02/13/2009 12:00AM

Cautious optimism as OBS sale opens

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Ocala Breeders' Sales Co. enjoyed the best results of all the major select juvenile auctions in 2008, setting records at both its February and March sales in a year when most suffered downturns.

But as the select 2-year-old season starts up again on Tuesday with OBS's February select auction in Ocala, Fla., the company is not expecting a record-breaking repeat. The global economic landscape has changed dramatically since the 2008 auction, a factor that undoubtedly will have a dampening effect on this year's sale season. But OBS general manager Tom Ventura said there are some hopeful signs that, even if the February select sale doesn't produce any gains, the market might avoid the 40 to 50 percent slides seen at last year's mixed sales.

"It's certainly something to be concerned about, and we've set the bar pretty high based on last year's sales results," Ventura said of the weaker economy. "But because of last year's results, we've benefited in the quality of horses that we were offered and have cataloged. They're as good or better than we had last year. So the quality is still there."

Ventura cites Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Canada as areas with healthy purses that still attract racehorse buyers, and continuing optimism that New York's slots program will soon enrich Big Apple prize money might also tempt die-hard buyers to purchase horses with that circuit in mind. The fact that these horses are closer to a race than most others at auction, offering the promise of a fairly quick return on investment, is also a possible draw.

On Friday, sale horses took to the track for their only under-tack show on the OBS synthetic surface. Nineteen horses worked an eighth-mile in less than 10 seconds. The fastest of those, all going in 9.6 seconds, were Hip No. 46, a Dehere-Paris Rose filly; Hip No. 86, a Consolidator-Sutter Sutter filly; and Hip No. 119, a Consolidator-Aray filly. The fastest quarter-mile work time was 20.4 seconds, put up by three colts: Hip No. 72, a son of Roman Ruler-Showmetothevilla; Hip No. 74, a son of Yes It's True-Silverlado; and Hip No. 100, a son of Forestry-Uaintseennothinyet.

The OBS February auction got a boost from the performance of its graduates in 2008. The sale has gained a reputation as a source of stakes winners for well under $1 million, a reputation that gained credence when a recent 10-year review in Thoroughbred Times showed that OBS graduates won stakes at an 11.3opercent clip from 1997-2006. A handful of Grade 1 performers continued to give the auction a high profile in 2008. Court Vision, Wait a While, Mani Bhavan, Macho Again, and Icabad Crane all passed through the OBS February auction ring en route to their 2008 successes.

But the realities of slumping worldwide stock markets, weak economies, and a new public reticence to spend for luxury items are keeping sale company expectations in check. Last year's auction - the first conducted over OBS's new Safetrack synthetic surface - sold 89 juveniles for $14,030,000, up 9 percent, and produced a record $157,640 average (up 18 percent) and a record $125,000 median (up 252 percent), while keeping the buy-back rate on a relatively even keel, for a 2-year-old sale, at 28 percent.

This year, yearling-to-juvenile resellers have put slightly less into their yearling purchase prices, a slight benefit from the yearling sales' downturns. The average sale price for yearlings now cataloged to the OBS February sale dropped from $73,374 in 2008 to $68,095, while the median pinhook purchase price fell from $65,000 to $57,000 this year.

The 2009 sale features a larger catalog, up to 200 from last year's 170, though the 2009 number had dropped to 180 by Feb. 13 due to withdrawals. Ventura attributes the increase to the sale's good record and to simple proximity. Many resellers, called pinhookers, are based in Ocala, and OBS presents an easy option, especially in a down economy, when sellers are more hesitant to rack up shipping costs.

Getting the horses there is one half of the equation, but an auction needs willing buyers, too. To that end, OBS has had two new representatives traveling the country to meet trainers and owners face to face, recruiting them to come to the sale. The pitch is straightforward, Ventura said.

"This year is going to be a buying opportunity to buy horses from a sale that is a proven producer," Ventura said. "The pendulum has certainly swung in the favor of the buyer at this point."

The OBS February select auction starts at noon Eastern on Tuesday at the OBS pavilion.