04/14/2005 11:00PM

Expensive is in as select sale opens

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Horsephotos
Chekhov is on display under tack before last year's select 2-year-old auction at Keeneland.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Keeneland's select 2-year-old auction on Tuesday is the last boutique juvenile auction of the spring, and it will take place in a feast-or-famine marketplace that highlights the risky nature of selling juveniles. The questions for Keeneland are whether the bullish upper market will continue there and whether sellers below that level will fare profitably, too.

Keeneland's April returns last year illustrated the trend well. Topped by a sale-record $3.3 million Pulpit colt, now named Chekhov, bought by Coolmore, the auction rang up a healthy $217,941 average and $135,000 median. But it was marred by a 45 percent buyback rate. There was an unusual circumstance that might have contributed to the gap between sellers' expectations and buyers' appraisals: Keeneland had canceled its second under-tack show after one of the horses fatally broke down, so some sellers missed the chance to promote their wares that day. But, as more recent sale returns show, the all-or-nothing pattern is a regular feature of the market.

The Fasig-Tipton Calder sale, which took place in Miami on March 1, fired off a world-record $5.2 million juvenile price for a Tale of the Cat-Carry All colt and set records for gross ($50,132,000) and average ($341,034). But it also had a 45 percent buyback rate.

At California's Barretts March sale, the official buyback rate was better, at 39 percent, but the average price and median also fell, and sellers complained that, once again, a single horse's sale could make the difference between profit and loss.

Keeneland director of sales Geoffrey Russell said the auction house routinely visits racetracks around the country to recruit mid-level buyers. And the catalog, he notes, is geared toward equine athletes, not just expensive pedigrees. "We point out that some of our better graduates are from the middle range," he said. "We explain to them that this is a place they can afford to buy a very nice horse."

One advantage that Keeneland has is a captive audience of trainers and owners in town for the race meet - and in a festive, action-seeking mood.

Whether enthusiasm will infect all levels of buyers remains to be seen. But the 262-horse catalog has some definite points of interest that should at least keep potential buyers' attention. First-crop sires, always a source of optimism for the hopeful bidder, are especially well represented this year. Among them are Albert the Great, Aptitude, Black Minnaloushe, Brahms, Broken Vow, Forest Camp, Freud, King Cugat, Monarchos, Songandaprayer, and Vision and Verse. The catalog also features some of the last representatives of famously successful sires now deceased. For example, Danehill has a filly out of Grade 1-placed Olympic Charmer, and Saint Ballado has four colts and three fillies, including Hip No. 223, a full brother to Grade 3 winner Lindsay Jean. Perennial favorite Storm Cat has a single offering, Hip No. 50, a half-sister to sprint champion and Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Squirtle Squirt. And Successful Appeal and Yes It's True, the top two first-crop sires last season, have three lots between them. Hip No. 48 is a Successful Appeal filly out of the winning Future Storm mare Loni Girl, while Yes It's True's representatives are Hip No. 94, a daughter of Plum Lane (by Pentelicus), and Hip No. 163, a colt out of stakes-placed Tri Toasted.

The auction takes at the Keeneland sale pavilion, starting at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday.