07/23/2007 12:00AM

Any tiny blemish scares off buyers

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July sale of select yearlings this week began the annual cycle of premium auctions for young athletes, but the marketplace there and elsewhere is offering a mixed message to breeders and consignors. The bright spots have been seen in the headlines of newspapers and trade journals, which rightly detailed the success stories of practically perfect yearlings well sold, but there are other promising youngsters - many of whom were ever so slightly less than perfect on their veterinary exams - that found little reception at the sales.

The winner of last weekend's $1omillion Delaware Handicap was one of those. Unbridled Belle sold for only $4,000 as a yearling at the Keeneland September yearling sale.

Jim Squires had purchased the dam of Unbridled Belle, the stakes-winning mare Little Bold Belle, at Keeneland's November sale in 2003 for $5,000, and he went to inspect the mare's yearling in 2004.

Squires said that, as a yearling, the daughter of the Unbridled stallion Broken Vow was a "big, gangly filly."

"So as a sales horse, she wasn't that good," he said. "Now she's gorgeous and over 17 hands. She's obviously got a lot of talent, but at the time she sold, I believe there were a few X-ray issues also."

If those issues have slowed down Unbridled Belle, she must be a talented filly indeed, as she has won four races and earned $772,840 while racing from 2 through 4.

Squires, best known as the breeder of Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos and Grade 1 winner Cotton Blossom, had a quartet of yearlings in the Fasig-Tipton July sale this week.

He did not find a great deal more joy than the breeder of Unbridled Belle. Squires said: "I didn't do too well out there. A horse doesn't fit in that sale unless it's a smashing individual: big, strong, and early-looking. I had the wrong kind of horses, and they had some little problems."

The best sales yearling for Squires was a colt who is from the first crop of multiple Grade 1 winner Congaree and a half-brother to the current Canadian-based stakes winner Footprint. The colt brought $77,000, and was bought by the Canadian outfit Bear Stable.

Nobody who has analyzed the results of sales over the past several years would say that making a success in the market is easy. There are large numbers of yearlings available to buyers, and a horse with even a minor veterinary finding is less attractive to many possible purchasers, who are looking for a "clean" horse.

As a result, "a horse with a small flaw is bypassed, and that's how you get yearlings like Unbridled Belle for $4,000," Squires said.

The distinction between a well-conformed and athletic prospect likely to meet the requirements for training and a yearling likely to sell well has come down to the minutiae of veterinary examinations.

The overuse of vet reports to strike horses off a buyer's or agent's list has created a hyper-critical environment that penalizes horses for insignificant and often temporary findings.

This situation is the product of the "myth of the perfect yearling" that produces losses for all parties. Just because a yearling is deemed as falling short of a mythical level of perfection, breeders cannot get a reasonable return for their better stock, and buyers miss out on acquiring good runners.

Not surprisingly, those breeders who take pride in their skills at producing good racehorses find the sales rather more harassing than rewarding.

Squires said: "From a single foal crop of eight or nine, we had four horses in stakes this year on the same weekend, but last year, I took every yearling to the sales, except one who had required an operation, and didn't manage to sell a one. There was nothing in any of their X-rays or scope reports more significant than a minor flake, but they wouldn't sell because of the volume of other 'perfect' individuals available."

Squires, however, has decided to counter the situation by playing to his strengths as a breeder of racehorses.

He said: "The 2-year-old market is driving all of this right now. My alternative is to start my own horses, send them to people who won't rush them, and hope my reputation as a breeder of racehorses will sustain me more than any reputation as a producer of sales horses."

He took his crop of yearlings from last year, "sent them down to Camden, and sold shares in them to race, and I stayed in as a partner on all of them."

If he comes up with another Monarchos, Cotton Blossom, or Unbridled Belle from their siblings, he may have pointed the way for like-minded breeders.