08/09/2002 12:00AM

Correction at top, but overall a healthy sale

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Fasig-Tipton's Saratoga selected yearling sale ended with substantial declines Thursday night, indicating that the select yearling auction ring has become a buyer's market. The heady days of multi-million-dollar summer yearlings might be gone for now, but Saratoga's American-dominated Thoroughbred economy showed signs of health even without those eye-popping fireworks.

Led by a $1.3 million Storm Cat filly out of champion Sacahuista, the 2002 Saratoga auction was marked by a notable downward shift in top-market spending by the world's wealthiest Thoroughbred buyers. On paper, the change was dramatic. Last year's record auction produced a $3.3 million sale-topper, nine seven-figure lots, and a record average of $385,259. This year's sale saw a 44 percent drop in gross sales, selling 140 lots for $35,242,000 as compared to last year's 162 which brought $62,412,000; a 35 percent hit in average price, which fell to $251,729; and a 23 percent decline in median, from $235,000 last year to $180,000. The buyback rate - the percentage of horses that failed to reach their seller's reserve price - climbed from 19 percent in 2001 to 29 percent this year.

But the market losses appeared limited to the market's highest strata, where prices in recent years had been inflated by fierce bidding duels among buyers for whom money apparently was no object. Agents for Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum and Coolmore Stud, whose titanic clashes in the bidding arena made instant millionaires of consignors in previous seasons, bought only a few lots this year, paying in the range of $300,000 to $500,000 rather than the usual seven figures. Their lack of interest left a gap at the top of the market, and domestic buyers faced less competition, which allowed them to acquire lots at something of a discount.

Kentucky-based breeder John Sikura outbid trainer D. Wayne Lukas for the sale-topping $1.3 million Storm Cat filly, and American owners Aaron and Marie Jones took home the sale's only other seven-figure horse, a $1 million Unbridled's Song colt that topped the final session on Thursday night. Eaton Sales, agent, consigned both million-dollar lots.

American interests also dominated bidding on the horse that would have topped the sale, a Storm Cat full brother to Grade 1 winner and popular young sire Forestry. That colt, offered Wednesday night by the Taylor Made agency, was bought back at $3.8 million by breeder Robert Evans after Aaron Jones and buying agent J. B. McKathan failed to beat the colt's $3.9 million reserve.

Other notable American purchases included the final session's second-highest lot, a $950,000 Forestry-Alexandrina colt that Lukas, agent, bought from Eaton Sales, agent, and a $900,000 Grand Slam-Alaska Queen colt that John Oxley bought from Highclere, agent.

"I bought an A. P. Indy for $550,000 on Wednesday night that I thought would bring $1 million," the Joneses' agent Buzz Chace said after signing for the $1 million Unbridled's Song colt on Thursday night. "And I thought this colt would go for about a million and a half. Yesterday's horse was a steal, and I thought we'd have to spend $3 million for both horses, but we got them for a million and a half. The way the market's going, the people seem happy that they've sold the horses at these prices.

"The prices are evening out now, and that's good for the American buyers," he added. "I think it's great, and I'm lucky to have a client like Mr. Jones who's in a buying mood."

The steep financial declines understandably disappointed Fasig-Tipton officials, but two facts indicated that the market remained healthy overall despite the upper-tier correction. There were relatively few late withdrawals from the auction, a sign that sellers were confident in their ability to get a fair price for their stock. And the buyback rate, though higher than last year, hovered in the 30-percent range, which has become standard at yearling sales in recent years. It was significantly lower than the 39 percent rate at Fasig-Tipton's July auction and the 40 percent seen at Keeneland July.

"The market is definitely making an adjustment, just as the stock market has," said Bill Casner, a breeder who with partner Kenny Troutt owns WinStar Farm in Lexington, Ky. "It's just a buyer's market right now."

"Horse for horse, it was a good horse sale," said Fasig-Tipton chairman D. G. Van Clief Jr. "The consignors were here to sell, and we were finding new homes for horses at a better clip than we've been seeing earlier this summer."

Van Clief acknowledged that "we're seeing some buyers pulling in their horns," but noted that sellers, too, were less aggressive in setting their reserves - resulting in a mutual understanding that the select yearling market was in a different place from the heady years of 2000 and 2001.

The Keeneland July sale got the boutique auction season off to a poor start. That sale was marred by the 40-percent buyback rate and late withdrawals that helped reduce the catalog by about a quarter of its original size; buyers also criticized the overall quality of the individuals on offer at Keeneland July. But even though Saratoga's gross, average, and median fell in nearly comparable terms to those seen at Keeneland, buyers and sellers agreed that the Spa market was actually a healthier sale.

"Keeneland wasn't a good barometer, because I don't think horses were near the level they'd been in years past," Casner said, citing the relatively low buyback rate as evidence. "This is a nice bunch of horses, and this sale is more of a barometer.

"That's the way it's always been in this business: up, down, up, down. It's just part of it, as in any business. You have to guard yourself against down times, and in fact, the down times are where there's opportunity."

Among the people taking advantage of the lower market was pinhooker Eddie Woods, whose new partnership with Mike McMahon was looking for yearlings to resell at next year's select 2-year-old auctions. At last year's record Saratoga sale, pinhookers' names were missing from the buyers' lists as they were unable to compete with powerful bidding from end-user racehorse owners. This year, pinhookers like Woods helped sustain the middle market by buying in the $100,000 to $300,000 range.

"Good horses are still bringing good money," Woods said. "It wasn't easy to buy good horses, but we were able to get a few nice ones. Like everybody else, we set a ceiling on what we would spend, and we thought we got good prices. The horses we bought this year would have been more expensive last year."