09/13/2010 2:10PM

$4.2M A.P. Indy colt is highest priced yearling purchase since 2006

Keeneland/Coady Photography
Hip No. 14, an A.P. Indy-Balance yearling, sells for $4.2 million on Sunday at the Keeneland September sale.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – As the bidding for Hip No. 14 escalated, even the jaded horse-traders in Keeneland’s sale pavilion craned their necks like kids at a circus to spot who, in this infamously lackluster economy, would bid more than $4 million, for a yearling?

It wasn’t the man you might think. Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum was not at the sale grounds Sunday night for the Keeneland September sale’s opening session, which coincided with the end of Ramadan and the festival of Eid. His agent, John Ferguson, was not standing in his customary spot behind the pavilion when Hip No. 14, an A.P. Indy colt out of Zenyatta’s half-sister Balance, was in the ring. Maktoum’s brother, Sheikh Hamdan, was at Keeneland but had been making his bids invisibly, from “up on the hill,” in a room in the Keeneland offices.

This new bidder, on the other hand, was in the middle of the pavilion and bidding with confidence. His name was Benjamin Leon, and his $4.2 million final bid for the A.P. Indy colt reminded the commercial breeders that there was still such a thing as an out-of-the-park home run in the Thoroughbred market.

Leon’s purchase, the highest U.S. yearling auction price since Sheikh Mohammed bought Meydan City for $11.7 million in 2006, padded Keeneland’s bottom line, getting the reformatted September sale off to a good start. Sunday’s session sold 69 yearlings for $23,965,000, yielding an average of $347,319 and a $250,000 median. Due to the reformatting, the figures could not be compared fairly with last year, when the opening day cataloged 207 yearlings and sold 107 for $24,949,000. The average and median then were $233,168 and $200,000, respectively, and buybacks were high at 41 percent.

Many had expected the 2010 buyback rate to drop as banks pressured sellers to pay off outstanding loans, and the figure did decrease to 26 percent.

The session-topping A.P. Indy colt is the first yearling breeders Jerry and John Amerman have ever sold at auction, and his price was, John Amerman said, “at the upper level of our expectations.”

Video of Hip No. 14 via Keeneland's Youtube channel

“Balance seems to be a very good producer,” said Amerman, who consigned the colt through Mill Ridge Sales. “She has a Street Cry on the ground and is in foal to Street Cry. They’re all colts, and the advice from various people was maybe we should sell the first colt. It was a very difficult decision. A lot of mixed emotions. But we said, ‘Let’s put him in and see what happens.’ And he turned out to be a spectacular individual.”

Sunday night was the first time many had laid eyes on Leon, the owner of Besilu Stables in Ocala, Fla. But it was not the first time Leon has caused a stir at a boutique Thoroughbred sale over an A.P. Indy colt. Last month in New York, Leon’s trainer Todd Pletcher paid a sale-topping $1.2 million for one out of 2007 champion sprinter Maryfield at the Saratoga select auction.

Like a canny old hand, at Keeneland Leon waited to make his first bid on the A.P. Indy colt until only the most serious money was left in the running. Then he offered $3.5 million and didn’t stop bidding until Coolmore boss John Magnier, behind the pavilion with partner Michael Tabor, shook his head and declined to raise, leaving the colt to Leon.

It was the kind of moment Keeneland executives hoped for when they dramatically reshaped the September sale’s select sessions, the first two days of the auction. Keeneland moved selling from afternoon to night in a bid to infuse more glamor to the proceedings, and they halved the number of horses in the catalog, from about 400 over the two days to about 100 each night.

Buyers still have 4,857 yearlings to sort through at the auction as a whole, but they appreciated the tighter focus on a smaller group of select yearlings.

“If they create a group of horses that are real A-Class, and it’s based on quality and not on who’s got pull – and I think that’s what they’re trying to do – then it’s a good thing,” said homebreeder Robert Krembil of Chiefswood Stable, who bought a $525,000 First Samurai half-sister to Eskendereya from Woods Edge Farm, agent. “Just so long as it’s a really good class of horse, in terms of pedigree and conformation. We’re interested in those kinds of animals, and it just makes it easier when they’re all in a group together.”

Krembil, son Mark, and grandson Jake spotted opportunity in a relatively weak overall Thoroughbred market and, with bloodstock adviser Jim Schenck, they were taking advantage of it.

“We’re always looking to upgrade,” Krembil said. “So if we find something from a family that wasn’t available before, this filly being a prime example, that’s an opportunity.”

Sheikh Mohammed, though absent, did buy one colt, by his Bernardini out of Grade 1 winner Victory Ride; Lane’s End was the consignor. Maktoum’s brother Sheikh Hamdan, attending the auction for the first time in three years, bought six yearlings for a combined $2,885,000; the most expensive, also a Lane’s End-consigned Bernardini colt, was a three-quarter-brother to Kentucky Oaks winner Secret Status. The Maktoums have slowed their spending at this year’s boutique yearling auctions in the United States and abroad, prompting fears of further softening in the upper market.

Leon, who also bought a $475,000 Pulpit-Chimichurri filly from Stonestreet Stables (Warrendale, agent), found the market less than soft on Hip No. 14. But he was unperturbed by risking $4.2 million on a yearling. Leon is fond of recounting his arrival in the United States from Cuba and his early days as a dishwasher, followed by entrepreneurial success, first with his father, then as founder of Leon Medical Centers. Already a prominent Paso Fino breeder, Leon now intends to develop a small, select Thoroughbred program and eventually breed to race and sell.

Risk-aversion doesn’t figure into Leon’s plans for his A.P. Indy colt.

“There are no guarantees in life, especially in horses,” he said. “No one has a crystal ball. But the odds are with us. The degree of success in life in anything is equal to the degree of risk you take. I think this is a calculated risk.”

Still, even Leon has focused on stock from established sires and shied away from unproven first-crop sires. A.P. Indy was the session’s leading sire, with a $1,157,000 average for five yearlings.

But at least two men were at Keeneland particularly to see yearlings by one first-crop sire: Street Sense. The 2007 Kentucky Derby winner’s owner and breeder, Jim Tafel, and his jockey Calvin Borel bumped into each other Sunday night in the pavilion before the auction started. There were two Street Senses in Sunday’s catalog: the filly out of Sobinka was a $70,000 buyback, but the son of Sweet Little Avie brought $230,000 from Pelican LLC.

“That was probably my greatest moment in my career,” Borel said of Street Sense’s Derby. “So I wanted to see his babies.”

Taking his place in the pavilion alongside his wife Lisa, brother Cecil, and Thoroughbred owner Clifford Grumm, he added: “And we might bid on a couple for Mr. Grumm and see what happens.”

Another sire, the pensioned Storm Cat, was at the other end of the career spectrum. The great sire, so dominant at this auction in the last 15 years, was represented by one colt Sunday night, a son of Grade 1 winner Halo America. Kaleem Shah, who earlier bought a $950,000 Giant’s Causeway-Spunoutacontrol colt from Lane’s End, paid $320,000 for the full brother to Grade 1-placed Marino Marini.

Storm Cat’s last yearling ever to go through an auction ring was to sell early Monday night. The filly, Hip No. 108, is out of the stakes-placed Gone West mare Western Princess.

The Keeneland September sale was to conduct its final select session Monday night, followed by daily sessions through Sept. 26 starting at 10 a.m. Tuesday. There is a dark day on Sept. 18.