Updated on 09/15/2011 12:46PM

After a quick smoke, a $1.85 million bid

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Roger King, who grew up within a roll of the dice of Atlantic City and now owns the entertainment company King World Productions, is a player.

"Yeah, I gamble," he said Tuesday night. Sitting on a green wooden bench outside the Humphrey S. Finney Pavilion, he gestured with a lit cigarette as he counted off his favorite forms of gambling. "Casinos, racetracks, stock market."

A half-hour earlier, King had placed a substantial wager in the bloodstock market, paying $1.85 million for a sizeable bay colt by Unbridled's Song at the opening session of Fasig-Tipton's Saratoga selected yearling sale.

"He wanted to bid on the phone," said King's bloodstock agent, Buzz Chace. "I said, 'Roger, why don't you just get in your plane and come up here and have some fun?' "

King, who is 58 but has the slouch, baggy khakis, and untucked bamboo-print shirt of a college freshman cutting class for a day at the track, had some fun. King, whose company's properties include the popular television shows "Wheel of Fortune" and "Oprah," was one of the reasons Fasig-Tipton also enjoyed the night. The first of three evening sessions, topped by King's $1.85 million acquisition, sold 58 yearlings for total receipts of $17,725,000, up 47 percent from last year, when 45 lots brought $12,032,000. The first-session average jumped from last year's $267,378 to $305,603, and median also rose from $180,000 in 2000 to $205,000 this year.

More impressively, the opening night reversed a marked trend in recent years by yielding a 16 percent buy-back rate. That rate, the percentage of horses who fail to reach the reserve bids their sellers require, has been hovering above 30 percent at selected yearling auctions in the last several years. At the Saratoga sale, the figure actually dropped, from 17 percent last year, indicating that buyers' expectations and sellers' requirements were substantially aligned.

Just before Hip No. 3 came into the sale ring, a crowd of buyers, sellers, and tourists crowded into the pavilion, ringing the upstairs gallery and peering in through the glass doors downstairs. Everyone knew that the colt, a half-brother to Grade 2 winner Graeme Hall and stakes-winner Harmony Lodge, was eligible to bring a million or two. They were expecting the kind of performance that buyers generally give - a tennis match of barely perceptible nods from bidders with intentionally blank expressions - instead got a real show.

Bidding opened at $200,000 and flew to $1.45 million, finally coming down to two men seated just two rows apart on the pavilion's middle seating section: King, seated next to Chace, and just behind them and bidding for himself, Padua Stables principal, Satish Sanan.

The bidding stalled after King's $1.75 million bid, but seconds before the hammer fell, Sanan jumped back in at $1.8 million. Seemingly disgusted, King dramatically waved the bid-spotter off in what is generally a universal sign of capitulation, then stood up, stalked past Sanan and out through the pavilion's glass doors. Chace sat chilly, and so did the sales company's staff.

"He'll be back," Fasig-Tipton announcer Terence Collier coolly observed.

Auctioneer Walt Robertson waited, babbling a sort of verbal holding pattern as, through the glass, startled spectators could see King lighting up a cigarette.

"Did you like that move with the cigarette? I was trying to slow them down," King said later. "There was a lot of billionaires in that room."

But, after several puffs, King tossed the cigarette aside, strode back into the pavilion, and bid $1.85 million. This prompted Sanan to leave his seat and approach King, asking him if he'd like to go partners.

"I don't need a partner," King answered, waving Sanan away. "I own 'Wheel of Fortune.' "

Sanan declined to bid again. As the crowd erupted into applause and cheers, the victorious bidder stood and pumped his fist in the air in celebration as Chace signed the receipt and Sanan turned catalog pages to the next lot on his list (he went on to buy four fillies for $1.82 million).

Less than 100 yards from the pavilion, at the quiet end of Barn 8 West, the session-topping colt's consignor was also celebrating, but without the fist-pumping. Michael Barnett, owner of Blackburn Farm in Spring Station, Ky., stood under a tree outside the colt's stall and was glad the colt's breeder, Joe Greeley of Sabine Stables, got him to the colt for his first consignment at Saratoga.

Hip No. 3 turned out to be quite a nice home run, as Unbridled's Song carried a stud fee of $30,000 when this colt was conceived. Greeley said he chose the stallion partly because "I really thought Unbridled's Song was one of the best horses I ever saw run."

Barnett said: "The thing I liked is that, if you go back through the generations and put it all on paper, there's a whole lot of inbreeding, especially from the In Reality family."

He reeled off names in the pedigree, counting back through the generations and explaining the aesthetic appeal and genetic power of inbreeding to the female family of In Reality and to Raise a Native.

"It's all about quality horses," Barnett said. "I think when you go back and look. . . . "

He paused, then lowered his voice apologetically. "Well, I don't know. Really, it's a crapshoot. You take a shot with a sire."

"It is all a crapshoot," King said of his $1.85 million gamble. "Buzz picks out the horses for me, and he loved this one."

He shrugged, a thin trail of cigarette smoke wafting around his head. "But it's fun to do. It's a game."