After lunch on Monday, Sept. 21, the Keeneland September yearling sale passed its numerical midpoint. The 2,083rd yearling went through the ring of the 4,164 yearlings consigned to the world’s largest yearling auction, which began on Sept. 14 and concluded on the 26th.
There are actually 12 days of selling in that 13-day span. After the three days that occupy Book 1, there is a free day, during which consignors try to get their wheels spinning the right way to simultaneously manage a double-handed slam dunk of Book 2 horses, many of whom are just as good as others in Book 1, and to carry the rest of their sales horses and staff through the whirlwind of activity that stops only near the end of the month.
As the first week closed, the early signs of fatigue began to show among those whose daily work is making every young racing prospect look as good as possible and show itself with the authority and presence that marks a nice prospect.
Some of them just don’t want to coöperate.
A few are spooky about the weird sounds and unnatural sights that surround them, and I can’t blame them. It’s a big change from the farm and the pastoral beauty where many were raised. But as one petite handler said, “They have to get their rear ends with the program, and I am the program director.”
She’s right because this is the first step in a series of steps, hurdles, challenges, and perplexing obstacles that young horses have to accept, learn to handle, and overcome as the next generation of wee racehorses.
One of the things each of them has to learn to accept with confidence, without fear or aggression, is having strangers inspect them, touch them, and handle them. I know this because I touch some of the nicest young horses in the world every year as part of my work in measuring and evaluating their promise as racehorses.
And some of these yearlings don’t see the value of my existence at all. A few would right kindly like to kick me into next month. That has not happened in part because of the knowledgeable and intuitive handlers that are part of the sales. A really good handler can keep a rascally yearling from expressing itself too vigorously.
Yet among the nervous and overbearing, there are others who are quiet and sometimes even regally composed. Some are quite strong and sizable yearlings, like American Pharoah at Saratoga two years ago. Big, strong, and well-grown as an August sale yearling, he was nonetheless a self-possessed animal whose character even then was a manifest asset to his prospects as a racehorse.
As recollections of champions or memories of interesting youngsters who never earn a headline, the volume of horses and the number of inspections ought to make the individuals blur into oblivion, but they somehow do not.
The sea of young horses in shades of brown is every teenage horse lover’s dream, and yet I don’t get caught up in that side of it. The perspective of years and horses adds understanding to what these new young athletes are attempting, and there is no question that some of them will pass the post with colors flying.
Perhaps one of them will be the lovely Curlin filly who sold Monday as Hip 2061 for $975,000 to top the session. Curlin, one of the hottest stallions in the nation, sired three of the four highest-priced lots in the midpoint session, with a pair of colts, Hips 2203 and 2093, bringing $430,000 and $380,000.
What a long, strange journey it has been for Curlin, selling out of this portion of the sale, then first becoming a Horse of the Year and now a leading sire.
Just 10 years ago, at the 2005 Keeneland September sale, Kenny McPeek picked out a grand chestnut colt, just loved the colt he told me, and bought him for $57,000 out of the Eaton Sales consignment. McPeek managed to find clients to buy the big colt, and in time, that colt grew up to win his maiden in crushing style.
When Jess Jackson bought into the colt, by then named Curlin, history had begun to unfold.
But it all started when the growthy chestnut colt, Hip 2261, went through the ring at Keeneland in September.