04/29/2009 11:00PM

Better to spend big or bargain hunt?

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Barbara D. Livingston
Bloodstock agent Demi O'Byrne (left) and trainer Todd Pletcher with Dunkirk, who brought $3.7 million as a yearling at Keeneland.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - There are plenty of ways to get to the Kentucky Derby. Easiest is paying a small sum, walking through the tunnel and onto the infield, and planting yourself among the masses. If you want to pony up the dough, you might procure a fancy seat, maybe even an all-access Derby VIP pass. Or, go buy any old racehorse, get an owner's license, and see the Derby horses up close and personal on the Churchill Downs backstretch Derby Week.

But man, what dollars have whizzed through Thoroughbred auctions, thrown at young, unraced horses yearlings or 2-year-olds - Kentucky Derby hopefuls. Most frustrating of all for those throwing the money is the lack of correlation between amount of capital invested and garlands of roses worn.

There have been 20 Derby winners sold at public auction since 1970, and 13 of them fetched just four- or five-figure winning bids. Canonero II apparently had a foreleg crooked enough for the hot-dog vendor to notice, which is why he sold for $1,200 at a Keeneland auction. Derby winner.

Real Quiet was a $17,000 yearling in 1996. Bob Baffert called him "The Fish," so narrow was Real Quiet when seen head-on or from the rear. Derby winner.

Lil E. Tee, who just died in March, had stomach surgery as a weanling, was reportedly sold for $2,000 as a yearling, and fetched a $25,000 bid at one Florida 2-year-old in training sale after another had declined to catalog him.

"He must have been a real gangly, gawky sort of colt, and that stomach surgery couldn't have helped his appearance," said Lynn Whiting, who said owner Cal Partee paid $200,000 for Lil E. Tee after the colt aired in a Calder maiden race. Another Derby winner.

Four of the other post-1970 public auction horses were middle-market types, like $170,000 Monarchos, and $190,000 Big Brown. These were horses the owners of whom could dare to expect some kind of stakes success. But then there are the exceptions to the notion that money cannot buy everything. Like Fusaichi Pegasus. At $4 million, FuPeg strained the auction-room signage at the Keeneland July yearling sale of 1998. Japanese businessman Fusao Sekiguchi might have had the absurd notion that he was buying a Derby horse. Turned out he was right. They called FuPeg "Superman" at the farm where he was raised.

Other than Fusaichi Pegasus, though, you can go through about $25 million worth of Derby starters that cost at least a half-million bucks before you get to the next-highest-priced winner of the race, Winning Colors in 1988, who cost $575,000. Houston, at $2.9 million, was eighth in 1989. More recent participants were $1.5 million Cowtown Cat, 20th in 2007, and $1.15 million Noble Causeway, who was 14th in 2005.

The year before Winning Colors, $500,000 Alysheba won the Derby for the Scharbauers of Texas. Clarence Scharbauer went to the 2007 Keeneland September sale looking for another Derby horse; $700,000 Silver City finished unplaced in the Derby Trial last weekend, while $600,000 Indygo Mountain abandoned the Derby Trail a couple months ago.

But this year's Derby field offers hope not just to the bottom-feeding dreamer trying to catch lightning in a discount bottle, but to those more affluent types playing at the top of the market. In fact, there are two sales-topping colts in the 2009 Derby field: Desert Party, who cost $2.1 million at the Fasig-Tipton February sale of 2-year-olds in training last year, and Dunkirk, who topped the 2007 Keeneland September yearling sale with a winning bid of $3.7 million.

"He was a beautiful yearling," trainer Todd Pletcher said of Dunkirk, proving that one can put a price on beauty - a high price.

Pletcher looked at the gray colt three times during the sale, and his positive appraisal was part of the reason the partnership of Michael Tabor, Susan Magnier, and Derrick Smith forked over the $3.7 million.

"Every buyer has a different comfort zone," Pletcher said.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum's comfort zone extends somewhere up to the heavens, and the $2.1 million he paid for Desert Party does not come close to the top prices the ruler of Dubai has paid for previous sales horses. John Ferguson, Sheikh Mohammed's principal advisor at auctions, had followed Desert Party closely before the colt even made it to his 2-year-old in training sale, according to Jimmy Bell, who is president of Darley USA, and was with Sheikh Mohammed and Ferguson at the sale. Desert Party, purchased for $425,000 as a yearling, was consigned to the Florida sale by David Scanlon, who also breaks Darley yearlings.

"John was aware of this colt at David Scanlon's," said Bell. "Not only was he gifted physically, but John was taken by his demeanor. He was basically unflappable. That was a standout quality."

Thing is, they don't give away standout qualities for free. "Everyone wants a nice, correct, athletic horse. You pay a lot for those," said Mac Robertson, who picked $25,000 Win Willy out of Keeneland September's final day.

Robertson said Win Willy had conformation flaws; those might have contributed to the fracture that forced him from the Derby three days before the race. Still, they can't take away the $260,000 or so Win Willy earned in the five starts he did make.

"You can't buy 20 and have just one of them pan out," Robertson said. "You're out of the game."

General Quarters is by $30,000 stud Sky Mesa, and out of a mare by fashionable stallion Unbridled's Song. Yet he was purchased for just $20,000 as a yearling, and claimed for $20,000 out of his career debut.

"Obviously, his breeding said that he had some conformation flaws and soundness issues," said Wesley Ward, who trained General Quarters before the first-start claim. "He was working well, but the soundness forced us to put him where we did."

In jumped 75-year-old owner-trainer Tom McCarthy, who somehow found himself a Derby horse by winning a shake at the claim box.

Mine That Bird was purchased privately last fall (surely for six figures), but cost only $9,500 as a yearling. And Musket Man was marked down to $15,000 at the Keeneland September yearling auction, bought by a guy named Vic Carlson. Carlson tried to sell the horse as a 2-year-old in Maryland, but with trainer Derek Ryan acting as middle-man, Musket Man wound up being purchased outside the sale, with Eric Fein the new majority owner. It's a safe guess that the $15,000 yearling who already has earned close to $600,000 did not break the bank, either.

"I love going to the sales," said Ryan, who bought a horse named Matsui for $10,000 and almost won a stakes with him. "It's like getting a Christmas present, taking it home, unwrapping it, and seeing what you got."

More often than not, you ain't got a Derby horse - no matter how much you paid.

"Funny game," said Ryan.

The other option is not buying your Derby horse at all, but breeding him, and recently, that strategy has worked best of all. Big Brown's 2008 win snapped a string of four straight homebred victories in the Derby - Street Sense, Barbaro, Giacomo, and Smarty Jones.

King of the homebreds this year is Pioneerof the Nile. Owner Ahmed Zayat bred the colt, and bought him back as a yearling for $290,000 at good old Keeneland 2007. Which is interesting. Zayat is the rare owner who went out and bought himself a Derby horse - it's just that he bought one he already owned.

Funny game, indeed.