03/01/2009 1:00AM

Fasig-Tipton optimistic


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Fasig-Tipton's Calder select 2-year-old sale enjoyed the juvenile auction season's highest average price last year at $344,118. When the auction takes place at Miami's Calder Race Course on Tuesday, few will expect the sale to repeat that performance again in 2009, given the economic slowdown that has reached from Iceland to Dubai and from the United States to Japan.

But the Fasig-Tipton Company, now owned by Dubai-based Synergy Investments, is putting on a good show of positivism, even as senior executives remain realistic about what nearly everyone in the auction world now calls "the new financial reality" in Thoroughbred sales.

Under its new ownership, Fasig-Tipton is splashing its brand out at Gulfstream in the days leading up to Tuesday's auction. The company has revamped its website, which now offers videos about the sales. It also sponsored the $250,000 Fountain of Youth on Saturday and is hosting a hospitality suite at the track as part of Fasig-Tipton's new mandate from Synergy to cultivate new owners for the Thoroughbred game. The 2-year-old sale catalog features a nostalgic black-and-white photo of Hialeah in its heyday, harking buyers back to days of sporting elegance that Fasig-Tipton and Synergy clearly believe are possible again.

The long-term outlook is decidedly can-do and optimistic, but the immediate prospects for the Calder juvenile sale are more muted, given the general economic downturn.

Last year, when the economic situation was more worry than crisis, the auction's gross fell 20 percent, largely in line with an 18 percent reduction in the number of horses that went through the ring. The 102 horses that sold in 2008 averaged $344,118, a drop of only 2 percent, though the median took a harder hit and fell 8 percent to $230,000. Buy-backs remained high but almost the same as in 2007, falling from 41 percent to 40 percent.

The price paid by Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum for the 2008 sale topper, $2.1 million Desert Party, was lower than those of sale toppers in previous years, and the message of the 2008 market was, as Fasig-Tipton executive Boyd Browning put it then, "They care what they pay."

That looks even truer in today's Thoroughbred market.

"How do I like the market now? I've liked it better some previous times in my life, to be honest," said Browning, Fasig-Tipton's CEO. "But it's better than some of the other times I've seen, as well. We prefer to look at it as the glass being half-full.

"The bright spots are that there continues to be a demand for quality horses. We'll know more by Monday, but so far we have had a good reception from people we've talked to about coming to the sale, and I think there might be some hope that the Japanese participation will be higher than it has been in the last few years. I don't think it will be as high as it was in the mid-'90s when they were such a dominant force, but the exchange rate with the yen is much more favorable now than it's been in years. And I think we really do have a strong group of horses.

"I don't think it will be spectacular or sensational, but I think it will be a pretty doggone good horse sale."

The first major select 2-year-old sale of the year, at the Ocala Breeders' Sales Co. in Ocala last month, was a small sample, but even so a conservative trend was evident. Coming off a record year, OBS sold 95 horses and saw its gross drop 29 percent, while average fell 34 percent to $104,481 and median declined 28 percent to $90,000.

Buy-backs went up from 28 percent to 30 percent as sellers, dominated by yearling-to-juvenile resellers called pinhookers, struggled to adjust to buyers' frugality and the market's new valuations.

The Calder auction traditionally represents the priciest end of the 2-year-old market, and values undoubtedly will undergo recalibration there as at OBS. The general sentiment among almost all auction players is that prices generally will be sharply down for the season, with a handful of high-quality pedigrees and athletic performers commanding the bulk of attention and more horses than usual falling by the wayside in a shallower and more selective market.

The Calder auction has built a reputation for quality pedigrees, and this year is no different. Horses out of champion mares include Hip No. 64, an Unbridled's Song filly out of 3-year-old champion filly Xtra Heat; Hip No. 2, a Giant's Causeway daughter of Argentine champion Salt Champ; and Hip No. 45, a Medaglia d'Oro colt out Chilean champion Val Gardena. Hip No. 170, a Mineshaft colt, is a half-brother to 2-year-old champion Boston Harbor. Storm Cat's other juveniles in the sale include a colt from the family of Personal Ensign, My Flag, and Storm Flag Flying, selling as Hip No. 252, as well as a colt out of Spun Sugar and Daaher's dam, Irish Cherry, offered as Hip No. 185.

Among the juveniles out of Grade or Group 1 winners are Hip No. 145, a Point Given half-brother to Keeper Hill; Hip No. 30, a Medaglia d'Oro son of Supah Gem; Hip No. 163, an A.P. Indy colt who is the second foal out of Got Koko; and Hip No. 250, a Seeking the Gold son of Plenty of Light. There are a multitude of siblings and half-siblings to Grade or Group 1 winners, such as Hip No. 94, a Medaglia d'Oro half-brother to Midas Eyes; and Hip No. 116, a Rock Hard Ten half-brother to Yes It's True. Hip No. 113, while not a sibling to a Grade 1 winner, has pedigree clout as a half-brother to millionaire Smok'n Frolic.

Another notable pedigree is that of Hip No. 86. The bay filly is an Empire Maker half-sister to ill-fated 2008 Kentucky Derby runner-up Eight Belles.

Fastest under-tack workouts

At Friday's under-tack show, the fastest eighth-mile workers went in 10.20 seconds. They were Hip No. 66, a Dixie Union-Above Perfection filly; Hip No. 125, a Sky Mesa-Dancewiththebride colt; Hip No. 137, a Speightstown-England's Rose filly; Hip No. 230, a Rahy-Mstoyou filly; and Hip No. 210, a More Than Ready-Love Sick colt.

One juvenile posted the day's quickest quarter-mile time of 21.40 seconds. That was Hip No. 63, a Trippi-Xtra Emblem colt. The top three-eighths-mile breeze was by Hip No. 205, a Fusaichi Pegasus-Lindsay Frolic colt, who covered the distance in 34.60 seconds.