01/11/2006 1:00AM

Bargains rare at strong Keeneland sale


LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Keeneland January all-ages sale entered its third day Wednesday with just a single million-dollar lot to its credit. But the auction's dramatic financial gains across the board revealed a market that was strong overall and not reliant on a few spectacular horses selling at the top.

Through Wednesday's third session, the auction had sold 743 lots for $56,283,300, up 26 percent from last season's gross for 750 horses. The 2006 three-day average price was $75,751, a gain of 27 percent from last season at the same point, while the median soared by 60 percent to $40,000. The Wednesday session's top price was the $340,000 that Frank Stronach paid for Northern Mischief, a 4-year-old half-sister to champion Gourmet Girl. Lakland, agent, sold the Yankee Victor filly as a racing or broodmare prospect.

The Tuesday session-topper - and the overall sale-topper through Wednesday - was $1 million broodmare prospect Girl Warrior. Jerre Paxton's Northwest Farms purchased her from Paramount Sales, agent. Girl Warrior was still the auction's sole million-dollar sale by Wednesday evening.

Keeneland's director of sales, Geoffrey Russell, pointed to the number of international buyers as one reason for the strength evident both at the top and the middle of the market. Japanese interests, in particular, appeared frequently on the buyers' list. Most notable among them was Isami Nakamura, who scooped up the opening session's highest-priced lot, the broodmare prospect One for Rose, for $875,000, and the mare Unbeknown for $340,000. Other buyers based overseas included Margaret O'Toole, Swordlestown Stud, and agents James Delahooke and Jean Pierre Deroubaix.

On day three, prices traditionally drop from the $500,000-and-up range that spectators have come to expect at Keeneland's tonier sessions, and this year was no different. But bargain-hunting still wasn't easy.

"I've gotten close, but not too often," Blackburn Farm owner Michael Barnett, a commercial breeder and consigning agent, said of his bidding. "It's stronger than November."

After being outbid on some of his top choices, Barnett said he is staying later for the January sale than he normally would, hoping to catch some good horses at fair prices.

Finding young mares and broodmare prospects at reasonable prices was especially difficult, many buyers said, as young breeding stock was going for premium prices.

"Broodmare prospects are going crazy," as one buyer put it.

But yearling buyers, too, were facing stiff competition from pinhookers and racehorse buyers shopping early in hopes of finding a bargain.

"Anything with any quality is hard to buy," said Debbie Easter, who buys on behalf of Eldon Farm in Keswick, Va. "We came looking for some quality babies to maybe turn around and pinhook, but they're hard to find. All of us are focusing on the same horses that have quality. I don't know whether there are more buyers around, but the economy is good."

The sale was to continue through Sunday at the Keeneland sale pavilion in Lexington. Sessions begin daily at 10 a.m.

Maktoums honored

The Maktoum family of Dubai, which recently lost a key member last week with the sudden death of Sheikh Maktoum al-Maktoum, received the prestigious Duke of Devonshire award Tuesday night in England for contributions to the British breeding industry.

The Thoroughbred Breeders Association gives the award annually and selects the winner before Christmas. The winner is announced publicly at the awards dinner.

"I must express the association's sadness at the untimely death of Sheikh Maktoum," the breeders' association's president, David Oldrey, said in making the presentation, as quoted in Racing Post. "Many elements in British racing, indeed in racing worldwide, will join in mourning the premature loss of so good a friend to the sport."

The Maktoums have had a long involvement in British breeding and own a number of stud farms in Britain. Their success was evident throughout the awards dinner. Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum's Darley Stud took honors for standing Halling, the leading British-based stallion by progeny earnings, and for Bertolini as leading freshman sire. Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum's Shadwell Stud won the award as top British-based breeder by earnings on the flat. And Sheikh Maktoum's Royal Applause was the year's leading British-based sire by number of flat winners.

Whiffling, 20, is euthanized

Whiffling, dam of 1993's champion 3-year-old male, Prairie Bayou, was euthanized on Dec. 5 because of the infirmities of old age. A Wavering Monarch mare, Whiffling was 20 and was at Calumet Farm in Lexington. She was in foal to Dixie Union at the time of her death.

Whiffling, a daughter of the Bold Ruler mare Queen's Gambit, also was the dam of multiple graded winner Flitch.