11/08/2005 12:00AM

Coveted broodmares fueling bull market

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Laurie Wolf nuzzles Ashado, the champion mare whom she and her husband, Jack, sold Monday at the Keeneland November breeding stock sale for a record $9 million.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - If anyone ever doubted how much money is available for a good mare in today's Thoroughbred market, he surely got the message at Keeneland's November sale on Monday. Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum's final bid of $9 million for champion Ashado constituted a world record for a broodmare or broodmare prospect, easily toppling the previous $7.1 million record for Cash Run, set at this sale in 2003.

Tuesday's second session at the Keeneland mixed auction wasn't that flashy, but it was still plenty strong, especially for mares. The session-topping price was the $2.2 million that ClassicStar paid for Win's Fair Lady, a half-sister to Harmony Lodge and a full sister to Graeme Hall. Michael T. Barnett's Blackburn Farm agency consigned the mare, who is carrying a Giant's Causeway foal. The session, featuring fewer high-glamour horses than on Monday, sold 192 lots for $59,317,000, down 27 percent from last year's second session, when 211 sold. The average of $308,943 was down 20 percent, but median rose 6 percent to $222,500.

Win's Fair Lady was one of four seven-figure lots Tuesday. The others were $2.1 million Scoop, in foal to El Prado, whom Live Oak Stud bought from Mill Ridge, agent; $1.4 million Home Court, in foal to Gone West, whom Gordon Stollery bought from Denali, agent; and $1.05 million Glint in Her Eye, in foal to Empire Maker, whom Federico Barberini, agent, bought from Brookdale.

Ashado's entrance in the sale ring Monday afternoon set off a nine-minute bidding duel between Maktoum's agent, John Ferguson, and the men of Coolmore Stud. It was the day's most dramatic clash, but it was far from the only one. The mare market is especially flush these days with two kinds of buyers. One group consists of commercial breeders who came out of the record-breaking Keeneland September sale with a lot of confidence and more money to spend on new broodmares. The other group consists of home-breeders like Maktoum, who don't worry about profit margin. As a result, mare values can soar, especially when two tough bidders like Maktoum and Coolmore chief John Magnier hook up on a likely prospect.

"My sense is that this sale doesn't have quite the quality of last year's catalog," Overbrook Farm advisor Ric Waldman said, "but that doesn't matter if buyers are willing to spend more dollars this year, and that seems to be the case."

That's great if you're selling an attractive mare. The strong market that rewarded Ashado's owners so richly has encouraged a number of owners to sell mares they might otherwise have kept.

Stewart Madison is one example. He is the owner and breeder of Happy Ticket. When the 4-year-old Anet filly won the Grade 3 Chicago Breeders' Cup Handicap in June, consignor David Greathouse nudged Stewart to put her dam, Love and Happiness, in the Keeneland November sale. He did, and the mare's value rose when Happy Ticket went on to win the Grade 1 Ballerina and finish second in the Grade 1 Beldame. Had Happy Ticket won the Breeders' Cup Distaff instead of finishing 11th, her dam might well have brought seven figures. But, as it happened, Love and Happiness - once a $45,000 yearling purchase - brought a healthy $650,000 carrying a foal by Not for Love, proving the value of striking while the iron is hot.

"It was a little more than I thought we would get," Madison said. "I still have Happy Ticket, her full sister, and a half-sister, so I still have the female family. And this mare will be 13 next year, so she was getting a little age on her."

Buyers like ClassicStar, purchaser of the $2.2 million session-leader on Tuesday, are also trying to cash in on a mare's recent successes. As commercial yearling sellers, entities like ClassicStar will sell their new mares' produce. They are gambling that the future yearling market will remain as strong as it was at Saratoga and Keeneland September in 2005 - and that, with luck, other horses their mares have produced will improve, too.

Win's Fair Lady has a sterling pedigree that also has a particular appeal to commercial breeders taking that gamble: her half-siblings Mister C's Song and Harmony Lodge sold as yearlings for $1.85 million and $1.65 million, respectively. That suggests the family is desirable to buyers.

But it's still a risk, and with mares at a premium, the bidding is tough.

"It's a very tough market to buy in," said breeder and seller Ben Walden Jr., who had bid on both mares and weanlings with business partner David Hanley, a successful trainer from Ireland.

"The valuation of stock is much higher than we thought it would be. A mare you think will bring $200,000 will bring $350,000, and there seems to be abundant energy for this part of the market."

Among commercial breeders buying horses early at Keeneland now, some of that energy is carried over from the heady returns at 2005's select yearling sales. "Most of us feel we're pretty secure for the foreseeable future," Walden said.

But he also sounded a warning for sellers buying high and hoping to sell the foals higher in coming seasons.

"It's paradoxical to me that racing seems to be in decline but bloodstock is up," he said, noting concerns over the New York Racing Association's status and the recent defections of some horsemen from California, where stable costs are high. Given the high cost of bloodstock, he added, even an

optimist like himself can see the risk. "I'm not sure how much profitability there really is, with stud fees where they are, insurance, and everything else it takes to bring a foal to market."

As of Tuesday, however, upper-level Keeneland mare buyers were still rolling the dice.