One of the comments that resonated after the first session of Keeneland‘s September yearling sale was that “this was a sale with a lid on top.” Although the pricing at the sale remained stable to modestly increased, the auction definitely had a sense of compartmentalization.
Usually, this is felt most in the low and middle ranges of the sales market, where supply exceeds demand on a regular basis and where only realistic valuation and careful cost-profit assessments will get yearlings sold. Sometimes for a profit.
The upper echelon was supposed to be immune to the inane realities of profit and loss. This is the segment of the market that the local news stations, and occasionally even the national news, will report on and give all casual observers of the sales market the impression that Thoroughbred sales are a gravy train for all involved.
That train has about come off the tracks.
Those of us who have observed the market and assessed its mechanics and challenges have known for a long time that, for the last 20 years or so, nothing at the sales is easy, even at the buoyant high end. It just looks easy (and lucrative) from the outside.
Within the top tier, there is a slice – do I dare call it a sliver? – that is still immune to everyday economics. There are a few, and increasingly just a very few, horses that transcend the cost and benefit calculations and become energy in the sales ring. For those few, buyers cannot withstand the attraction.
But that sliver is so thin now, it is more luck than quality at play in this electric equation.
One colt Monday still sold for $1 million dollars, and that will not be the highest price of the year. That may not prove to be even the highest price of this September sale. But I still recall all too well the dead, dead, dead market of the early 1990s, when the sales business was just coming out of the great bloodstock depression created by the tax law changes of the late 1980s. In those barren days, a yearling that sold for $1 million was the year’s top sales price.
At present, the sales companies and horse breeders have ventured out of an economic wasteland that was only a little less disastrous than that barren time. This time, the downturn lasted longer, and yet the last couple of years have offered glimmers of hope that the market might be turning better for a majority of breeders.
But is that realistic? Is it a trend?
The balance of sales results from the preceding auctions this year have not yielded the numbers to make breeders or consignors expect any kind of regular windfall, and the September sale was widely expected to provide a broad and general sense of buyer demand for yearlings.
An opening session in a large sale such as Keeneland September can be a trifle tepid, with buyers trying to judge the strength of the market just as carefully as sellers. So it would be precipitous to make too much of Monday’s session at Keeneland.
But the sense of consignors and breeders at this and other sales in the 2016 season has been that there is a strong upper limit on what buyers are prepared to pay. And what I saw today and have heard others say about the buying activity today indicates a powerful, rather polarizing, upper limit.
And the cause, I believe, is too much of a good thing.
There was no scarcity of nice yearlings. Keeneland, breeders, and consignors have played their parts in bringing to market a lot of young prospects who have the size, muscularity, and “look” of a premium sales yearling.
The rub may be that there are actually too many good ones.
In a sale dominated by a dozen or so upper-tier sires, the dominance of their offspring at the top end of the sales tables is no surprise, but the volume of very appealing yearlings by each of these sires dilutes the demand for the others.
The effect of oversupply has been felt for a long time at the lesser end of the sales, but the leveling effect from oversaturation of the very best sires has put a lid on even the top of the market.