08/22/2003 12:00AM

Despite drop, no changes planned for Del Mar sale

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The California Thoroughbred Breeders Association plans no major changes for the 2004 yearling sale after disappointing results at this year's event earlier this month, a top official said this week.

After setting records for average price in 2001 and 2002, the 2003 sale on Aug. 10-11 averaged $34,506, a drop of 21 percent from the 2002 mark of $43,770.

This year's sale was expected to be strong, but support failed to materialize, leaving consignors and organizers disappointed.

Several reasons have been mentioned for the decline, including a weak California economy, the high cost of operating racing stables in California, competition from the claiming market, and a lack of quality individuals in the sale.

"In hindsight, we were a little overly optimistic going into the sale," said Doug Burge, the CTBA's executive director. "We realized we had our work cut out for us.

"You inspect in April and you try to predict what you'll have in August," he said. "You're not always right. When you have 140 going through the ring, some didn't develop and mature the way we hoped.

"The formula has worked well in the past, and I don't see any dramatic changes."

Burge said a lack of support from trainers who buy in the middle market, roughly the $20,000 to $40,000 range, was evident at the sale.

"In these uncertain times, their clients are not as interested in buying yearlings as much as claiming horses," he said. "When you look at the number of claims at Del Mar, you can see that's the case."

The median price fell from a record $32,000 in 2002 to $25,500.

Last year, six horses sold for $100,000 or more, led by an Unbridled's Song filly purchased for $250,000.

This year, the sale topper was a Smokester colt purchased for $160,000 by Dave Hulkewicz and Ernie Moody's Mercedes Stable. Four other horses sold for six figures, ranging from $100,000 to $140,000.

Hulkewicz owns the top sprinter Beau's Town, the winner of the Bing Crosby Breeders' Cup Handicap last month at Del Mar and a candidate for the Breeders' Cup Sprint this fall.

Beau's Town was at Moody's California farm in early August before being sent back to trainer Cole Norman in Louisiana. Hulkewicz met Moody in early August when he traveled to the farm to see Beau's Town.

When Hulkewicz realized that he and Moody liked the same Smokester colt, they decided to become partners. Bruce Headley will train.

"Bruce thought he was the best athlete in the sale, and he's got a pretty good eye," Hulkewicz said.

The Smokester colt is out of the unraced Prizes are Lovely, by Prized.

Two fillies sold for $100,000 on Aug. 11, leading the sale in that category. One Nerve Left, a California-bred by Lemon Drop Kid, was purchased by Tom Bunn. The Jay Em Ess Stable of Mace and Samantha Siegel bought a Bertrando filly, who will be trained by Headley, according to Samantha Siegel.

There were several prominent buybacks. Fillies by Fusaichi Pegasus and Giant's Causeway were bought back for $150,000 and $135,000 on Sunday from the consignment of Golden Eagle Farm.

Farm owner Betty Mabee said she subsequently received offers for each but intends to keep them for racing.

Some other unsold prospects may be campaigned in the next few years by the people who offered them for sale. Some of those horses may wind up as claiming prospects for the same owners and trainers who took a pass at this month's sale.

Irish O'Brien, stakes-winning mare, dead

Irish O'Brien, a multiple stakes winner and a prolific broodmare, died Aug. 16 of an apparent heart attack. The California-bred mare was 25.

Owned by Barry and Susan Isaacs, Irish O'Brien won 11 of 58 starts and $371,775 in the early 1980's. Her stakes wins include the 1984 Autumn Days Handicap at Santa Anita.

As a broodmare, she produced 12 foals, including Blaze O'Brien, a multiple stakes winner in the early 1990's.