In a throwback to the pre-recession era, Book 1 of the Keeneland September Sale exceeded all expectations, yielding $160.4 million in gross sales and an eye-popping top price of $8.2 million.

That incredible figure is not a record for this sale – that accolade belongs to the Kingmambo colt Meydan City, bought for $11.7 million by John Ferguson on behalf of Sheikh Mohammed in 2006 – but it is the most paid for a yearling in the Keeneland sales arena since those heady days before the fall of 2008.

The amount does, however, make the daughter of American Pharoah the highest-priced filly in September Sale history.

The sale-topping filly was widely anticipated to be the headline act of the three-day book, not least because of her illustrious connections. From the second crop of US Triple Crown hero American Pharoah, who has made a striking start at stud, she was bred by Clarkland Farm out of their star mare Leslie’s Lady.

Fred and Nancy Mitchell’s outfit paid ‘just’ $100,000 for Leslie’s Lady, a stakes-winning daughter of Tricky Creek, out of the estate of James T. Hines Jr at Keeneland in 2006 when her first major runner, Grade 1 winner Into Mischief, was still a yearling. Today, Into Mischief sits among the elite of American stallions having forged an outstanding reputation off the back of cheaper early crops while another daughter, Beholder, developed into a true champion whose 11 Grade 1 victories included three Breeders’ Cup events.

Frank Mitchell with the American Pharoah filly who topped Keeneland Book 1 – Photo: Keeneland

More recently, the mare produced Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner Mendelssohn, himself the $3 million sale-topper of 2016. Now a resident of Ashford Stud, he was reportedly one of the quickest filling stallions in Kentucky of 2019.

“We bought Leslie’s Lady when Into Mischief was still a yearling and a year later he had won a Grade 1 – that just goes to show anything can happen in this business,” said Marty Buckner of Clarkland Farm prior to the sale. “She’s a tall mare with a good hip and a lot of leg. And she throws the right genes!”

All of which made the mare’s latest foal extremely hot property.

“She’s a filly that gives you chills,” continued Buckner. “She has tremendous presence and that American Pharoah mind. Having raised Beholder, we can see several similar traits to her. She’s a tremendous physical, there’s a lot of natural muscle to her.”

Nor did she disappoint. Set against the final hours of trading, bidding on the filly rapidly escalated into seven-figure territory, by which time the Coolmore conglomerate, Sheikh Mohammed and Mandy Pope had become the main players. Coolmore dropped out at around $4 million, leaving Sheikh Mohammed, bidding out back, and Mandy Pope, seated within the pavilion, to trade heavy blows.

It’s probably reasonable to assume that many present within the arena expected Sheikh Mohammed to prevail in light of his earlier prolific expenditure. But he met a formidable rival in Pope, and when she fired back a bid of $8.2 million, the Sheikh called it a day, shaking his head before turning to navigate his way through the intense crowd back out into the intense afternoon heat.

Well-established high-end player

Florida-based Pope, whose family owns Variety Wholesalers, is a well-established player at the top end of the market, notably when going to $10 million to secure Horse of the Year Havre de Grace at the 2012 Fasig-Tipton November Sale.

“You can’t fault her,” said Pope. “She’s perfectly balanced. She’s gorgeous – not too big or small.

“This will probably put me out of shopping in November; I think I pretty much went through my broodmare budget for November.”

Godolphin still leads the way

Sheikh Mohammed, signing as Godolphin, had better luck in his pursuit of a Curlin colt out of Bounding, for whom he outbid Coolmore at $4.1 million.

Sold through Eaton Sales, the colt encapsulates the small nature of the bloodstock world: bred by Barbara Banke’s Stonestreet Farm in Kentucky, he is the first foal out of his Australian-bred dam, a Group 1-winning daughter of Lonhro sourced by Stonestreet for A$1.5 million at the 2016 Magic Millions National Broodmare Sale. And three years on, Bounding is now a half-sister to an Epsom Derby hero in Anthony Van Dyck.

Plans are fluid for the colt, with a decision on whether he races in Europe or North America to be made at a later date.

“A lovely well-balanced horse from a good farm; we liked him very much,” said Anthony Stroud. “He was just a wonderful mover and had athleticism.”

The Curlin colt exits the ring after selling for $4.1 million to Godolphin – Photo: Keeneland

Making the sale particularly sweet for Banke was the fact that the colt is a son of Curlin, a horse campaigned so successfully by her late husband Jess Jackson.

“I’ve been trying to raise an internationally acclaimed (racehorse by) Curlin,” Banke said about the 2007-2008 North American Horse of the Year. “It’s one of my goals in life. This horse has every license to do that. I think Curlin deserves to be recognised in Europe as well as here.”

In all, Godolphin came away with four of the top five lots, including another Stonestreet offering, a Medaglia d’Oro colt out of Grade 1 winner Tara’s Tango who cost $2.15 million. They also landed the $2.9 million War Front colt out of Kentucky Oaks heroine Believe You Can, bred and sold by Airdrie Stud, and Monday’s session-topping son of Tapit, a half-brother to Kentucky Derby winner and Darley stallion Nyquist who was sold by Hinkle Farms for $2.5 million.

By the close of Book 1, Godolphin had signed for $16 million worth of stock as leading buyer.

“It’s his love of horseracing and the hope of finding a champion,” said Stroud when questioned on the Sheikh’s participation. “He loves this sport; he loves coming to America and he loves Keeneland – all those things. That’s why he’s doing what he’s doing.”

Shadwell help fuel Curlin popularity

In terms of expenditure, however, Sheikh Hamdan’s Shadwell Estate Company wasn’t too far behind, signing for 18 lots worth $11.07 million.

They included two yearlings of sire-of-the-moment Curlin in a colt from Hinkle Farms, who completed an excellent day for his breeder on Monday when selling for $1.05 million, and a daughter of Grade 1 heroine Dreaming Of Julia, who realised $1.05 million. The latter was yet another big result for breeder Stonestreet Farms.

As those results indicate, this was a sale at which Curlin deservedly came of commercial age. The flagship stallion of Hill ’n’ Dale Farm in Kentucky, his current crop of yearlings were bred in the year  that his fee was raised to $150,000, resulting in a quality that was borne out in a series of strong sale results; of his 27 yearlings to sell this week, five hit million-dollar territory while 15 overall realised $500,000 or more.

With an average of $697,222, the son of Smart Strike fell only behind Medaglia d’Oro – who checked in at $739,063 – in terms of sire performance. American Pharoah followed as the sire of 26 sold for an average of $675,577, ahead of Tapit on a figure of $649,063.

Among the first-crop sires, Claiborne Farm’s Runhappy turned in another strong performance as the sire of eight yearlings who sold for an average of $462,500.

Strong international buying bench

A strong Japanese presence was led by investment from new owner Yuji Hagesawa, who went to $1.5 million for a Tapit brother to champion Unique Bella through bloodstock agent Hiroyasu Takeuchi.

“This horse had the best pedigree of all the horses we looked at today,” Hasegawa said. “The plan is to take him back to Japan, and hopefully run him on the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby and bring him back over here as a Derby horse.”

European-based agents Jamie McCalmont, David Redvers, Joseph Burke and James Delahooke were also among those to strike.

Average nears $475,000

When all was done and dusted on Book 1, a total of $160,463,000 had been traded on 340 yearlings at an average of $471,950 and median of $355,000.

Given this year’s book was shortened by a session to cover three days – a move seemingly welcomed by the majority of buyers and consignors – year-to-year comparisons will not be strictly accurate. However, it is worth noting that the average and median represent increases of 30% and 18% respectively.

Following a dark day on Thursday, the sale continues on Friday with a two-session Book 2.