At last year’s Keeneland September Yearling Sale, the average price for a young Thoroughbred was an auction record $129,335 with the highest amount reaching $2.4 million for a colt by leading sire War Front.
Reasons for the range of prices are endless and sometimes inexplicable. High-dollar horses theoretically have a better chance at success on the race track based on a number of factors, but budget-priced horses often blossom into overachievers worth far more than their sale price.
At the September Sale, owners usually have a team of advisers with various expertise in judging racing prospects who will compose a shopping list from the entire sale catalog that they use to make their final selections – referred to as a “short list.” Much of the team’s research occurs weeks before the sale. Despite employing these experts to bid on horses, many buyers prefer to attend the sale in person so they can enjoy the excitement of adding new racing prospects to their stables.
Here are seven things they consider when selecting horses to buy:
1. How’s the Horse Built? A Thoroughbred’s physical build is called “conformation,” a key indicator of future success as a racehorse. Horses with balanced bodies such as legs that are neither too long nor too short bring premium prices. While all Thoroughbreds look basically the same, keen horsemen recognize desirable and undesirable traits in a racing prospect. As with people, some individuals are built to become professional athletes, and the same goes for horses.
2. How Does He Move? During pre-sale inspections at the consignor’s barn, a handler will walk a yearlings for potential buyers to enable them to judge the horse’s movement. A free-flowing walk – a buyer might say the horse “covered a lot of ground when he walked” – indicates a long stride suitable for successful racing.
3. Who is His Family? Pedigree is an important predictor of racing performance. Horses whose sires (fathers) and dams (mothers) were accomplished runners and/or are proven progenitors of quality racehorses are more expensive. Likewise, Thoroughbreds with siblings and other close relatives that have exceled at the track are popular.
4. What Color is He? Although a Thoroughbred’s color is no indication of talent, horsemen have certain preferences. Gray horses are popular, and buyers – consciously or subconsciously – might pay more for them. Conversely, legend has it that white legs and white hooves are weak, but recent top-level performers have put that theory to rest.
5. What are Your Long-Term Goals? The September Sale attracts owners from around the globe, and all have goals for the horses they buy. Will they race internationally or compete on regional circuits? Will they be better suited to running on dirt or grass? Will they prefer sprinting or racing longer distances?
Some buyers look for colts to reach the Kentucky Derby (G1) or other premier races such as the Breeders’ Cup World Championship and be stallion prospects. That was the case, for example, with three recent Derby winners – Nyquist (2016), Always Dreaming (2017) and Justify (the undefeated 2018 Triple Crown winner) – all graduates of the September Sale.
Other buyers seek fillies to add to their breeding operations after they race. Still others scout yearlings specifically to resell when they reach racing age.
6. What’s Your Budget? Whether spending millions on multiple horses or a few thousand on a solo purchase, prospective buyers have budgets. If the sales price of a horse they want exceeds their budget, they often will regroup to consider yearlings not on their original wish lists. And at times, several few buyers go into partnerships with each other to pool their funds to afford a horse they want.
However, impulse buying is possible. Horsemen might have no intention of buying a horse until they see one that catches their eye, then they will decide to bid. Similarly, they intend to buy only a certain number of horses but discover they like more than they expected. As a result, they will increase their acquisitions.
7. How’s Your Luck? Like any loyal customer, Thoroughbred shoppers can be repeat customers. They might purchase a yearling because they had success with a relative they also had purchased. Or they will buy another horse from the same consignor who previously sold them a good horse.