04/08/2009 12:00AM

Bidding remains competitive at top

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Bob Baffert struck again Tuesday at Keeneland's April 2-year-old sale, taking home his second session-topping colt in as many days.

On Monday, Baffert bought $1.9 million Vallenzeri, the two-day auction's most expensive horse, for new client Kaleem Shah. On Tuesday, he signed for a $475,000 Smart Strike-Private Feeling colt for one of his oldest owners, Mike Pegram, and partners Karl Watson and Paul Wietman of Midnight Lute fame.

The Smart Strike colt, Hip No. 203 in the Jerry Bailey Sales Agency's consignment, was one of six horses who sold Tuesday night for $300,000 or more at a sedate session. The two-night Keeneland sale ended with the double-digit declines that have now become common at select juvenile auctions. After 99 horses scratched from the 216-horse catalog, 66 finally sold for a combined $11,805,000, down 28 percent from last year's gross for 77 juveniles. The cumulative average of $178,864 slid 16 percent from last year's figure, and the $117,500 median was down 22 percent. Buybacks climbed in the highly selective market, from 38 percent last year to 44 percent.

Sale-topper Vallenzeri was the auction's only millionaire. Without an equivalent seven-figure horse Tuesday, the session gross fell 46 percent and average dropped 34 percent, but the 15 percent drop in median was not as steep as the 27 percent decline seen Monday. The Tuesday session sold 35 juveniles for $4,920,000, yielding a $140,571 average and a $110,000 median.

Despite those declines, buyers in the upper market consistently said they paid more than they had expected for purchases of $300,000 and more.

"I wasn't going to leave without him," Baffert said of the $475,000 Smart Strike colt. "I like this colt.

"I didn't really want to pay this much," he added. "I told them I was going to go to $400,000, but I went over my budget a little bit."

The last time the Smart Strike colt stood in an auction ring was at last year's Keeneland September yearling sale, where he was a $35,000 buyback. The colt's maturity now and his eighth-mile work in 10 seconds at the April 2 under-tack preview helped his cause this time around, Baffert said.

Centennial Farms scooped up the only other horse to sell for more than $400,000. That was a $440,000 colt by first-crop sire Rock Hard Ten. Offered as Hip No. 168, the colt is a son of the Deputy Minister mare Fiddlin Devon, making him a half-brother to stakes-placed Bear's Swan. Leprechaun Racing, agent, sold the dark bay or brown colt.

Hip No. 168 previously sold for $160,000 to trainer Dale Romans, agent, at last year's Keeneland September sale, where Lane's End was the consigning agent.

"We're always looking for a classic colt," said Centennial president Don Little Jr. "He had the pedigree behind him and he was a great mover on the racetrack."

Padua Stables owner Satish Sanan, accompanied by his son Sasha, never intended to buy anything but walked out after paying $300,000 for Hip No. 135, another juvenile by Rock Hard Ten. The bay filly is out of the Grade 2-placed stakes winner America America, by Mister Baileys. The filly is a half-sister to Grade 3 placed runner Bluegrass Princess and sold as part of Scanlon Training Center's consignment. In her last trip through the auction ring, she failed to reach her reserve on a $115,000 final bid at the 2008 September yearling sale.

"We weren't here to buy, honestly," said Sanan, who only attended the sale because he was in town for a Breeders' Cup board meeting. "Our plan for 2-year-olds was just to buy colts. But I came here, and they told me they really liked this filly and we should try and buy her."

Sanan is nothing if not game in the bidding ring, and he put himself diligently to the task. The final price was a little more than they had hoped to pay, Sasha said, another sign that buyers found bidding for top prospects competitive.

Keeneland consignors confirmed that impression.

"We have fared well with the good horses," acknowledged Eddie Woods, whose sale of Vallenzeri helped put him on top of the consignors' rankings; he sold nine juveniles for a combined $3,132,000. "With the same horses in years past, we would have done great. We're delighted this year to do well. It's chicken or feathers, as they say, but the chicken was fatter in other years."

But the general slump in the Thoroughbred market, the elder Sanan believes, is here to stay for a while.

"I think it's going to continue to go the way it is," he said. "I think it will be down 20 to 30 percent, and next year is the same. I don't see this market turning around in the near future, to be honest with you."

That's prompting yearling-to-juvenile resellers, or pinhookers, to think more conservatively about their buying budgets for the upcoming yearling sales.

"I think my plans will have to adjust, because if we're not able to move a lot of our product, then logistically we're not going to have the same investment funds to go back with," said Niall Brennan, the auction's third-ranked consignor with five horses totaling $1,340,000. "We've got a lot of horses this year that may not sell but that we have confidence in. We don't buy anything that we're not willing to put our own silks on. We may just have to carry on our pinhooking plan to a further stage this year and take them to the racetrack.

"We're not going to panic here. But, having said that, if we decide we're going to have X amount to race this year, then we're carrying expenses on those. We have to factor that in, and that's going to affect our buying power at the yearling sales."