Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Looking for a Good Horse at Keeneland

For the past several years, I've been part of a team that looks for horses at the Keeneland yearling sale, on behalf of cients with serious money and a serious desire to win graded-stakes races. Some "bloodstock agents" may claim to do it all themselves, and a lot of buyers just pick out a horse in the Keeneland walking ring minutes before its hip number is called for auction. But those of us --and there are many -- who are seriously trying to find the very best horses have no alternative but to put in a lot of hard work. For those who perhaps don't know the auction process, here's how it works.

Keeneland list some 5,000-plus yearlings for sale every September (though that number may, and should, shrink in response to the severe downturn in the thoroughbred market). The catalog is divided into "books," with each book containing horses that are, in general, a little worse than those in the earlier books, and a little better than those in the later books. The first two books, 1200 horses that are offered on the first four days of the sale, generally contain the horses with the fanciest pedigrees and the best appearance, as judged by the Keeneland staff. That's where the big money is, and where most of the million-dollar babies have been bought in the past.

Our group, and others like it, tries to look at every single horse in books 1 and 2, and as many as possible in Books 3 through 5, a part of the catalog that traitionally produces some of the best bargains in the sale and a good number of stakes winners. To do that, we need to work through the following steps:

First, someone looks at every horse and short-lists those that are worth a second look. Books 1 through 5 have a total of more than 3600 horses in them. That's a lot of looking, walking around Keeneland's 49 barns.

Second, the team leader looks at every horse in Book 1 and every horse that's been short-listed for Books 2 through 5. In addition, she checks with the consignors, just in case we've missed something.

Third, we do ultrasound heart scans on our short-short list, to measure the horses' cardiac function and eliminate those who dont have big enough or efficient enough hearts to sustain them at the very highest racing levels. The scans are analyzed against a database of thoroughbreds to see how they match up along the bell curve. All this can't be done while the horses are being shown to buyers, so, after an eight-hour day looking at yearlings, we start all over again at 4 pm, when showing winds down, and keep going until 10 pm or so doing the ultrasounds.

Fourth, we get a vet to review the records on those horses that have made in through the first three steps, checking the x-ray records on file in the Keeneland repository and, if necessary, scoping the horse to determine whether it's able to take in enough air to keep it running past sprint distances.

Finally, we have a very short list that we can take to the clients, the folks with money enough to buy the very best (well, the very best that Sheikh Mohammed and Coolmore aren't bidding on).

All this takes time, and that's where the problem is. With the exception of the Book 1 horses, most horses for sale are on the Keeneland grounds and available to be seen for only a day or two before they are sold. In that time frame, there often isn't the time to do all the steps described above. So some good horses fall by the wayside. If we can't have the time to do the scans and then to get the vet reports, then we can't recommend the horses to our clients, and potential bidders are lost.

Realistically, we can't wait until the morning that the horse goes on sale to ask the vet for a review; they have way too much to do. So, if we want to get the vet to look the day before, that means we have to do the cardio the night before that, i.e., two days before the horse sells. And to do that, the horse really should be on the grounds and available to be shown three days before the sale date. With 400 horses selling each day, and limited barn space, that simply isnt happening. And, because it's not, sales opportunities are being lost.

So, what could Keeneland do? (Or, what could the newly revived Fasig-Tipton do to challenge Keeneland?)

First, we need to have fewer horses per day. Maybe not the 200 per day that sell in Book 1, but perhaps 300 would be a happy medium. That would allow the next book's horses to move into the barns earlier and provide more time for buyers to see them.

Second, there needs to be more time for the vets to do their work. At present, Keeneland's repository opens at 8 am and closes when that day's sale is over. The vets are willing to work longer hours, so why not let them? Open up the repository at, say, 5 am, and keep it open as long as some workaholic vet needs it.

With all the money that Keeneland spends attracting foreign buyers to come to the sale, you'd think a little more to make the working conditions more conducive to selling wouldn't be such a stretch. It would surely help those of us who are trying to buy good horses, and isn't that what the sellers and auction houses want?

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