What it's like going to the world's biggest horse sale, where royals and millionaires dropped $360 million this year on horses they hope might be the next Kentucky Derby winner
Katie Warren/Business Insider
- Keeneland is the world's largest thoroughbred auction house.
- At the auction house's September yearling sale this year, buyers including Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai and billionaire businessman Vinnie Viola dropped more than $360 million on 2,855 1-year-old horses (called "yearlings") in the hopes they'll be the next great racehorses.
- The most coveted yearlings are offspring of former Triple Crown and Kentucky Derby winners.
- I spent a day at Keeneland's September auction, and I was blown away by the amount of money spent on horses that have never even been ridden.
- I was also surprised that the atmosphere was so casual, with people wearing baseball caps, polo shirts, and jeans.
- The bidding was so subtle that I couldn't even tell when people were bidding, and there were special "bid spotters" whose entire job is to watch for bids and alert the auctioneer.
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Every September, wealthy horse-racing fans, buyers, and sellers converge on Kentucky's second-largest city, Lexington, known as "the horse capital of the world."
Lexington is surrounded by hundreds of horse farms and is home to the world's largest thoroughbred horse auction house, Keeneland, which also hosts races. At Keeneland's September yearling sale, buyers drop millions on 1-year-old horses that have never even been ridden. In 2019 in particular, buyers spent more than $360 million on 2,855 of these horses (also called "yearlings") at the September sale.
Read more: I toured one of Kentucky's most legendary horse farms, where horses live in immaculate barns, security teams sweep the grounds at night, and Secretariat is buried. Here's what it looks like.
"We talk about this being the horse capital of the world, and it really is the place that's acknowledged around the world," Bill Thomason, president and CEO of Keeneland, told me in an interview during the September sale.
More than half of all horses born in the US are born within 30 miles of Keeneland, and the top stallions in the country are all within this 30-mile radius, according to Thomason.
"It's a concentration of an industry that's in this town with people whose livelihoods depend on this crop that they're producing, which are the yearlings," he said.
I flew down to Kentucky to attend the beginning of Keeneland's September yearling sale. Here's what it was like.
Keeneland is the world's largest thoroughbred auction house. Throughout 2018, it sold more than $600 million worth of horses — $377 million during its September sale alone.
Keeneland is also a horse racing company.
The auction house throws lavish parties for its VIP buyers and sponsors.
On the first day of the September sale, I got to Keeneland at about 9:00 a.m. The sale was set to kick off at noon.
The massive parking lot was already filling up with cars, many of them luxury vehicles like Range Rovers and Mercedes.
After I parked my rental car, I started walking, following signs that pointed me to the sales pavilion.
My first stop was breakfast at Keeneland's Equestrian Dining Room, a casual eatery on the ground floor of the grandstand, with Keeneland's chief marketing officer, Christa Marrillia.
After breakfast, I headed over to the barn area behind the sales pavilion, where employees of the farms that brought horses to the sale were walking the yearlings around, warming them up and showing them off.
But some people were still viewing horses just a couple of hours before the sale was set to start, perhaps taking one last look before deciding to bid.
The majority of horses at the September sale are Kentucky-bred because everyone wants a Kentucky bred-horse, Keeneland's director of communications, Amy Gregory, told me.
Before the horses are taken up onstage, they are carefully brushed and beautified.
Potential buyers can learn more about each yearling in the sales guide.
Ahead of taking their turns on stage, the horses are walked around the show barn, a large covered outdoor holding area.
Then, when the horse is up next, it's brought into the sales pavilion's indoor holding area, where it's walked around in circles until it's led on stage to be bid on.
When a horse's hip number approaches, it's led up this walkway and onto the stage.
Keeneland's iconic sales arena can seat up to 700 people, although it wasn't even half full on the first day of the sale.
The most coveted yearlings up for auction at the September sale are the offspring of high-profile race horses such as 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and 2018 champion Justify.
From my various vantage points, no matter how hard I tried, I could never spot anyone actually bidding. But that's what the bid spotters are for.
While the bid spotters wore suits, most of the guests at the sale were casually dressed.
The seats in the sales arena are reserved for prospective buyers, but behind a glass wall encircling the back of the arena, many observers sat on benches and watched the sale from a distance.
While the atmosphere during the auction was relatively subdued most of the time, the energy changed noticeably when bids for a horse surpassed $1 million.
After particularly exciting sales, reporters would rush to interview the buyer, if he or she was anywhere to be found.
Once the bidding has been closed, each horse is brought back to its temporary stall at Keeneland's barn area, where it must be picked up within 24 hours.
Keeneland offers several dining options for guests at its horse sales. For casual bites, attendees can stop at the Pavilion Bar within the sales pavilion.
For a more upscale sit-down dining experience, there's the Buffet at the Saddling Paddock Chalet, barely a minute's walk from the sales pavilion.
For the VIP guests at the sale, there's the Sycamore Room, which is reserved for those who spend $10 million or more at Keeneland's horse sales each year.
In total, 2,855 horses sold for a combined $360 million at Keeneland's September sale this year.
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