08/11/2009 11:00PM

Dramatic rise for yearling market at Saratoga

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Barbara D. Livingston
Spirited bidding between John Ferguson and D. Wayne Lukas pushed the price for this Storm Cat colt to $2.8 million.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - It was a long, strange night at Tuesday's Fasig-Tipton select yearling sale, but it had a happy ending.

Lifted by Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum's sale-topping purchase of a $2.8 million Storm Cat-Onaga colt and a catalog thick with high-class pedigrees, the Saratoga select sale did the unexpected: it reversed Thoroughbred sales' recent downward trend in the face of an economic recession and Thoroughbred market correction. And it did so with sizeable gains. The two-night auction sold 160 yearlings for $52,549,500, up 46 percent from last season's returns for 122 horses. The cumulative average price of $328,434 was 11 percent higher than last year's, and median jumped 10 percent to $250,000. In such a fruitful market, buybacks also went down from a moderate 26 percent in 2008 to an even better 22 percent this year.

Maktoum, making his first visit to Saratoga Springs in at least 20 years, provided the spark. He spent $5.5 million at Monday's opener, including the session-topping $1.5 million Medaglia d'Oro-Cat Dancer filly and two other million-dollar horses, then shelled out another $6.35 million on Tuesday.

His friends, relatives, and associates also pitched in. On Tuesday, the Rabbah Bloodstock operation that Maktoum has organized for his racing friends picked up two yearlings totaling $185,000, and his brother Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum's Shadwell Estate Co. bought another three for $1.25 million.

The night got off to an odd start when the first firecracker price turned out to be a dud. Hip No. 144, a filly from Storm Cat's penultimate crop and a half-sister to graded winners High Cotton and Symphony Sid, had been touted as a likely big seller. The hammer fell at $1.5 million, but the price wasn't good enough to top Jess Jackson's reserve, and the attractive daughter of Happy Tune returned to Jackson's Stone Street Stables unsold.

The night's second seven-figure price also fell short when Padua Stables bought back its A.P. Indy-Lovely Regina colt, a three-quarters brother to former 3-year-old champion and first-crop Darley sire Bernardini. The colt was unsold at $1.45 million after apparently failing to get a bid from the man with a logical interest in him, Bernardini's owner, Sheikh Mohammed.

The lesson from both million-dollar buybacks: Wealthier breeders like Sanan and Jackson are willing to hold on to stock they think will appreciate in value as the general Thoroughbred market rebounds.

"I think he's a really good horse," Sanan said of his A.P. Indy colt. "We'll run him if we have to, and if he makes it he could be worth $50 million two years from now."

The night's strangest incident happened between the two big buybacks when an auction-ring spectator cast an opening bid of $1 million for Hip No. 151, Greenwood Lodge Farm's Kingmambo filly out of Imperial Beauty. The hammer dropped with no other bids, but suspicious sales company executives Walt Robertson and Boyd Browning quickly intercepted the bidder as he left the pavilion. The man, who appeared to be about 60 and was wearing a madras shirt and carrying a half-full plastic beverage bottle, had refused to identify himself to media but did sign a sale receipt as "Josh Mann." Confronted by the Fasig-Tipton officials, he fled through the parking lot, and the filly was later resold. She brought a legitimate $300,000 bid from Shadwell that time, to the relief of consigning agent Craig Bandoroff, who in the meantime had scurried to let real bidders know she was still very much for sale.

After a sluggish start, the session kicked into high gear during its second half. The highlight, much anticipated, came when the Lane's End agency's Hip No. 204 stepped onto the pale green footing of Fasig-Tipton's auction ring. The Storm Cat colt, a three-quarters brother to Grade 1 winner and course record-setter Aragorn, had drawn all the right kind of attention in the days leading up to the sale. Bidding for him quickly settled down to a two-man battle between Maktoum, who was standing outside behind the pavilion while his representative John Ferguson made his bids, and Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, seated with Westrock Stables's Scott Ford inside the pavilion. Lukas and Ford, who had put together a partnership to buy the colt, hung tough. They returned Ferguson's bids rapidly, but the result never seemed in doubt as Maktoum, smiling and laughing with his entourage, let Ferguson keep raising the price. Spectators crowded around Maktoum and Ferguson gave a cheer when Ferguson's nod took the bidding to $2 million, then erupted into applause and hurrahs again when the hammer finally fell in Ferguson's favor at $2.8 million.

"That was a stretch, but he's a beautiful colt," Ferguson said. "Breeding racehorses and sale yearlings is a very tough game, and people need to appreciate how hard it is to breed a horse of quality. They deserve to be handsomely rewarded when they do."

As Ferguson pocketed his receipt, Hip No. 204's breeder, Jane Lyon, shook hands with Maktoum.

"We knew he was special, and I'm so pleased other people thought he was special, too," Lyon said. The $2.8 million price was Summer Wind's highest at public auction.

Maktoum stole the limelight, and some consignors expressed quiet concern that the boutique marketplace is now too reliant on his bids. But the results sheet showed that other major European and American buyers are still bidding aggressively, giving sellers healthy doubles and triples, if not the multi-million-dollar home run. B. Wayne Hughes, Sanan, Blandford Bloodstock, Lael Stables, Robert LaPenta, and IEAH Stables all bought pricey horses Tuesday night.

Notably, new buyers also entered the fray. Agent Chris Baccari splashed out $650,000 on Pauls Mill's Storm Cat-Get Lucky colt for new bidder Benjamin Leon of Besilu Collection. Besilu, a Paso Fino farm in Micanopy, Fla., is getting into the Thoroughbred business for the first time, according to Baccari. Agent Cormac Breathnach, representing a first-time Saratoga buyer from Ireland, picked up a $450,000 Lemon Drop Kid-Myth to Reality colt from Lane's End. Both new buyers felt they had gotten good deals on their colts.

"The market's been really strong, but as time went on tonight, I began to feel I had a chance to get the horse I was here for, and I did," Breathnach said. "I've been watching other horses go by for more than I want to go to for them. Fasig-Tipton did a great job bringing people to the sale, and the good pedigrees weren't only plentiful, they were really rich with great families that don't come along often. It's got my client excited."

:: SALE RESULTS: