With the Keeneland January sale, held on Jan. 11 – 15 this year, firing the first bullet in its five-shot cylinder, it’s hard to recall that Keeneland hasn’t sponsored a full schedule of sales since the beginning of time. Founded in 1936, Keeneland did not get to pounding the drum at the sales until several years later.

There was reason for that. The Keeneland Association was first set up to return racing to the Bluegrass in the wretched depths of the Great Depression. The racing was first-rate, and the returns from the public, as well as the support of owners and trainers, made Keeneland a superstar success.

Then, as the country pieced its way out of the Depression, the Second World War made its impact on Keeneland with wartime restrictions on travel and a “request” not to conduct a suburban race meeting during the years 1943-1945.

Although the Association was able to arrange to race its dates at Churchill Downs, the restrictions on railroad travel prompted auctions to be held at Keeneland, with the first one being held on August 9-11, 1943, under a tent in the Keeneland paddock.

Many of the same people who played important roles in the Keeneland Association got together as the building blocks of the Breeders Sales Company, which became the corporate body that ran the sales at Keeneland. This began an exceptional period of growth in horse sales in Kentucky, but I doubt that even the Breeders Sales Company’s far-sighted horsemen, such H.P. Headley or A.B. Hancock, hoped for such a phenomenon as they had just created.

In commentary about the inaugural sale in American Race Horses of 1943, racing columnist John Hervey reported: “Before the first lot was led into the ring, the air was full of doubt and apprehension. When the last one was led out, the consignors were pinching themselves to make sure they were not dreaming … [because the] average received for their offerings had soared to … more than three times Saratoga’s for 1942.”

The initial sale at Keeneland in the summer of 1943 had been a great success, and the following year, the Breeders Sales Co. began conducting fall sales, as well as their showcase in the summer.

One of the reasons for the lasting success and increasing attention given to the Keeneland sales was the undisputed quality of its offered livestock. At the first Keeneland summer sale, Hip 134 was a nice-looking bay colt by leading sire Sir Gallahad III, a French-bred son of the great sire Teddy and already the sire of 1930 Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox and 1940 Kentucky Derby winner Gallahadion. and Fred Hooper bought that good-sized, good-moving colt for $10,200 and named him Hoop Jr. Twenty-one months later, Hooper stood in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs, holding a lead on the 1945 Kentucky Derby winner.

There is nothing that ensures the popularity of a sale so much as offering winners of the major races, especially the Kentucky Derby, and the summer sale at Keeneland produced the additional Kentucky Derby winners Jet Pilot (auctioned in 1945), Dark Star (1951), and Determine (1952) during its first decade of operation.

That is some record.

Over the years, the fall sales at Keeneland eventually became two auctions: the September sale for yearlings and the November sale, primarily for weanlings and broodmares or broodmare prospects. In 1962, the Breeders Sales Company was dissolved, and the Keeneland Association took over running the sales, as well as the racing meets.

One of the subsequent winners of the Kentucky Derby sold at Keeneland was 1970 classic winner Dust Commander (Bold Commander), who sold at the 1968 September yearling sale for $6,500. Dust Commander was the first Kentucky Derby winner sold out of the September sale.

An attractive colt with a fairish pedigree, Dust Commander ushered in a degree of respect for the fall yearling sales that was hard earned. The fanciest individuals and the glorious pedigrees still continued to adorn the summer sale for a couple more decades, but the handy little chestnut who literally skipped across the mud to win both the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, then the Derby under remarkably similar conditions, was a herald for the coming day.

Today, the September sale and its breeding stock companion in November are the largest sales in the world, and Keeneland’s January sale, running this week, is notably smaller but nonetheless offers more horses annually than are auctioned over the course of a year in many racing countries.

Into such mighty oaks they have grown.


Editor’s note: The following note came in from a reader and appears below:

Got a story about Dust Commander. He broke his maiden at Delaware Park as a 2-yr. old. I was walking through the owner/trainer parking lot when a chestnut horse threw Eldon Nelson off in the pre-race warm up. Eldon, as good a rider as anyone, landed on his feet and held onto the reins. “Red” the outrider, galloped up, got off his pony, and threw Nelson back up on the horse. As he did, he said to Nelson, “they ought to break these son-a bit*hes before they run them, eh Eldon.” Nelson, nonplussed, continued the warm up, broke Dust Commander sharply, and commenced to ride the hair off the little brat and won pretty easy.