Good Old Days - By Evan Hammonds

The market for Thoroughbred yearlings continued to roar throughout Keeneland’s September yearling sale that ended mid-afternoon Sept. 23. Despite the near washout while showing Book 1 yearlings Sept. 8, and a steady downpour that greeted the final day, there was plenty of sunshine in the ring. With 2,916 yearlings bringing more than $377 million, it was the best total haul since 2005-07 when the venerable sale company sold $384 million, $399 million, and $385 million, respectively.

Are there parallels to a decade ago? To the hot market of 2000, and even the “old days” of Keeneland’s July yearling sales of the mid 1980s?

Sure there are, but there seems to be more “reality” to this market.

For example, at the Keeneland sale in 2006, six yearlings sold for a minimum of $4 million with the sale-topper, Meydan City, bringing $11.7 million. While this year’s sale produced 27 seven-figure yearlings, the top-end was $2.4 million. This year’s median of $50,000 is much kinder than the $42,000 median of 2007. And in 2007, 4,901 yearlings went through the ring…this year 3,820.

“Back then horses brought crazy money,” said consignor Craig Bandoroff of Denali Stud. “You can still sell a horse for a lot of money—a million, two million is a lot of money, but you are not seeing four, five, seven million…stuff like that. Conversely, it is getting spread out amongst more horses. There is more breadth to the market. The highs aren’t as high, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.”

Of this year’s high-end horses, Bob Elliston, vice president of racing and sales at Keeneland, was proud to point out 14 were purchased by international buyers, 13 by domestic buyers. That does point to a broader marketplace than in 2006 when nine of the 14 yearlings that sold for at least $2 million went to international buyers, mainly Sheikh Mohammed’s agent John Ferguson and Coolmore’s Demi O’Byrne.

This year, only 10 of the 27 million-dollar yearlings were purchased by Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation and Coolmore’s M.V. Magnier.

“There’s a little more ‘floor’ than the market had back then,” said Pope McLean Sr. of Crestwood Farm. “Like today (session 11, Sept. 21), there’s a pretty good floor. Back then you didn’t have the issue with the X-rays and that stuff that has killed a lot of sales. In a lot of cases, it doesn’t affect the horses as far as running goes, but a lot of times an extremely nice individual comes up with a little OCD…that just kills the sale.”

Bandoroff concurred.

“It’s a harder market,” he said. “We didn’t have the veterinary scrutiny. These horses have to clear the bar. They have to do everything. I don’t want to say it takes a better horse, but today these horses have to pass a lot of tests. We didn’t have heart scans, DNA exams, any of that stuff. These are disqualifying factors for certain people.”

Beyond the market of a decade ago and at the turn of the century, we are a long, long way from the go-go 1980s. Just ask veteran horseman Bill Landes.

“Oh, man, those were the days. It was a lot easier then,” he mused.

“This is one hell of a market, but you can’t sell like that today. Maybe it is because there is a certain level of veterinary standard, endoscopic standards, and appearance standard in place. Back in the ’80s, the page was it. Before the sale, just for fun, I would do an in-house appraisal based on the page, and you’d be surprised how good you could get knowing sire averages and stuff like that. Now you don’t even come close, although I’m hearing more and more people look at the page first and then go to look at the individual rather than the Wayne Lukas model which was, ‘don’t even show me the page; show me the horse.’

“But you need that page,” Landes said. “You need an anchor, something to tie into the horse.”

This year’s Keeneland sale goes down as one of the best of all time. Bloodstock agent Davant Latham remarked: “Tuesday and Wednesday of Book 1 were the best sessions I’ve ever witnessed.”

We believe we’ve just witnessed some “good old days.” Regardless of how the markets treat us during the coming years, we should look back on September 2018 with fondness.

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