01/13/2009 12:00AM

$4.4 million bid for Azeri rejected

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The final $4.4 million bid was not enough to convince seller Michael Paulson to part with Azeri (above) during Monday's sale at Keeneland.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Horse of the Year and three-time champion Azeri went through the ring as scheduled Monday at Keeneland's January all-ages sale, but the final $4.4 million bid was not enough to convince seller Michael Paulson to part with her, even on a day that saw 40- to 50-percent declines across the board.

Azeri was in foal to 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper, and fetal sexing shows that she is carrying a filly, according to Paulson. Paulson consigned Azeri through John Sikura's Hill 'n' Dale sales agency.

The high-priced buyback left a pair of $950,000 mares, Island Fashion and Almonsoon, the session-toppers. Almonsoon, also sold by Paulson through the Hill 'n' Dale agency, went to Southern Equine Stables as a racing or broodmare prospect. The Everest Stables-owned Island Fashion, consigned by Crestwood Farm and pregnant to Ghostzapper, sold to Katsumi Yoshida's Northern Farm in Japan.

Elusive Diva, another Grade 1 performer, brought the day's second-highest price of $825,000 from buyer Ramona Bass. Denali Stud, agent, sold the mare in foal to Giant's Causeway.

"I think the good mares are going to go for money, period," Bass said, echoing the general assessment. "But I think it was a great price for her."

The Keeneland January sale follows a 2008 season of decline in the international bloodstock market that has seen prices tumble 40 to 60 percent for bloodstock. Consignors approached the January market nervously but found some bright spots. Still, buyers and sellers agreed that even higher-quality offerings were selling at discounts relative to prices similar stock brought a year ago.

The session reflected earlier bloodstock sales' losses, selling 202 horses for $11,945,900, a drop of 44 percent from last year's opener, when 195 sold. Average fell 46 percent, from $109,364 to $59,138, and median lost 51 percent, falling from $55,000 to $27,000. Buybacks dropped from 33 percent to 27 percent this year as sellers sought to move assets.

The session's numerous outs, totaling 131 of 406 cataloged, or 32 percent, indicated that many sellers had opted to withdraw horses that appeared unlikely to reach their reserves. Last year, there were 74 outs in an opening session catalog of 365 horses, or about 20 percent of the catalog.

Paulson, for one, said he thought bidders would breach Azeri's reserve once bidding passed $4 million on Sikura's bid. But bidding stalled soon afterwards.

Sikura said he had hoped to buy the mare in partnership. Because he had an interest in acquiring Azeri himself, Sikura said he had asked Paulson not to tell him the reserve price.

Paulson would not disclose the reserve to media, either, saying only that $4.4 million was "very, very close."

"We're going to talk to a few people and see if we can do a deal here shortly," he said. "But, if not, we'll take her home and get the Ghostzapper foal.

"In a good market, she'd have brought double that," he added.

Paulson - son of Azeri's late owner-breeder, Allen Paulson - also bought back Azeri's A.P. Indy colt, Vallenzeri, for a record buyback price of $7.7 million at the Keeneland 2008 September yearling sale. He has entered the colt in Keeneland's April 2-year-old sale with consignor Eddie Woods.

Asked whether the earlier buyback might have dampened buyers' confidence that he was serious about selling Azeri, Paulson said: "I can't speak for other people, but, obviously, if they were in my shoes and had a living female Horse of the Year, the only three-time Eclipse Award-winning older mare champion ever, they would be in the same position I was in. I adjusted our reserve to reflect the market, but she has a value, and I was going to let her go for extremely good value, but unfortunately we're victims of the global financial market."

While upscale horses such as Island Fashion, Almonsoon, and Elusive Diva still showed considerable residual value, sellers and buyers alike said they felt even the session's more expensive horses were selling for less than they would have brought a year ago.

Crestwood Farm owner Pope McLean, who consigned Island Fashion, was in an especially good position to appreciate the market shift that has cut mare prices so dramatically.

"We're satisfied with the price, but I think if it had been a year ago, it would have been double that," he said of Island Fashion's $950,000 price tag.

Still, rather than focusing on what might have been in earlier markets, McLean was thankful he had had such a good mare to sell now. And, like most of his peers, he was concentrating on putting as many high-quality horses as possible in his barn to help him weather the current economic storm.

"I think everyone feels like we're just going to have to ride this out for a couple of years and hope everybody can tighten their belts and hang on, and, who knows, maybe it comes back even better than ever," he said.

The sale continues through Saturday.