Setting The Tone - By Evan Hammonds

In speaking with consignors and buyers as they hustle to get ready for the start of the 12-session Keeneland September sale, we were reminded of a series in The Blood-Horse that ran before the September sale in 2000. The concept—dubbed “Reflections”—was simple: gather a handful of the great sale consignors, put them in a room with a recording device, bring in James E. “Ted” Bassett III to moderate, and let them spin some tales.

The transcript of the conversation among the likes of John A. Bell III, Charles Nuckols Jr., Stanley Petter Jr., Carter Thornton, and Dr. R. Smiser West is pure gold. About midway through the three-part series, the subject of the colorful Leslie Combs came up. The master of Spendthrift Farm, Combs was ever the showman when it came time for the yearling sales.

As Bassett acknowledged Combs’ flair for adding a social element to the sales proceedings, Nuckols recalled:

“I think one of the greatest things Les started was when we had the old Breeders’ Sales Co. Remember when we used to meet down at the old radio building? All the consignors would be in there, in the Elbow Room. And we’d draw straws to see who was going to sell on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday. I think one year Les drew Friday, and he didn’t like it. Well, nobody liked it that drew on Friday. But he got up and said, ‘Just give me Monday. I want to see the first day because I want to set the tone of this sale.’ And he did.

“He had them sold before they walked in the ring. And actually it made every other yearling in the sale better.”

Keeneland is out to make this year’s sale better by revamping its Book 1 format with a single “select” session. A look at the 10 consignors with more than five yearlings in Book 1 begins on page 26.

The hope is to set the tone for the sale that runs through Sept. 23 with 4,138 hips cataloged.

In addition to a super concentrated Book 1, Keeneland has listened to buyers who want to look at as many horses as they can in the first week of the sale. The select portion—which has 167 yearlings cataloged—is followed by a deeper Book 2, bringing some 1,200 horses to go through the ring leading up to the dark day Sept. 15.

“Our goal is to have more horses before the break and start the sale on a high note,” said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland’s director of sales. “We have increased the number of horses before the break by nearly double…it’s 1,203 now.

“Having been to Saratoga and talking with the trainers and buyers up there, they are very happy there are more horses. So between Books 1 and 2, and the dark day, when you can look at the Book 3 horses—and that’s another 800 horses—buyers can pretty much look at about 2,000 horses in the first week. That was the goal for us.”

The goal, of course, is for a healthy market. Despite the polarization in today’s marketplace, the first major yearling sales conducted by Fasig-Tipton in Kentucky and New York have seen robust bidding by a wide array of buyers. The mood is good, and buyers and sellers seem anxious to continue at Keeneland.

“One thing about the September sale is everybody is excited about it,” Russell said. “It’s that time of the year.”

When told of the Combs comment, Russell laughed, and said: “Leslie always wanted to get the money before it ran out.”

Here’s hoping the tone of the 2017 yearling season has staying power.

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