The market for racehorses took a big spill during the recession and didn't look ready for a comeback anytime soon. But suddenly, Thoroughbred prices are charging ahead.
The Keeneland September Yearling Sale—the nation's premiere Thoroughbred auction—is just winding down, and the numbers resemble those from precrisis boom times.
Keeneland said 18 yearlings sold for $1 million or more. That's the highest total since 2008 and more than twice last year's total. The most expensive sale was $2.5 million. Though that's below the top-horse price in 2006, which topped $11 million, it's more than double last year's.
(Read more: Moving million-dollar racehorses)
Sales this year total over $264 million, up 23 percent from last year and the highest since 2008. The average price of $130,780 is up 31 percent from 2012.
The leading buyer for the sale was Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, of the United Arab Emirates. His Shadwell Estate picked up at least 27 horses for a total of $11.6 million.
Auction experts said the top prices were driven by the diverse demand from buyers across the world: Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia.
(Read more: Thoroughbred prices on the mend)
"It was certainly a successful week in terms of top horses, average, gross and buy-back percentage," said Walt Robertson, Keeneland's vice president of sales.
The $2.5 million colt was purchased by M.V. Magnier, of Coolmore Stud. "Very nice horse," said Magnier. "He was a good mover with nice legs."
(CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the leading buyer for the sale. The leading buyer was Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum.)
—By CNBC's Robert Frank. Follow him on Twitter: