World’s Biggest Horse Auction

Every September the biggest horse auction in the world takes place at Keeneland race track in Lexington, Kentucky.

Owning a thoroughbred horse—a stakes winner, a Derby winner even—is no longer just the province of Arabian oil sheiks and Southern aristocracy. More and more horse-racing enthusiasts are joining syndicates, essentially buying shares in a stable of horses for anywhere from $25,000 to $150,000. For those in the market, Keeneland race track, in Lexington, Kentucky, is the pinnacle.

Founded in 1936 by a group of thoroughbred owners who set out to replace the Kentucky Association Track, a casualty of the Great Depression, Keeneland’s race track is run like a nonprofit, where the proceeds go strictly toward the racing purses and facility improvements. (Its directors are not compensated, and stockholders don’t receive dividends.) But the association is unique in that it’s also a sales company, holding four public auctions a year with total annual gross sales of around $400 million. Each September, thoroughbred owners from 35 countries descend upon Lexington for the 14-day Yearling Sale, the world’s largest horse auction. Eighteen Derby winners have been purchased here, including this year’s champion, Animal Kingdom, who was sold in 2009 for a scant $100,000. (Yearling prices can range from $1,000 to $4 million; last year’s average price was $64,811.) Back in 2005, soon-to-be Breeders’ Cup champion Zenyatta caught the eye of bloodstock agent David Ingordo. He paid a low $60,000 for the mare, who’d win a record 19 out of 20 consecutive races, earning more than $7 million. We asked him to point out what to look for when buying yearlings.

Zenyatta: Breeders’ Cup Champion

Neck: The horse’s neck helps maintain its rhythm and balance while running. It should have a clean, straight line across the mane and not tie in too low to the chest.

Nose: Look for big, big nostrils that allow as much oxygen as possible to reach the horse’s heart and lungs.

Shoulder: The shoulder moves the front legs and helps the horse reach forward, so the greater the angle, the longer the stride.

Forearm: Think Popeye. It should be a big, strong muscle, since the forearm is part of the musculature that moves the front leg.

Cannon Bone: The long bone of the lower leg, it should resemble the thick end of a baseball bat, running from its knee to its ankle.

Joints: Each joint, like the knee, should look strong and tight and not appear swollen or beefy. The tendons in these areas should be well-defined.

Pastern: Consisting of two bones, it acts as a shock absorber and should be at an approximately 45-degree angle to the hoof.

Hoof: Ideally, it should be seashell-shaped with a wide heel on the back. Any brittleness or cracks are a bad sign.

Gaskin: This large muscle, which helps lift the hind legs to push off, should be well-developed and have a nice curvature.

Hip: The horse’s power source, the hip should have a long area with lots of volume and muscling.

Girth: The wider this part of the chest is, the better, since it’s where the heart and lungs sit.

David Ingordo can be reached at Ingordo Bloodstock Services; 859-873-7300;