New Formula - by Evan Hammonds

(Originally published in the March 16, 2013 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

By Evan Hammonds - @BH_EHammonds on Twitter

By Evan Hammonds Certain iconic brands should never be messed with. The formula for Coca-Cola, Kentucky Fried Chicken’s secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices, and Saratoga quickly come to mind. On the flip side, other brands—fashion and the automobile industries, for example—are in constant flux, depending on the whims of the marketplace.

Buying and selling Thoroughbreds fall to the latter category. Keeneland announced a new sales format for its 2013 September yearling sale last week. Anyone listening to consignors and buyers in the early days of last year’s sale weren’t surprised.

Money dries up in hard economic times. Less demand sees foal crops shrink. Markets shift. That Keeneland is nimble enough to tweak the sale year after year shows the sale company’s attentiveness to its customers.

The main change for this fall’s auction is the redesign of the first four days that for years has offered yearlings considered at the top end of the crop. The approximate 950 yearlings on offer Sept. 9-12 will be called “Book One” yearlings. Following the traditional off day, Friday, Sept. 13, the sale will resume with a two-day Book Two, Sept. 14-15, and Books Three-Six, Sept. 16-20.

Last year 132 horses were part of a “super select” Book One that was offered Monday, Sept. 10, followed by a three-day Book 2 that ran Tuesday-Thursday. In 2011 the select Book One horses were sold during a pair of evening sessions on Sunday and Monday.

“Some people may think you ought to be able to pick out the good horses and have them in one session,” said Duncan Taylor of Taylor Made Sales Agency. “The problem is, when you’re picking them out, you don’t know how they’re going to vet; you don’t know how they’re going to grow in the next two or three months, and a lot of things change. It’s not as easy to get all the best horses in one session, but at least now you’ll get a great number of quality horses for the buyers to come look at. The buyers, hopefully, will show up for all four days because the horses will be evenly spread through the four days.”

If anything, the smaller Book One suffered from the perception it was only for the highest-end buyers in the marketplace with many buyers waiting to dive into the Book Two horses that they thought would be more affordable. With a one-day “super select” session, there wasn’t enough “critical mass” according to Michael Hernon, director of sales for Gainesway.

While the biggest impact comes at the upper-end of the market, the remainder of the sale figures to remain strong. The middle and lower ends have rebounded quite well over the last two years as Keeneland officials have excelled in bringing in foreign buyers to broaden the base for that segment of the market.

Gone—for now—are the black-tie affairs of selling select yearlings in Kentucky. Keeneland’s July yearling market withered and was discontinued after the 2002 auction.

“Markets change,” said Three Chimneys Farm’s Case Clay. “In 20 years we might be back at a select sale, but for now, and the market that is here, I think Keeneland has adapted well.”
The iconic brands always find a way.

Remembering Jessica Bell

We note with sadness the passing of Jessica Gay Bell March 14. Her husband of 60 years, John A. Bell III, passed away in February 2007. Together they had major impacts on the racing and local community, with John Bell guiding The Blood-Horse as president of The Blood-Horse Inc.

The couple developed Jonabell Farm on Bowman’s Mill Road—raising 1967 Horse of the Year Damascus and breeding and racing champion and Breeders’ Cup winner Epitome—and raised four children who are active pillars in the business today.

Her departure leaves Lexington, and the Thoroughbred industry, with a little less charm and a lot less grace.

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