02/28/2006 1:00AM

$16 million for Forestry colt

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Hip No. 153, a 2-year-old colt by Forestry, draws the largest bid for a Thoroughbred at auction.

MIAMI - It was one of those last-minute decisions. Dean De Renzo was sitting next to his business partner, trainer Randy Hartley, at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky yearling sale last July, and Hartley had just bowed out on the bidding for a striking Forestry colt. The auctioneer had his gavel suspended, about to hammer the colt down to another bidder, when De Renzo suddenly raised his hand and bid $425,000, more than they had planned to spend on a horse that they hoped to resell profitably seven months later as a juvenile.

Great moments often hang on such little caprices. On Tuesday at Fasig-Tipton's Calder select juvenile auction, the bay Forestry-Magical Masquerade colt sold to Coolmore for $16 million, a world record for any Thoroughbred at auction, shattering the $13.1 million record for Seattle Dancer at the 1985 Keeneland July yearling sale.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same: It was Coolmore partner Robert Sangster who paid the $13.1 million for Seattle Dancer, and he was driven to that price by a relative newcomer to the business, Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum. Maktoum was underbidder again 21 years later on the Forestry colt.

The bidding started off conventionally enough. Auctioneer Walt Robertson asked for an opening bid of $5 million but got a starting price of $500,000, a price considered reasonable at this boutique auction. But within minutes, it became clear that this was going to be no ordinary sale, as Coolmore agent Demi O'Byrne and Maktoum's representative, John Ferguson, locked horns.

There was no one else in the contest as the price passed $4 million, then $5 million, then $6 million.

Spectators stopped what they were doing and watched with rapt attention as the bids bounced from one side of the auctioneer's stand to the other. Ferguson, standing obscured among the crowd just behind the auction ring and to the auctioneer's left, bid with a brief nod. But every raise was met with a speedy and forceful response from O'Byrne, who appeared unusually determined to get this colt.

Robertson swiveled in his seat to take bids from one and then the other, while the spectators excitedly gasped and shifted in their seats to watch the unfolding drama. The price passed Seattle Dancer's mark when Ferguson bid $13.5 million. O'Byrne countered with $14 million. Ferguson then attempted to kill him off with a $1 million raise to $15 million, but O'Byrne hung on and offered $15.2 million.

"I thought in the end I wouldn't get him," O'Byrne confided afterward.

When Ferguson returned with $15.5 million, O'Byrne paused but fired back the winning bid of $16 million.

When the hammer fell, the crowd erupted in cheers and applause. The world-record colt, startled, wheeled around his handler in the auction ring, kicking tanbark over spectators in nearby seats. Announcer Terence Collier pleaded for calm and quiet, but to little avail. A crowd pressed around the famously taciturn O'Byrne, who signed the historic ticket with an uncharacteristically shaky hand.

"He was special," O'Byrne said in an attempt to explain the $16 million price, then added, "He must have been!"

In the history of Thoroughbred auctions, whatever he does from here, the as-yet-unnamed Forestry colt will always be special.

"The beauty of the auction process is that magical things can happen when the right players get involved and the money is not an issue for them," said Boyd Browning, chief operating officer of Fasig-Tipton. "It's all about the horse for them - and the quest to have the best."

The battle between Coolmore and Maktoum had been eagerly anticipated all week at Calder. And it was clear which horse they were likely to clash over: Hip No. 153, the Hartley and De Renzo colt.

The handsome colt with a wide blaze down his face had dazzled buyers and rival sellers alike at the auction's first under-tack preview on Feb. 19, sizzling an eighth-mile in 9.8 seconds. He dazzled - and relieved - his sellers, too, because they had never seen him breeze until that public presale workout.

Hartley had decided for the first time not to breeze any of the Hartley/De Renzo juveniles before shipping them to the sale, in an effort to reduce the pressure on the horses and prevent soreness.

The speedy work was eye-popping on its own, but for the shrewd buying agents lined up along the rail that morning, the more important thing was how the colt had done it, with a floating, effortless stride that makes even hardened horsemen entertain Kentucky Derby dreams.

People started talking, De Renzo said, and they were throwing around wild predictions that Hip No. 153 could sell big, maybe as big as $10 million.

"I tried not to think about it," De Renzo said, "and I didn't put a number in my head, purposely. I heard $10 million, but I didn't pay any attention to it."

De Renzo and Hartley watched the bidding from directly behind the auction ring, standing between O'Byrne and Ferguson, and, as they watched, their fortunes changed forever. But there was little time for celebrating as the colt left the ring. Hartley's immediate concern was getting the colt, now wound up from the excitement of the auction ring, safely into his stall, and he quickly the followed his charge - now a world-record charge - back to Calder's barn 76 while De Renzo remained in the paddock to field press questions.

A reporter asked De Renzo whether he would have to sell another horse this year.

"I probably never have to sell another horse in my life!" he said. "But, you know, we'll probably reinvest it back in horses. They've done a lot for us."

How much the world-record colt will do for Coolmore now remains to be seen.

"Time will tell," said O'Byrne, who also said that the colt would stay in America.

The sale-ring crowds, having seen history made, gradually melted away from the makeshift auction pavilion in Calder's saddling paddock. But the auction was still underway at 6 p.m., and horses were bringing million-dollar prices. The second-highest price by that time was Hip No. 35, a $2.2 million Storm Cat-Brushed Halory colt that trainer Dale Romans bought on behalf of an unidentified partnership. The price would have topped the sale in former days, but now it seemed ordinary. Hartley and DeRenzo's agency, incidentally, sold that one, too.

"And we've got a couple of other big horses coming up," De Renzo said before taking his leave to return to the barn. But not, he acknowledged, as big as the $16 million colt his staff had nicknamed "Frosty" for his cool demeanor. It was funny, De Renzo recalled, to think that when he had jumped in with his last-minute bid on the colt at that yearling sale, it had seemed such a risk.

"I said, 'Well, Randy, he's ours now!' " he said. "When you spend nearly half a million dollars on one horse, it is a risk. But it all fit for us. So we went the extra mile for us to buy him, and now they've gone the extra mile to buy him from us."

Now, as O'Byrne said, only time will tell.

Top-priced horses at public auction

YEARNAMESEXPEDIGREESALEPRICE
2006unnamedCForestry - Magical MasqueradeFasig-Tipton Calder 2-year-olds$16,000,000
1985Seattle DancerCNijinsky II - My CharmerKeeneland July yearlings13,100,000
1983Snaafi DancerCNorthern Dancer - My BupersKeeneland July yearlings10,200,000
2005unnamedCStorm Cat - Tranquility LakeKeeneland September yearlings9,700,000
2005AshadoFSaint Ballado - GoulashKeeneland November breeding stock9,000,000
1984Imperial FalconCNorthern Dancer - BalladeKeeneland July yearlings8,250,000
2004Mr. SekiguchiCStorm Cat - Welcome SurpriseKeeneland September yearlings8,000,000
1984JareerCNorthern Dancer - Fabuleux JaneKeeneland July yearlings7,100,000
2003Cash RunFSeeking the Gold - Shared InterestKeeneland November breeding stock7,100,000
1985Laa EtaabCNijinsky II - Crimson SaintKeeneland July yearlings7,000,000
1985Miss OceanaFAyldar - KittiwakeFasig-Tipton Kentucky dispersal7,000,000
1998KorveyaFRiverman - KonafaKeeneland November breeding stock7,000,000