Seeing the Past and Future at Keeneland in January

Events / Travel

Keeneland's January sale gives the racing world a look at the current and future state of the industry. (Photos courtesy of Keeneland)

A major component of the Thoroughbred racing industry is what happens at the various sales around the country. Comparing the sales’ numbers from year to year gives an indication of where the industry stands at any given time. Last week was the January Horses of All Ages sale at Keeneland, and it is an integral part of the whole. While more horses were catalogued than last year, and more horses were sold, at the end of this Keeneland showed a slight decline in average and median. However, as always, there are some story lines that stand out. We just witnessed American Pharoah be crowned Horse of the Year in a unanimous sweep. And we never know where that next great champion may be hiding.

The January sale may not be the most glamorous (the gray skies, single digit temperatures, and bursts of snow don’t really help create that vibe), but it is indeed a working sale. This year the January sale lasted for five days with three books filled with horses to be sold, mostly mares, many of them pregnant, and foals, with a few racing and stallion prospects thrown in. The sales that take place in September and November at Keeneland tend to bring some higher top numbers, and perhaps some more hyped entrants but what happens in January undoubtedly helps assess where the market stands and where any gaps may be.

If I’ve learned nothing else about the racing industry, it’s this: you are never done learning. Now, arguably this holds true for anything. School, a desk job, how to make the perfect pasta sauce, how many Netflix episodes you can watch before you absolutely have to stand up and move. The list goes on. You learn where the areas that need work are, and sometimes you find out things you didn’t even know you didn’t know.

In racing, breeding is a huge part of finding success as an agent, owner or handicapper. Knowing a horse’s background and what to expect from that particular horse as a result of its breeding can be an invaluable asset. There are, of course, exceptions to the rules, as horses with modest backgrounds have gone on to accomplish spectacular feats, and some with blue bloodlines have yet to locate the winner’s circle.

This summer in Saratoga, I was able to cover the two-day Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Select Sale for Horse Racing Radio Network and this was my first time experiencing this environment in person. My trip to Keeneland earlier this week was my first time getting a chance to see some of the real ins-and-outs of the sales and understand a bit better just how it fits into the world of racing. I was only there for a couple of days, but I can say with certainty that a Keeneland sale is a well-oiled machine. Things move quickly inside the sales pavilion where consigners, potential buyers and curious onlookers watch the process unfold.

The two highest priced horses came from the dispersal of the estate of Sarah J. Leigh, and, fittingly, both mares were sold to the same buyer, Virginia Kraft Payson. To see a breeding legacy carried on in these horses as Summer Solo and her half-sister Summer Sweet transferred owners is a special kind of testament to those breeders who really have created something out of nothing.


I saw even the most well-seasoned horse people say “aw” when the mare Grenobloise come through the ring with her five-day-old foal. To keep the little youngster warm in the freezing temperatures, he was wrapped in a foal-sized blankets and trotted along next to his mother, momentarily making everyone else forget that they couldn’t feel their fingers or their toes.

Unsurprisingly, the presence of Uncle Mo could also be felt in the ring. Undefeated at 2 and voted Eclipse Award champion 2-year-old in 2010, Uncle Mo’s racing career came to an early end because of health problems. However, Uncle Mo has been tremendously successful as a sire in a very short amount of time, highlighted by his top earning son Nyquist recently being named this year’s Eclipse Award champion 2-year-old (taking after Dad in a pretty good way!). Horses by Uncle Mo and mares in-foal to Uncle Mo understandably turned heads as they entered the ring, and generally did pretty well when it came to the price tag, too.

One of the coolest things about horse racing, in my mind anyway, is that you can watch the offspring of some of your favorite racehorses within a relatively short timeframe. For those who enjoyed watching Uncle Mo run, it is certainly great to see him at the top of the Freshman Sire list.

For me, Shackleford, winner of the 2011 Preakness Stakes and immediately recognizable with his powerful chestnut body and big white blaze on his face, always held a special place in my heart. Most of his foals that I have seen have his signature blaze or at least a semblance of it. It’s an exciting feeling to see a little filly or colt come through the Keeneland sales ring, with that blaze, and dream about what he or she will go on to accomplish on the racetrack. Only time will tell.

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