12/13/2014 1:04AM

Buyers pick their spots with stallions

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Barbara D. Livingston
Central Banker (inside), a Grade 2 winner at Churchill Downs in the spring, will debut at stud in New York after being purchased for $400,000 at the Keeneland November breeding stock sale.

It’s unusual for an offering in Book 4 of the Keeneland November breeding stock sale to qualify as a “buzz horse,” but last month, Central Banker did just that.

The Grade 2-winning son of Speightstown was cataloged strictly as a stallion prospect among the waning hips of the Nov. 10 session – a point in the auction when potential stallions are often purchased by international farms with little fanfare. However, it quickly became clear on that Monday afternoon that this wasn’t going to be a typical stallion-prospect transaction.

“When the horse got to the back ring, he was just drawing a crowd,” said bloodstock agent Mike McMahon. “Some of the better judges [of bloodstock] in the business were throwing syndicates together at the last minute to buy him and stand him in Kentucky because they couldn’t believe what a good-looking horse he was. We might have bought the horse a lot cheaper if we hadn’t had the last-minute people who said, ‘Oh, my God, this horse is really in the sale.’ ”

When the hammer fell for Central Banker, McMahon was the winning bidder on behalf of his parents’ McMahon of Saratoga Thoroughbreds in New York, where the horse will stand in 2015. The $400,000 price tag topped the session and was by far the highest amount paid for a non-racing stallion prospect at the Keeneland November sale since 2000.

Stallions acquired as prospects at auction comprise a negligible slice of the overall U.S. sire population, and many of those purchases reside in smaller state breeding programs, making Central Banker’s New York home a notable exception.

The auction process is rarely the first option for a racehorse owner looking to place a runner at stud, but it does not necessarily indicate a complete lack of market interest.

Timing can influence whether a stallion prospect heads to the sales ring, depending on factors such as when the horse is retired and whether he fits into the rosters of farms looking for new sires. A difference in price point between the owner and potential buyers can also lead owners to take their chances at auction, where the horse retains value based on the fact that he can still be inserted into a breeding program for the upcoming season.

“It’s certainly not an easy thing to do,” said Meg Levy of consignor Bluewater Sales. “Most of the time with stallion prospects of value in this country, buyers prefer to buy them privately and get them on the market so there’s not necessarily a public auction price, and they can divide the shares.”

Bluewater Sales handled Grade 1 winner Capo Bastone as a stallion prospect at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky select fall mixed sale, where he sold to Adena Springs for $300,000. He will make his debut at Adena Springs South in Florida for the upcoming breeding season. However, Levy said the majority of the interested parties prior to the sale were international clients.

At Keeneland November, Jacob Nance of I.R. Bloodstock signed the $125,000 ticket for Grade 3 winner Laugh Track on behalf of Mike Abraham, who will stand the son of Distorted Humor at Double LL Farms in New Mexico. The auction process, Nance said, can attract a broader group of buyers for a stallion, and vice versa.

“Going through private channels, you don’t really have a lot of horses to choose from,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to go to Keeneland, and if they’ve got 25 stallion prospects there, you can look at all of them in a matter of an hour, where if you’re dealing with someone privately, you’re talking about one or two horses in particular, and you have to fly across the country to look at those horses. It really takes up your time to do your homework on that type of purchasing.”

While the auction process may give buyers an assortment of stallion prospects to examine, both Nance and McMahon said much of the legwork is left up to the buyer, as is the risk. Shoppers are not able to conduct fertility tests prior to purchase, which is a standard restriction for all stallion-prospect acquisitions, public or private, for insurance purposes.

However, Levy said there are other tests that can be done to help predict whether a prospect will be viable in the breeding shed. Her husband, Michael Levy, of equine provider Muirfield Insurance, ordered an ultrasound of Capo Bastone’s testicles prior to the Fasig-Tipton sale. The bigger they measure, the greater likelihood that the horse will be fertile.

“It’s the exact opposite of a yearling sale, where everything is laid out,” McMahon said. “You’re reading the catalog just like you’re reading it for a broodmare when you’re looking for a stallion. Usually, there are very few that hit your radar. Then, a physical examination – it’s just looking at a prospect just like any other horse and deciding if I like him, and also deciding whether shareholders will like him. That’s the big gamble. You got to look at the horse and feel good enough about him that you’re sure that your investors are going to come look at him and like him.”

Ten days after Central Banker went through the ring, McMahon said the farm had been successful in its efforts to sell shares in the stallion. He speculated that the auction might have unintentionally helped Central Banker’s cause by allowing a large crowd of potential investors to inspect him at the barn and see him in the back ring.

McMahon also kept Central Banker at his Spruce Lane Farm near Keeneland for inspection throughout the sale before shipping him north, which he said was a boon for getting eyes on the horse.

Nance agreed with McMahon’s assertion that one’s own personal opinion was far from the only factor to be considered before bidding on a stallion prospect, noting that the horse must also pass the muster of breeders who inspect him once he enters stud.

“The main thing that we were looking for other than the pedigree was conformation, as well as the size of the horse,” Nance said about Laugh Track. “I wouldn’t want to buy a stallion prospect that was going to be too small because that limits the types of mares that people want to breed to him.

“With a smaller stallion, typically, you think you’re going to have more sprinters [among his progeny], especially if you breed smaller mares to him,” Nance added. “It was important to have a prospect that was at least 16 hands to present to the public, as well as something that performed well and had a good look to him, that was appealing to the eye.”

When bidding on a stallion prospect, Nance said that setting a reasonable price point was key because the hammer price can have far-reaching effects on a stallion’s career, especially in a smaller market, where he will have fewer foals with which to prove himself.

“You’ve really got to study the area that you’re in,” Nance said. “To go out West and try to promote a stallion, you’ve got to be critical of what you paid for that prospect. If you pay too much for that horse, then you’re going to put the stud fee too high, and you’re not going to get the support to get those runners from the first or second crop. It’s very important to get as many mares to that new stallion as you can to get those first crops to take off.”