11/12/2009 1:00AM

Azeri sells for $2.25M

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Photos By Z/Keeneland
Azeri was purchased by a breeder from Japan, where she will take up residence

LEXINGTON, Ky. - The second time was the charm for Azeri.

The 2002 Horse of the Year went through Keeneland's January sale this year, only to be bought back for $4.4 million by the Allen E. Paulson Living Trust. Ten months later, the trust tried again at Keeneland's November auction and got the job done, selling the famous chestnut mare to Japanese breeder Katsumi Yoshida for a session-topping $2.25 million.

Azeri was carrying a Distorted Humor foal and sold through the Hill 'n' Dale agency's consignment.

Tuesday's opening session of the sale was marked by severe downturns in gross and average. The session sold 126 horses for $26,291,500, down 45 percent from last year's total for 149 horses. The $208,663 average was 35 percent lower than last year's, and the $160,000 median fell 14 percent from 2008.

The sale started on a cautious note as America's commercial breeders reined in spending for broodmares after a bruising season at the 2009 yearling sales.

Foreign buyers, heavily recruited to the auction, picked up some of the slack in the broodmare market. In addition to Yoshida, the sale results listed buyers from Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, France, Mexico, England, and Ireland.

Australian agent Vin Cox, representing an Australian commercial breeder, signed for $735,000 Tears I Cry in foal to Curlin. Select Sales was the consignor. Cox said his client was one of about 40 Australian buyers at the auction.

"Our industry's in a fairly good position," Cox said. "We've got a good racing product and a lot of interest in racing. Our general economy is a lot stronger than the American economy, and our dollar is 50 percent stronger than it was this time last year. So all those factors add up to our being a lot stronger than we normally are at this market."

But the market for mares remained soft for all but the most obviously desirable horses. Withdrawals were numerous, and some sellers who valued their fillies and mares very highly did not make sales. Frank Stronach's Adena Springs bought Grade 1 winner Romance Is Diane for $1.35 million a year ago at this auction. Attempting to sell her Tuesday in foal to Adena stallion Ghostzapper, Adena Springs bought her back at $700,000. Another Grade 1 winner, Swift Temper, at first appeared to sell for $2.05 million, but the receipt in fact went to her owner, Mark Stanley, who signed his name and printed RNA - for "reserve not attained" - below it. Stanley had offered the 5-year-old Giant's Causeway mare as a racing or broodmare prospect, the very thing that last year was holding its value even during a steep economic slide. Not so, this year.

"She's special to us," Stanley said. "She means a lot to us. I was torn about putting her in the sale at all. I just couldn't let her go when it came time."

As domestic breeders reined in spending for mares, it left an opportunity for bidders like Yoshida. After signing the receipt for Azeri on behalf of his father, Shunsuke Yoshida said, "We didn't expect we could buy this mare."

Yoshida had been on the phone with his father and started bidding around $1.7 million, but even then they felt the price would soon pass their limit, Shunsuke said.

"We had a budget, and she went a little bit over our budget," he acknowledged.

Yoshida said Azeri will go to Japan, where her foal might be sold at the select foal sale in 2010.

Among the losing bidders was English-based agent Tom Goff, who bowed out at $1.7 million, just as the Yoshidas got in.

"You've got to be there for a mare like that," Goff said. "We obviously didn't have quite their firepower. We were probably hoping to get her for a little less than she was worth."

Azeri's sale ended one chapter of the Allen E. Paulson Living Trust's Keeneland saga. That started in 2008, when the trust, then led by co-trustee Michael Paulson, controversially bought back Azeri's yearling A. P. Indy colt, now named Take Control, for $7.7 million. After Azeri's $4.4 million RNA in January, a California judge removed Paulson from his role as trustee, a move Paulson has said he will appeal.

Many domestic breeders leery of buying mares this year invested in weanlings instead. Even a number of commercial breeders, traditionally mare buyers at the November auctions, were sifting through weanlings in the catalog. Why weanlings?

"You're taking a gamble that you can get something that turns out nice in time to sell next year as a yearling," one commercial breeder explained. Another incentive: The stud fee already had been paid months ago by someone else.

Racehorse owners also spent aggressively for weanlings. Maverick Racing paid the top weanling price of $440,000 for the Greenfield Farm agency's Tiznow-Emmy's Storm colt (Hip No. 195), and agent Mike McMahon spent $420,000 for Hip No. 39, a weanling Street Cry-Pathway to Heaven colt that Liberation Farm and Highfield Bloodstock sold through Hunter Valley's agency.

McMahon said his client in the transaction, New Yorker Sam Nappi, will probably race the foal. But McMahon pointed out that weanling-to-yearling pinhookers generally fared better than others at the 2009 yearling auctions, making pinhooking an appealing prospect again.

The Keeneland auction runs until Nov. 22, with sessions starting daily at 10 a.m.