04/09/2008 11:00PM

$800K Storm Cat topper a sign of times

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - News of Storm Cat's declining fertility was still fresh on the pages of every major Thoroughbred trade publication Wednesday night when auction-goers arrived at Keeneland's select 2-year-old sale. But the celebrated stallion, now 25 and winding down, proved he's still king in the auction ring when one of his sons topped the sale at $800,000.

The sale-topper, a three-quarter brother to 2005 Kentucky Oaks winner Summerly and the sale's only horse by Storm Cat, was hammered down to a new buyer at Keeneland, Mammed Mirza Gusseynov. Gusseynov did not attend the sale but was described by his agents as a businessman and racetrack owner in Baku, Azerbaijan.

The price was a far cry from the multimillion-dollar figures Storm Cat progeny have brought at auctions in the past, a reflection as much on the newly conservative Thoroughbred economy as on the colt himself.

The Keeneland April sale, the last of five major select juvenile auctions that began on Feb. 12 at Florida's Ocala Breeders' Sales Company, followed the trend seen all season at the so-called boutique markets: High-level buyers were less willing to crack the million-dollar mark for a horse, and prices generally slipped due to smaller catalogs and buyers' tighter spending limits. After a rocky first session Tuesday night, a stronger Wednesday night session lifted Keeneland's bottom line. The sale finished with 77 juveniles sold for $16,299,000, slightly off last year's total of $16,637,000 for 82 horses. The average price was up 4 percent, from $202,890 last year to $211,675, but median price fell 3 percent, from $155,000 to $150,000. The sale-topping price also was lower than last year's sale record of $1.75 million for Patricia's Gem.

The buyback rate improved, falling from last year's 47 percent to 38 percent.

Another factor in the lower prices was the restraint shown by Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum and Coolmore Stud. This year, Maktoum bought a single horse at Keeneland, the sale's $625,000 top-priced filly. That was Hip No. 155, a More Than Ready-Riverboat Miss daughter consigned by the Eddie Woods agency. Coolmore agent Demi O'Byrne did not sign any tickets.

The 2008 auction marked a format change for the Keeneland sale, which previously has been held in a single daylong session rather than in two night sessions.

Don Gato, as the sale-topping Storm Cat colt currently is named, arrived in the bidding arena carrying the lofty expectations of breeders Tom VanMeter, Michael Lowenbaum, and Rand E. Dankner, who sold the colt through consigning agents Randy Hartley and Dean De Renzo. Given the recent news about his sire's fertility, Don Gato looked to be one of a limited edition. And he was manifestly speedy, having covered an eighth of a mile in 10.20 seconds at Monday's under-tack preview.

"I thought he was well bought," a somewhat subdued VanMeter said of the price. "We all want as much as we can get, especially when you breed a mare like that. I booked the mare to Storm Cat immediately after Summerly won the Oaks. That Monday I called Ric Waldman" - who manages Storm Cat for Overbrook Farm - "and the first words out of his mouth were, 'Do you want to foal-share?' I said, 'No, I want to try to sell one for $12 million or whatever."

But the days of a possible $12 million price tag for a yearling or 2-year-old appear to be over, at least for now.

"General market conditions? The country's in a recession," said consignor Kip Elser of Kirkwood Stables with a shrug. "There are plenty of good horses here, and there are plenty of horses that trained well and came back sound. The buyers at the top end are the ones who are probably most immune to the recession, but the ones below them are not. The buyers at the top don't have to pay $1 million anymore, so why should they?"

That, of course, is good news for buyers like Gusseynov, who could pick up a top prospect at, perhaps, a discount.

"This is why we came," said Gusseynov's advisor, Guy Khoury, who accompanied purchasing agent Hanzly Albina. "To see the horse. For the moment, the horse will stay here, and later we will see. There were many other horses, of course, but he was number one for us."

Gusseynov sent Khoury and Albina specifically to buy the Storm Cat colt, but they also came away with a $75,000 Smarty Jones-Dance on the Green colt that the Jerry Bailey Sales Agency sold. They were Gusseynov's first Keeneland purchases, Khoury said, though he has bought horses from other American sales.

Khoury said Gusseynov has no runners in the United States now, understandably preferring to campaign horses at his track in Azerbaijan. That presented a downside to the sale from Don Gato's breeders' point of view: If Don Gato relocates and becomes a champion in the former Soviet republic, it will add little commercial value to production record of his dam, the graded-placed Mr. Prospector mare Here I Go. But Gusseynov's participation was a welcome sign for 2-year-old sellers, who have long expressed frustration that their shop needs more new customers to help spread the wealth. One way to attract those buyers, sale director Russell said after the auction, is to add more horses, something he would like to have in 2009.

"If there's anything I'd change, I think at boutique sales, you need a critical mass of horses to attract buyers," Russell said. "When you don't have that, some people just don't come."

But some changes are more complicated than tinkering with the catalog, and they are out of Keeneland's control.

"The economy's a lot different today than it was this day last year, " Russell said. "Look at the Shell prices on Alexandria Drive, and that's a good example. The difference between now and then: the economy."