Analysis: Kentucky November Mixed Sales Display A ‘Hold’ Market, And That’s Okay

On the surface, the numbers were down across the board at the 2020 November mixed sales in Kentucky after a lot of people bought high on mares and stud fees in previous years, and the world is still on the razor’s edge until a COVID-19 vaccine reaches mass distribution. Looking at it from that scope, it can be hard to drum up optimism for the direction of the bloodstock market.

So, why are so many buyers and sellers exiting the November sales feeling decent-to-good about where they stand? It’s about the horses that didn’t sell.

The bloodstock market has shown signs of wobbling toward a downturn for a few years as the whims of buyers get increasingly polarized, and the target to make serious money at the yearling and 2-year-old sales gets smaller.

Pair that with all of the sudden obstacles and uncertainties that COVID-19 brought about, and it would have been understandable if the November sales saw broodmare owners abandoning ship before the bottom fully falls out. Anyone that survived the crash of the late 2000s and early 2010s would rightfully be hesitant to hang on to stock that could produce foals worth a fraction of what they’d make in a stronger market.

Instead, the marathon Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale shrunk by two days and about 750 horses. The overall buyback rate went down, but not as steeply in the upper markets, suggesting sellers weren’t going to let their better stock go if the price wasn’t right.

A horse only gets one shot at a yearling or 2-year-old sale season, so they go through the ring with a sense of urgency. Broodmares will always be broodmares, and weanlings have plenty more chances to sell before they reach racing age. Patience in that segment of the market is one of the true canaries in the Thoroughbred industry coal mine.

When they had every reason to stuff the November catalogs and panic-sell, the long-term oracles of the bloodstock market have elected to “hold.” That’s not necessarily a sign that an upswing is magically on the horizon, but it does suggest the market is viable enough for breeders to stick around for the next year or two and see what happens. In these uncertain times, that’s about as ringing an endorsement as you’re going to get.

“When we were looking at our entries for the November sales, we certainly found a tentative attitude from breeders and owners in general who said, ‘Look, I don’t want to sell into a down market,’” said Tony Lacy of consignor Four Star Sales. “I found this to be a strength. If people are willing to hold on to their stock, and not be in a position where they have to sell, that’s actually okay. In the last downturn, people had to sell, so we had an abundance of product with a lack of demand. That exacerbated the weak position our industry found itself in for those three or four years.

“In the last downturn, it was unnerving because not only was there an economic downturn, there was a lack of confidence, and it was globally,” he continued. “There was also just a pure lack of money. This time, it’s not a lack of money, I think it’s confidence, and I think we’re so far into the pandemic, we’ve learned this is just the way we have to operate now. From that standpoint, I think people sort of got into a rhythm.”

Of course, this is far from an “everything’s fine” report to focus on the silver linings of a market that saw a drop of about eight percent in average and median sale prices during the Keeneland November sale. The auction market will still enter 2021 with a lot of the same questions and potential rough spots it had in 2020, and a deeper market correction certainly wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility. What’s fortunate is the market largely exited the November sales without adding any new questions.

A common note among buyers and sellers exiting the November sales was a general scarcity for weanlings, and in turn, quality weanlings. Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland’s director of sales operations, confirmed that fewer weanlings went through the ring this year, with some owners deciding to wait for the yearling season, which made for a smaller margin for defeat when it came to bidding.

Conrad Bandoroff of consignor Denali Stud said the weanling market still had a few of the trappings of the yearling sales in terms of what buyers were looking for.

Much like how a rocky 2-year-old auction season this spring and summer had a bearing on the ensuing yearling season when pinhookers came back to re-stock, Bandoroff said he noticed some trepidation in the weanling-to-yearling pinhook market after their calendar saw some major shuffling due to COVID-19 and results were mixed during the yearling sales.

“I thought the weanling market could be described as a little tough, but coming off the heels of what was a difficult yearling sale season, you’d expect the weanling pinhookers were going to be careful,” Bandoroff said. “They were just very selective, and it was kind of just feast or famine.”

Adrian Regan, who bought as agent and sold under his Hunter Valley Farm, also noticed the pinhooking presence seemed a little light this year, but the ones that hit the marks brought serious money.

“We thought there were a few faces missing in the pinhooking market this year,” Regan said. “The pinhookers were more cautious about what they were spending on foals, but it seemed maybe a little more polarized than in other years, much the same as the yearling market. Everybody seemed to be falling on the same ones, but in saying that, it was a pretty good market overall.”

Russell noted that the buyer’s bench for weanlings has shifted in recent years, which also might have had an effect on how pinhook buyers approached the November sales.

“With several major end-users now participating in the foal market, it pushed pinhookers back, and they probably haven’t fulfilled their needs, so hopefully they’ll came back in January and fill their requirements,” he said.

In comparing the September and November sales, Bandoroff said the November sales did a better job maintaining their momentum throughout the duration of the auction. In comparison, the upper-middle market of the yearling auctions was tough sledding until it reached the portion of the catalog supported by buyers who needed to purchase horses to make a living – namely, pinhookers and trainers – at which point, the market solidified again.

There was still some of that during the 2020 November sales, but Lacy said the clientele for the mixed sales, particularly the broodmare market, tends to be a more reliable buyer because it’s the one staring in the mirror.

“As we got into the middle markets, I felt there was a lot more stability,” Lacy said. “You could value a horse more accurately, and I thought there was more confidence in the middle markets. In all essence, it’s trade. We’re trading amongst ourselves, and I felt like the confidence internally in the industry was probably more buoyant than we all expected.

“I think we’ve got to look at ourselves as farmers, because that’s essentially what we are, and in any form of farming, in any year, no matter if the crop is a massive success, or if it’s a disappointment, the farmer still has to put the plow in the ground, and I saw a lot of that,” he continued. “People were trying to upgrade some of the stock, what they felt might be perceived as value, when in actual fact, I thought a lot of the breeding stock was selling better than it was last year.”

Bloodstock agent Hanzly Albina, who made 14 purchases under the Sallusto & Albina Bloodstock banner, said he found a sense of optimism in the results and the activity on the grounds at a level he did not expect going into the season.

That was a common refrain among many on the sales grounds – uncertainty and concern followed by expectations being exceeded. Most, including Albina, said it could have been worse, and the fact that it wasn’t is a victory in and of itself.

“Competition was pretty strong,” he said. “Obviously at the very top end, with a few of the larger groups spending more money than they previously had, that definitely pushed other buyers further down the catalog. I think that really helped everyone. It was tough to buy really nice mares. The prices were pretty consistent on the cheaper side. I did not feel like I was getting a 50 percent discount on the cheaper stock, and if I did, it would be an indicator of buyers’ apprehension, so that was encouraging.”

The major Kentucky auction calendar is through for 2020, but the mixed season itself will have a couple more stops in the Bluegrass in January at Keeneland and February at Fasig-Tipton. Neither auction will have the depth or seven-figure magnitude of its November predecessors, but the world can change so drastically in two months’ time that it will still be a necessary temperature check of market confidence.

Judging by the size of the Keeneland January catalog, sellers will remain in the “hold” position. Russell said the auction will be a four-day affair when it spanned five days in 2020, and the catalog will slim down from about 1,800 entries to about 1,600.

The market crash wasn’t that long ago. We all remember what a fire sale looks like, and breeders know when it’s time to start selling off major branches of the factory to stay in business, or in the debt collector’s good graces. Right now, we’re not seeing that. A lot can change, but the fact that the alarm hasn’t been sounded should provide a bit of hope that whenever things go back to something approaching normal, the climb back up the hill won’t be as long.

The post Analysis: Kentucky November Mixed Sales Display A ‘Hold’ Market, And That’s Okay appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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