Commentary

The Thoroughbred Draft

Updated: September 16, 2010, 5:16 PM ET
By Amanda Duckworth | Special to ESPN.com

I once had a friend ask me why I like attending Keeneland's September yearling sale. The answer is simple, really. If you think about it, the marathon two-week event is thoroughbred racing's equivalent to the NFL draft.

Almost 5,000 horses were entered in this year's sale, and the likely sale topper, an A.P. Indy colt out of Zenyatta's Grade 1-winning half-sister Balance, sold for $4.2 million Sept. 12. By the end of the sale, horses will be going for the minimum amount of $1,000, and others will not even receive a bid.

While spending $4.2 million on an unraced 1-year-old horse is mind boggling to some, it really is no different than the millions spent to secure a No. 1 draft pick.

For instance, in 1998 Fusao Sekiguchi paid $4 million for a handsome Mr. Prospector colt at the Keeneland July sale (which was discontinued in 2003). Two years later, Fusaichi Pegasus became the first favorite to win the Kentucky Derby since Spectacular Bid in 1979. He was later syndicated for $60 million and took up stallion duties at Ashford Stud in Versailles, Ky.

In 2005, Jerry and Ann Moss purchased a strapping Street Cry filly for $60,000 at the Keeneland September sale. These days, she is better known as undefeated champion Zenyatta and has earned $6,254,580.

While sale toppers obviously have the potential to be special, there is no guarantee. History is littered with horses (and players) who simply did not live up to expectations. The Keeneland sale is designed in such a way that the horses with the most obvious potential are sold first. But, just like a player that gets drafted with little fanfare, sometimes the best horses come from modest beginnings.

In 2005, Jerry and Ann Moss purchased a strapping Street Cry filly for $60,000 at the Keeneland September sale. These days, she is better known as undefeated champion Zenyatta and has earned $6,254,580. To put it another way, her purchase price was less than 1 percent of what she has earned to date.

For those that are curious, the sale topper that year sold for $9.7 million. Named Jalil, he won a Group 2 race in Dubai and earned $336,188.

Evening Jewel, another multiple Grade 1 winner this year, would definitely qualify as a diamond in the rough. She was purchased for just $8,000 at the 2008 September sale. Champion Lookin At Lucky was offered at the same sale but failed to meet his reserve when bidding stopped at $35,000. He would later be sold at Keeneland's 2-year-old sale for $475,000. These are but a few examples of the quality of horse offered at the auction every year.

Another great thing about the Keeneland September sale -- which is the largest horse auction in the world -- is that anyone who is anyone in the sport can be spotted, and if they aren't there, you can bet they have a representative on the scene instead.

For instance, Todd Pletcher was involved with the purchase of the $4.2 million colt, and he will be training him as well. The immediate under bidder on the horse was none other than Bob Baffert. As the price went up, so did the excitement in the air.

Another perk is seeing the offspring of favorite horses from years past. This year, I was most excited about an A.P. Indy filly out of 2006 champion older mare Fleet Indian. She ended up failing to meet her reserve when bidding stopped at $385,000 but it was still fun to see her.

Even if the sale scene isn't your thing, it is worth it to attend at least one. The auctioneers become almost hypnotic as they take bids; there are horses of every imaginable size, shape and color; and the people-watching is phenomenal.

(For example, only at a horse sale would you see a prominent owner sporting a "That's What She Said" T-shirt while talking to a priest in the walking ring.)

Each horse has its own story and odds are at some point in its life it went through a sales ring. Once you attend a sale, you will have a greater appreciation for the amount of work that goes into getting a horse to the races.

Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Write to her at amanda.duckworth@ymail.com