09/14/2010 3:44PM

Changes paying off at Keeneland yearling sale

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Coady Photography/Keeneland
George Bolton paid $1 million for Hip No. 351, a ridgling by Smart Strike out of Seattle Slew’s Grade 3-winning daughter Ask Me No Secrets.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Keeneland’s auctioneers and sales staff exchanged more formal blue blazers for their workaday Keeneland green ones Tuesday, signaling that the auction house’s two select nighttime sessions were over and it was time to move on to daylong sessions offering non-select yearlings.

But around the sale grounds, consignors still seemed to be breathing a long sigh of relief that the two night sessions – an experimental format change for the Keeneland September sale – seemed to have paid off. The pair of select sessions, which were roughly 50 percent smaller than last year’s two all-day sessions, sold 127 yearlings for an aggregate $44,305,000, a $348,858 average, and a $285,000 median. Last year’s longer sessions sold 222 horses for $58,756,000, a $264,667 average, and a $215,000 median. Buybacks in 2010 were 31 percent, compared to 38 percent last year.

Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum only bought two yearlings, a $450,000 Bernardini-Victory Ride colt and a $200,000 Street Cry-Hidden Cat colt. But his brother, Shadwell Estate Co. owner Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum, was the select sessions’ leading buyer, with a dozen yearlings costing $5.1 million.

Sellers hoped the momentum would carry over to the rest of the week, and, at least by late afternoon Tuesday it was holding up for the upper market.

George Bolton, one of the partners in Horse of the Year Curlin, went to $1 million for another son of Curlin’s sire, Smart Strike.

The bay ridgling was consigned by the Greenfield Farm agency and is out of Seattle Slew’s Grade 3-winning daughter Ask Me No Secrets. He was the auction’s third million-dollar yearling as of 3:30 p.m.

“John Moynihan is my agent, and he picked him out for us,” said Bolton, who explained that he would co-own the ridgling with a partner who wished to remain anonymous but would own 50 percent of the colt.

The 2010 select sessions produced only two seven-figure horses, but both brought prices above $2 million. The likely sale-topper, an A.P. Indy colt out of Balance, harked back to pre-recession prices when new buyer Benjamin Leon of Besilu Stables paid $4.2 million for him on Sunday night. Monday’s session-topper was a $2.05 million Distorted Humor colt out of Angel’s Nest, by Storm Cat, that an anonymous group bought from Lane’s End Farm’s agency.

Bloodstock agent Mike Ryan, seated with Lane’s End’s Bill Farish, signed for the colt but would say little about his new clients, except that they were headed by an overseas interest and want to point prospects for the sport’s top races.

On Sunday, Ryan – again seated with Farish – also bought a $685,000 Unbridled’s Song-Soul Search filly from Lane’s End for the same buyer. Speculation was rife on the sale grounds that the buyer, listed only as Flag Lake #2 on the results sheet, might be associated with the younger Farish. The son of Lane’s End founder Will Farish, Bill Farish has a wide range of contacts from the financial, business, and political worlds. He also has been putting partnerships together in recent years through Woodford Racing, whose motto is “Not just the winner’s circle, the inner circle of Thoroughbred racing.” That’s exactly the kind of Rolodex and r é sum é that breeders and sellers hope can bring some new young investors into the Thoroughbred game.

The Tuesday through Friday sessions that comprise Book 2 in Keeneland September’s set of catalogs are, like the smaller select night sessions, reformatted this year. A single 1,300-horse catalog replaces two smaller books, and yearlings are cataloged in alphabetical order by dams’ names. That randomized the order in which higher-quality offerings appeared, the idea being to tempt buyers to stay for the sale’s entire first week to dig out the catalog’s jewels.

Early Book 2 consignors seemed to be benefitting Tuesday as the first non-select session got under way. Numerous yearlings sold for six figures, sometimes to overseas interests. But domestic bidders were the market’s bedrock.

Tuesday’s session got off to a buoyant start when trainer Bob Baffert went to $500,000 for a Stormy Atlantic-Vassar colt from Gerry Dilger’s Dromoland agency. Baffert did not disclose his client.

Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farm, represented by agent Tom McGreevy, bought three six-figure horses early. They paid $325,000 for Hidden Brook agency’s Tale of the Cat-Valdivia colt, a half-brother to the winner Imperial River, then came back for a $360,000 Tiznow-Winter Forest colt that Taylor Made sold on behalf of Stonestreet Stables. Fox Hill also bought a $320,000 Unbridled’s Song-Wawasee filly from the Crossroad Sales agency.

Porter said he was frankly surprised at the select sessions’ two multi-million-dollar top prices.

“In my opinion, there’s been an adjustment,” Porter said. “The mediocre or just okay horses have come down significantly or haven’t gotten sold. What I think is difficult as a buyer is that the good horse is still bringing a lot of money. To me, they’re bringing way too much money, because, you know, your upside is very difficult. First, you’re probably going to buy fewer horses if you’re spending that much money on one horse. But if you’re fortunate enough to get a good horse, what are you going to do with him as a stallion? I don’t know anybody who’s buying stallions.”

But Porter spotted another trend that might, he thinks, be more to his advantage.

“Broodmares, I think, are a different situation,” he said. “If you have a Grade 2 or Grade 1 filly with a bit of pedigree, you can still get $3 million or $4 million for her. That market’s come down a little, but not that much. Maybe I’ll start operating on a 60-40 filly-to-colt ratio.”

Bolton, buyer of Tuesday’s $1 million Smart Strike colt, expressed little worry about the future stallion market.

“I think the value of horses has bottomed,” Bolton said. “The stallion market maybe is half of what it was in ’07, but it’s not going any lower. These things are always a long road when you buy a yearling, but he’s nice, he obviously looks like he can go far, and we’ve had a lot of luck with the sire.

“Smart Strike throws runners, he’s a beautiful-bred horse, and he’s a stallion prospect, even though he’s in Book 2.”

Bolton said he’d been outgunned twice when bidding by phone from San Francisco and that the price he paid for Hip No. 351 is the highest price he has paid so far for a horse at public auction.

“That’s the way it’s been here,” he said. “The good ones are not easy to buy.”

Buyers also seemed less willing to cross the $1 million threshold. Bruce Lunsford, having signed for one of four yearlings that brought between $900,000 and $950,000 at the select sessions, put it this way: “One million is the new $2 million.”

Lunsford’s $900,000 purchase on Monday night wasn’t even $900,000 as he was buying out partner John Sikura to own all of an A.P. Indy-Madcap Escapade filly he eventually will add to his broodmare band.

The final Storm Cat yearling ever to sell at public auction also went through the ring Monday night with surprisingly little fanfare. Consigned by the Bandoroffs’s Denali Stud agency, the dark bay or brown filly brought $285,000 from Robert Krembil’s Canadian-based Chiefswood Stables.

The filly’s price was a far cry from the multi-million-dollar bids many Storm Cat yearlings commanded in the 1990s and earlier this decade, but the sale prompted some nostalgia for seller Craig Bandoroff.

“We’ve been fortunate to have some special ones in his heyday, like the ones we sold out of Serena’s Song, publicly and privately,” Bandoroff said. “It was a different time and a different era.”