Observations: Keeneland September Sale — Day 1

(Hip 404, a son of Into Mischief, made his way onto the Keeneland Sale’s grounds earlier this week. He is one of 33 sons and daughters of the highly successful sire that is catalogued in Book 1 / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

The Keeneland September Yearling Sale means so much to so many in the Thoroughbred industry.

It is what the annual tobacco warehouse season used to mean to Central Kentucky’s vast and deep crop of tobacco farmers. It is what Bluegrass Airport means to both casual and business traveler throughout the region. It is equal to what University of Kentucky basketball season means to every deep-rooted Cat fan. It is more than the bourbon industry. It is more than the auto industry.

It is our culture, heritage, history and future.

It is all that — times 1,000,000.

And, it is a time of high hopes and high anxieties. Both rolled into a premium cigar that can either turn into one of the great Boston Celtics legendary coach Red Auerbach’s victory blends that he would traditionally light up on the edge of another great victory…, or where the world of economics truly can go up in smoke.

For two years, breeders have waited for this moment in time.

They breed their mares to some of the best stallions that the world has to offer.

Nearly a year later, they hope and pray for a healthy and physically sound baby boy or girl to come bouncing into the world.

Over the next year, they try to raise, nourish, baby, teach, care-give, love and discipline the baby into the best looking yearling that they can polish up and bring to market.

Two long years of investment of time, resources, brain power, love, and, of course, money. Lots of money.

Two long years of getting up in the winter, to make sure the horses are good, and the water pipes have not frozen.

Two longs years of battling summer heat and sunburn, to make sure the horses are good, and the wind pipes are developing.

Two longs years of Spring and Fall, where emotions rise and sometimes dip with every growth spurt and leg formation change; with every throat inspection and heart monitor; with every time they walk and every time they run and play.

Two long years.

Period.

Now, it is game time.

Time to see if the world of Thoroughbred owners love your horse as much as you do. Time to find out if Mother Nature and Father Time have created a Wonder Child. Time to sell. Time to buy. Time to celebrate. Or, for some, time to cry.

On Monday, we journeyed over to Keeneland for this marathon event.

We came away with a few observations. Here you go:

(Hip 30, a son of War Front, sold on Monday for $475,000 to Phoenix Thoroughbreds III. He is one of 31 progeny of the great War Front to be catalogued in Book 1. / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

Sire Power of the Few & the Mighty:

After flipping through every single page of Book 1 — which will encompass the first three days of the salesathon — I was overwhelmed with one resounding thought:

The top end of the market is dominated — dominated — by a handful of stallions.

OK, three hand fulls.

Just consider:

Of the 569 horses catalogued in Book 1, an unbelievable 425 of them are sons and daughters of just 15 different stallions. Think about that. That is 15 stallions. That is 74.69% of the Hips catalogued in Book 1 come from just 15 stallions.

American Pharoah (who stands at Coolmore / Ashford Stud) has fathered 42 Hips that are catalogued in Book 1.

Curlin (Hill ‘n’ Dale Farm) has sired 41.

Medaglia d’Oro (Darley Stud) has 39 off-spring.

Uncle Mo (Lane’s End) has 37.

Tapit (Gainesway Farm) has 36.

Into Mischief (Spendthrift Farm) — 33.

War Front (Claiborne Farm) — 31.

Pioneerof the Nile (WinStar Farm) — 29.

Quality Road (Lane’s End Farm) — 27.

Candy Ride (Lane’s End Farm) — 21.

Empire Maker (Gainesway Farm) — 19.

Frosted (Darley Stud) — 18.

Kitten’s Joy (Hill ‘n’ Dale Farm) — 18.

Speightstown (WinStar Farm) — 17.

Malibu Moon (Spendthrift Farm) — 17.

To narrow the focus a bit more, consider this:

Those 15 stallions stand at 8 stud farms in Central Kentucky.

When you do the math, the top end of the Thoroughbred heaven truly does get a bit narrow at the gateway.

Makes you pause for a second.

Makes you wonder.

Truly, is there any wonder why The Jockey Club is taking a serious look at making a recommendation of limiting the number of mares that any one sire can attend in a year?

Interesting Factoids About War Front & Pioneerof the Nile (at least to me):

As I was making my way through Book 1, I started to develop a couple of theories and hunches that I thought were mind-provoking, if not interesting.

(Hip 30, a son of War Front / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

One:

It seemed to me that the vast majority of the 31 War Fronts in Book 1 were truly bred for the grass.

Makes sense, mind you. Up to the time these yearlings were bred, much — if not the vast majority — of the great sire’s success has come with progeny that could run over the sod. And, after all, War Front is by Danzig, and has a strong grass influence throughout the pedigree.

But when I did the math, I was taken a bit aback. Of the 31 offspring in Book 1, 18 of them were out of mares that were bred over-seas. That’s nearly 51% of them were from a mother that was foreign-bred. Truly, a target has been set.

Yet, now that this year’s 3-year-old crop of top end War Front’s has yielded us both War of Will — winner of the G1 Preakness Stakes — and Omaha Beach — the true favorite for this year’s Kentucky Derby before he was forced to undergo throat surgery — may be a few breeders will consider and start sending a few more accomplished “dirt” mares to the grand War Front.

Be interesting to see if the trends shifts.

(A potential buyer takes a look / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

Two:

As I made my way through the list of 29 off-spring of Pioneerof the Nile that were catalogued in Book 1, my interest was peeked by the number of younger mares that were sent to the top young stallion — who has already sired the likes of American Pharoah, Classic Empire and others.

Come to find out, of the 29 — 7 of them are the first foal of the respective mares bred to Pioneerof the Nile.

Come to find out, of the 29 — 3 more are the second foals out of the mare population bred to the son of Empire Maker.

Come to find out, of the 29 — 4 more are the third foal out of those mares.

Come to find out, of the 29 — 5 more are the 4th foal.

All told, of the 29, 19 are the fourth foal or younger. That’s 65% of them.

Wonder if WinStar — and breeders alike — have discovered that Pioneerof the Nile really does better with the younger mare population?

Run-Ins At the Sale:

One of the great things about the Keeneland September Yearling Sale is that you get to bump into — sometime literally — some great people and old friends. And, for a brief period of time, you get to catch up on all things — including a bit of life.

On Monday, I had the great fortune of seeing:

  1. Carson Asbury, one of the best people to ever strap on a pair of hard boots. His father and family did more for me than I ever knew back in the days of the late 1980s, when I served as the Executive Vice President of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders’ Association. I truly love that guy. Great to share a few stories and a hug or two.
  2. Mark Simendinger, the Executive Vice President of the Kentucky Speedway and the Vice Chairman of the Kentucky Racing Commission, was on hand to stroll the grounds. He came up while I was standing at the back walking ring and the two of us got to watch the half-brother to Triple Crown winner Justify make his way to the sales ring. The colt didn’t bring his reserve and was brought home for $950,000, but it was great to share the moment and others with Mark. Truly, it is great to have people of his caliber and credentials involved in the sport and industry. One of the reasons why the game is doing so well in the Commonwealth these days is due — in large part — to the Racing Commission and its’ leadership team. All starts at the top. And, we are fortunate in those regards.
  3. Mark Hennig, one of the most affable and friendly trainers in our sport today. As I was standing in the hallway, Mark stopped long enough to say hello. Truly, made my day. What a good trainer, but, yet, a better person.

Stay Tuned…More to Come Later This Week

The horse broke well today,” Gaffalione said. “I had the horse inside, Dunph, going to the lead and then (Gun It) showed a little bit of speed. When I saw they were intent on going I just tried to get him back and got him to relax. He came back to me nicely and settled well down the backside. Got a little keen going into the far turn and wanted to move a little early. But I didn’t want to take too much away from him so I tried to sit as long as I could. He was waiting on horses down the lane but I kept him at task and there was plenty of horse there.”

“Mark (Casse, the trainer) and his team have done a great job,” Gaffalione said. “They’ve had a ton of confidence in this horse the whole way. It’s just an honor to be able to ride the horse. He’s just so professional, trains great and he’s a pleasure to be around.”

Tyler Gaffalione, Rode of War of Will to victory in the G2 Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds
  • Gene McLean

    Gene McLean

    Gene McLean began his professional career in 1977 as a sportswriter and columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., and was recognized as one of the state’s best writers, winning the prestigious “Sportswriter of the Year” honor in 1985. Now the President and Publisher of The Pressbox, McLean sets ...

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