04/07/2009 12:00AM

$7.7M buyback in 2008 sells for $1.9M


LEXINGTON, Ky. - "He finally found a home!"

That was how trainer Bob Baffert put it Monday night after signing the ticket for $1.9 million Vallenzeri, the 2-year-old son of two Horses of the Year: A.P. Indy and Azeri. Vallenzeri became notorious last year when he became the world's most expensive buyback at Keeneland's September yearling sale on a final hammer price of $7.7 million. This time, Vallenzeri's trip to the Keeneland April 2-year-old auction Monday resulted in a sale.

After a vigorous duel between trainer Bob Baffert and bloodstock agent Steve Young, Baffert bought the chestnut colt for a session-topping $1.9 million on behalf Kaleem Shah. Shah is founder and president of Calnet, an information technology consulting company that also provides intelligence analysis and linguistic services to clients including the U.S. government.

Vallenzeri's price notwithstanding, Monday's first of two sessions ended with losses in gross and median, as widely expected in a season that has seen the select 2-year-old market decline roughly 30 percent from last year. Opening night sold 31 juveniles for $6,885,000, down 3 percent from last season, when 34 horses sold. The average rose 6 percent to $222,097 from last year's $209,618. But the median fell 27 percent, from $165,000 to $120,000.

The buyback rate declined slightly, from 47 percent at last year's opener to 46 percent.

The average benefited from Vallenzeri's $1.9 million price tag as well as from the high number of withdrawals. Forty-nine juveniles, or about 46 percent of the horses cataloged for the session, were scratches. That was a sign sellers saw a highly selective marketplace and in many cases pulled horses that appeared unlikely to reach their reserves.

The scratches and plunge in median indicated that the Keeneland sale, while better on paper, was largely in line with the season's overall marketplace declines.

Vallenzeri's record September buyback wasn't the only time his owners, the Allen E. Paulson Living Trust, had made splashy headlines over a high-priced buyback. The trust also bought back his dam, three-time champion and 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri, for $4.4 million at the 2009 Keeneland January sale, leading to speculation among buyers that the trust wasn't entirely enthusiastic about selling.

On March 24, a California judge's ruling removed the late Paulson's son, Michael Paulson, as the Allen E. Paulson Living Trust's trustee, a decision Michael Paulson said he will appeal.

This is not the kind of baggage a 2-year-old consignor wants for his top sale prospect, but that was the position agent Eddie Woods was in. On the plus side, as soon as the colt arrived at his training farm in Ocala, Fla., Woods recognized he had real promise.

"I always loved the horse," Woods said.

"He would have brought a lot of money as a yearling, but obviously people then had other ideas about what a lot of money is."

Vallenzeri validated Woods's confidence with a handy eighth-mile work in 10.20 seconds at the April 2 under-tack show, but buyers' concern that he would have an unreachable reserve proved hard to shake.

"We took a lot of busting, just friendly jibing, like, 'Who are you going to get to bid on him?' That kind of thing," Woods said. "But we did a lot of telling people he was going to get bought, and if people liked him, they needed to pay attention. Thankfully, they did.

"For a while, I didn't think he was going to bring that kind of money," he said of the final price. "But then here lately people seemed like they were getting warmer to him. They were getting over the negativity, and I think they listened when we told them, 'Look, the reserve isn't where everyone thinks it's going to be. This horse is here to be sold, because he needs to be sold.' "

After an opening bid of $100,000, Vallenzeri's price escalated rapidly until the battle was down to two men: Baffert, seated near the front of the pavilion, and Young, seated in the six or eight rows behind him. Young, in touch with his client via Blackberry, initially bowed out after Baffert bid $1.8 million. But he reconsidered and bid $1.85 million, then shut his wallet for good when Baffert answered at $1.9 million. Young declined to disclose his client, but he came back shortly to buy a $320,000 Touch Gold-Field of Glory filly from Paragon Farm (Stephens Thoroughbreds, agent) and a $530,000 Unbridled's Song-In the Storm colt from Niall Brennan, agent.

Baffert also was a repeat buyer. After signing for Vallenzeri, he picked up the next horse through the ring, a $370,000 Songandaprayer-Beach Bunny colt that had put up the under-tack show's fastest eighth-mile time of 9.80 seconds. Baffert's client, seated next to him, was Bernie Schiappa, co-owner of 2006 Blue Grass Stakes winner Sinister Minister.

But the talk of the night was of Vallenzeri. Baffert had seen, but not bid on, the colt last September. Since then, he said, the colt had only improved.

"I loved the way he moved, and that's usually half the battle right there," Baffert said. "He's by a champion out of a champion, he's a good-looking horse, very well-conformed, he's got a fluid way of moving. It sort of takes a lot of the guesswork out of it."

Baffert said Vallenzeri will head to California and he probably will get a new name before a start in late summer or fall.

"It's a whole new page here, so we're gonna change the name," he said.