Steady as She Goes - By Eric Mitchell

Subdued optimism best sums up the tenor of the Keeneland September yearling sale’s opening session Sept. 8.

Throughout much of the day, trade felt more like Book Three than Book One, lacking an undercurrent of excitement and anticipation that is often present when the best of the best are being sold. Not to say the market was soft or participants were unhappy. The action was solid as indicated by a quite healthy 22.5% rise in the median price, from $200,000 a year ago to $245,000. Yet the air was far from electric, and the traders—both buyers and sellers—seemed happiest that horses were simply changing hands rather than elated over any windfalls.

A year ago the kickoff to the world’s largest Thoroughbred yearling auction featured four yearlings that sold for more than $1 million, while this year only two seven-figure fillies spiced up the opener. John Ferguson paid $1.2 million for a daughter of Bernardini out of the multiple graded stakes winner Mushka, and a $1.1 million daughter of Curlin out of the dam of two-time champion Beholder and of stallion Into Mischief went to John Malone’s Bridlewood Farm.

It was an exceptional day for Clarkland Farm, Fred and Nancy Mitchell and Marty Buckner’s family-run commercial breeding operation in Fayette County that has been selling at Keeneland for more than four decades. The Mitchells bred and sold the $1.1 million Curlin filly out of their mare Leslie’s Lady, whom they had bought in 2006 for $100,000. The now 18-year-old daughter of Tricky Creek had been a most fortuitous purchase. One year after Clarkland bought Leslie’s Lady, her 2005 colt Into Mischief (by Harlan’s Holiday) would become a grade I winner. There might have been questions of whether Into Mischief had been the best to come since he was followed by only a couple of modest runners, but then came Leslie’s Lady’s 2010 filly by Henny Hughes named Beholder. Spendthrift Farm would win five grade I races with Beholder and collect two Eclipse trophies, one for 2-year-old filly championship honors and one for top 3-year-old filly honors. While Beholder was dazzling the racing world as a juvenile, Into Mischief had begun making a name for himself as a stallion by finishing third on the leading first-crop sire list of 2012. The brillinace of both  Beholder and Into Mischief laid the foundation for Clarkland’s home run at the September sale with “one of the best-moving fillies I’ve ever had on the farm,” according to Fred Mitchell. It was a moment most breeders of their size only see in their dreams and a just reward for a family that has devoted much to the industry.

The Keeneland September sale has seen significant gains since 2009, rising from an overall median of $22,000 the year following the initial jarring effects of the Great Recession to $50,000 last year.  Also in 2013 the fireworks didn’t show up until sessions three and four. The sale’s top-selling horse, a War Front colt named Treaty of Rome sold for $2.5 million on Thursday of the first week, and the day before a filly named I’ll Take Charge (Indian Charlie—Take Charge Lady), had sold for $2.2 million.

So maybe the fireworks are still ahead of us. Maybe the electricity will crackle before the Friday break, and those in the sale pavilion will have to fight the urge to applaud before a yearling leaves the auction ring following an engaging bidding war. There are certainly plenty of candidates that could stir the emotions.

But even if the uppermost purchases don’t quite hit the same highs as last year and the middle market remains stronger, with the median tracking ahead by double-digit percent increases, most will come away from the first week of the 13-day marathon feeling good.  The commercial market has climbed out of the chasm created by the Great Recession and seems on a steady path upward.

As Keeneland sales director Geoffrey Russell put it following the Monday session: “If it is more of the same for the remainder of the week, that’s fine with us.”

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