Keeneland horse sales fascinating for visitors


LEXINGTON-- Each October, crowds pack into Keeneland to take in the fall race meet. More than 20,000 people show up on some days for food and fashion, bourbon and betting. But a month earlier, another event is just as fascinating as the races, but many people aren't aware it's open to the public.

The September Yearling Sale is the biggest event of its kind in the world, with more than 4,000 horses being sold over two weeks.

It's unlike any other auction you'll ever see. The horses come in on padded walkways and are led around by men in ties and jackets. The hallway outside the arena is lined with fine art.

You are surrounded by wealth.

And watching the bidding is like attending the theater. It's high drama as the prices go into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for these top thoroughbreds.

Auctioneer Ryan Mahan said you never know what to expect, especially if "you get two guys with a lot of money and maybe a little ego." He says when each bidder is determined to win the race, a horse they thought might go for $200,000 may end up at $600,00 or $700,000.

"That's the blue sky we look for in the horse business.," Mahan said. "You never really know what happens when the captains of the industry get in these seats. They don't like to lose."

If the buyers think they're looking at a future Kentucky Derby winner, the atmosphere in the room changes.

"When one of them begins to really creep up past the million dolalr mark, you can tell a hush sort of comes over the arena and people are really watching to see what's next.. how high it's gonna go," said Keeneland's Communications Director Amy Gregory.

On opening day, three horses passed the two million dollar mark. If you're not a registered buyer, you watch through windows just outside the arena., so you don't have to sit on your hands.

Most of the bid spotters have worked the same section for years and know the buyers, who have their own marked seats. So there's not much danger that a spectator will be mistaken for a bidder if they scratch their nose or nod their head.

"There are stories though of people saying 'I didn't really bid on that horse but I was embarrassed not to sign the ticket.,'" Mahan said. "You have to be wealthy to do that. "

He said that unintentional buyer may get a horse for $40,000 and end up winning $300,000 when it makes it to the track. But that works both ways, with expensive horses sometimes never making a dime.

Just like at the races, the sales pavilion is a place for good food and great people-watching.

Bob Elliston, vice president of sales, said "If you've got a passing interest or a casual interest in horse racing, you've been to the derby, you've seen Bob Baffert or Wayne Lucas-- he might be sitting right next to you here or he may walk by you."

We met a family from Floridawho found themselves in Lexington after fleeing Hurricane Irma.

" So we thought we may as well make a family experience out of it and not let the hurricane stop us from having a lot of fun," said Naomi Cohn of Baton Rouge. "We heard about the horse sale and this is probably one of the most fascinating things we've ever seen."

Fascinating... and perhaps a glimpse into the future. The horse that walks past you today may run for the roses two years from now.


The next chance to catch a sale at Keeneland is from November 7 to November 18. It's a Breeding Stock Sale and many of those horses also sell for seven figures.


Spirit of the Bluegrass is sponsored by Regency Memory Care.

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