at Keeneland to work early the next morning. An improvement would be to start the select sessions earlier than 7 p.m. (who gets a chance to eat a good dinner beforehand anyway?) or begin the first session in book two later than 10 a.m. to give everybody a chance to sleep in. It also wouldn't hurt to sell fewer horses in that first book two session to provide an easier day.
The select format change included offering significantly fewer horses and a promise from Keeneland officials to emphasize conformation more in their selection process. There were some really wonderful horses - the $4.2 million A.P. Indy - Balance colt was a dazzler - but there were also some duds (some failing not because Keeneland made a mistake but because they didn't mature as expected). One bloodstock agent called it a mixed bag.
Based on what consignors said, they are still being allowed to put horses that qualify for the select sessions into Book 2 if they want. They need to bite the bullet and put them in the select part of the sale if the horses qualify and Keeneland officials need to be tougher about making them do it.
Keeneland took a risk and for the most part it paid off, creating a positive atmosphere that made consignors feel better even though they were still struggling to make money and making it fun for buyers, who often get into this business to be entertained. The average and median prices rose from last year - as they should have with a smaller catalog. That was better than the recent past, when prices dropped at the start of the auction in a sale pavilion full of empty seats.