In the thoroughbred racing world, Keeneland is equally famous for its other side—its sales operation. It holds four (previously five) annual horse auctions that attract buyers worldwide.
Keeneland Association, Inc. also owns half interest in Turfway Park at Florence, Kentucky; casino and race track giant Harrah's Entertainment owns the other half interest. Through Turfway, Keeneland also owns a part of Kentucky Downs, near Franklin, Kentucky.
Keeneland Association's influence is felt throughout the industry and in Kentucky politics. In recent years, its opposition to allowing slot machines at race tracks in the Commonwealth has largely squelched the issue on the floor of the General Assembly. Competition from riverboat casinos (and Keeneland's "strange bedfellows" partnership with Harrah's at Turfway) is starting to reduce that opposition by the association's members. This ownership arrangement partially explains Keeneland's fondness for tradition.
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The Keeneland Sales is an American Thoroughbred auction house in Lexington, Kentucky founded in 1935 as a nonprofit racing/auction entity on 147 acres (0.59 km2) of farmland west of Lexington, which had been owned by Jack O. Keene. A division of Keeneland Association, Inc., it holds four (previously five) annual horse auctions that attract buyers worldwide:
- January - Horses of All Ages
- This sale, as its name implies, features horses of all ages. Breeding "seasons"—the rights to breed one mare to a specified stallion in a given year—are also sold at this auction.
- April - Two-Year-Olds in Training
- This sale was added in 1993 in response to demand by owners wishing to buy horses in training.
- September - Yearling
- This sale, the world's largest sale of yearlings, has been conducted at various times in the fall since 1944, and was permanently moved to September in 1960. Keeneland accepts all horses nominated to sale, making it the largest market for Thoroughbred yearlings in the world. Format changes instituted in 2010 will introduce a three tier format for the sale that will differentiate animals by pedigree and conformation. "Select" sessions conducted at the beginning of the sale will be formalized, recognizing a practice present for some time. Following the Select sessions an extended 'Book 2' (offering a choicer grade of prospects) period of selling will precede the open yearling sessions that make up the latter half of the sale. In recent years, the September sale has produced a Kentucky Derby winner, an Epsom Derby winner, and an American Horse of the Year.
- November - Breeding Stock
- This sale features all horses capable of breeding, except for yearlings. Stallion "shares"—ownership interests in specific stallions—and seasons are also sold at this auction. Over the years, this has become the world's largest sale of thoroughbreds.
From 1943 to 2002, Keeneland conducted the July Selected Yearling sale. It was considered the most prestigious thoroughbred sales in the world. Numerous champions, including 11 Kentucky Derby winners, were sold here. The yearlings sold were selected by pedigree, and had to pass a physical conformation test before being allowed into the sales ring. The July sale has been canceled annually since 2003, and may be considered to be on "hiatus". When announcing changes to the format of the September Sale in March 2010, Keeneland president and CEO Nick Nicholson said consigner preference made a return of the July sale unlikely.
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“There are no galley-slaves in the royal vessel of divine loveevery man works his oar voluntarily!”
—St. Francis De Sales (15671622)