The Cat in the Picture - By Evan Hammonds

Commerce is key to any industry, and thankfully the folks at Fasig-Tipton and the Keeneland Association did a yeoman’s job in just being able to conduct yearling sales amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thoroughbred breeders and consignors have to be most grateful for all of the hard work behind bringing in more than $300 million through the auction houses in Central Kentucky (Fasig-Tipton recorded more than $61 million in receipts and Keeneland nearly $249 million).

The Keeneland sale, with nearly 2,500 yearlings sold, is the bellwether sale of the industry. There from day one, Book 1, Sept. 13, and offering two hips on the last day, Sept. 25, was E. Beau Lane. The Virginian-turned-Kentucky hardboot has been at this business for around 30 years, so his perception on this year’s market is worth a listen.

“We’re surviving, and people are going through the yearlings and picking out the ones they think they’ll do the best with,” he said as he prepped his last pair. “They are leaving a lot of them…the ones that have anything on their repository sheet. They’ve got to be almost clean…that knocks a lot of them out. I’ve only got seven or eight (yearlings) out of 28 that were ‘clean.’ It’s hard to raise these things in a big field with 12-14 others and not come up with a little ding…but that’s just the way to get a racehorse.”

For the record Beau Lane Bloodstock sold 16 of 20 hips for $1,595,000 at Keeneland. On day 1 he was bold when he RNA’d a yearling for $430,000 and on the last day he moved one of two for $31,000.

“It’s not as bad as 2009 (Great Recession) when the bottom fell out,” he said. “And when the planes flew into the towers (2001), people just left town, and there was nobody here to buy horses. I was here with Deheres with a $15,000 stud fee selling for $3,000. I don’t think this is near as bad as those two years. I don’t think this could have been any better than it’s been.

“I’m really happy to have had this good of a sale…people are still up here looking…like D. Wayne Lukas used to say, ‘There are people still trying to find the cat in the picture.’ ”

The cat in the picture might be a lot harder to find in the future. Yearling buyers need to have confidence in racing’s purse structure before being asked to pony up on investments that need a year or two to  mature.

Purses at the New York Racing Association, which have soared in recent years, have been crimped by the closure of casinos in the state due to the pandemic. The picture on a full return to that type of revenue is murky at best. Soaring purses in Kentucky might be in jeopardy with the ruling by the Kentucky Supreme Court Sept. 24 that one brand of historical racing in the state is not pari-mutuel (see page 12). Thankfully that decision came down on the next-to-last day of the sale.

The yearling sale results, essentially $100 million less than a year ago, are sure to have an effect on the November sales in the breeding stock market. In examining sale results from 2000-02 and 2007-09, the late fall markets basically mirror the yearling sale results…and not to be a downer, but in both instances the market took an even more precipitous drop during the second year of the downturn. One thing to keep in mind is from 2000-02 there was also a double-down effect with the events of Sept. 11 and Central Kentucky’s Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome. But who is to guess what will be the continuing effects from COVID-19?

We’re pleased that some people were happy with the monetary results from September, but as Lane said, “This whole thing…it is a piece of what it was. This is not the normal Keeneland sale.”

We’ve been wrong many times—and hope we are here—but we expect that there will be more sellers than buyers come November.

If it adds any solace, Lane left the sale with one more pearl of wisdom in preparation of the breeding stock market: “When the tide goes out, you can see who’s wearing the swim trunks.”

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