08/03/2010 1:16PM

Fasig-Tipton select yearling sale off to a slow start

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Stan Dodson, standing in the humid night air behind the Humphrey S. Finney sale pavilion, folded his yellow auction receipt, unperturbed, and said, “It was a buyback.”

Dodson, owner of Oakfield Farm, had just watched the Giant’s Causeway colt he bred fail to reach his reserve at the Monday night opening session of Fasig-Tipton’s Saratoga select yearling sale. The last bid, Dodson’s, was $150,000 for the Ontario-bred colt out of Daylight Come. Dodson was unfazed by the thought of taking his chestnut colt back to Canada. He figured his back-up plan was pretty good: race the horse himself and hope to collect some of Ontario’s slots-rich purses.

“We didn’t think we were going to do too good,” Dodson said of his thoughts going into the sale, which last year was the only boutique yearling auction to post double-digit gains as the rest of the yearling market suffered declines. “He was a little bit small for the buyers, but we loved him. The ones we can’t sell we race, and our purses are just wonderful. A maiden allowance, the pot’s $80,000.”

Dodson estimated it had cost him $125,000 in stud fee and expenses to get his Giant’s Causeway colt from conception to Monday night’s sale. “All I gotta do is win two races, and I’ve got it back,” he said, pocketing the receipt for his yearling.

Dodson’s colt was one of 28 yearlings, or 35 percent of the horses offered, that failed to sell Monday at a session that disappointed many with a 47 percent decrease in gross (partly due to a 25 percent smaller catalog), a 14 percent drop in average, and a buyback rate that swelled from last year’s relatively low 20 percent. There was a significant bright spot: The median improved by 9 percent, from $230,000 at last year’s opening night to $250,000.

The session sold 52 yearlings for $14,120,000, yielding a $271,538 average.

Sale officials were hopeful the auction’s second and final session, which was to take place Tuesday evening, would lift the overall results.

“Don’t judge the upper market yet,” said Fasig-Tipton CEO Boyd Browning. “At least not for another 24 hours.”

Sellers have been battered by the market bubble’s collapse and constricted credit since 2008. Many hoped the Saratoga select sale could repeat last year’s performance in a sign of returning health. The sale’s 2009 edition was heavily supported by Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, a close associate of Fasig-Tipton’s Dubai-based corporate owner, Synergy. Maktoum himself spent $5.5 million on opening night last year, including three of the night’s four million-dollar yearlings. He returned to pay $6.35 million, including $2.8 million for the sale-topping Storm Cat colt, at the 2009 sale’s final session. His friends and family members also contributed to the coffers, making the auction last season’s most successful yearling sale. At 2010’s opener, Maktoum was still the leading buyer with eight purchases totaling $3,155,000, but with fewer bidders willing to chase him into the stratosphere, he was never pushed to bid $1 million.

Maktoum’s session-topping buy Monday night cost $800,000: a son of his homebred stallion Street Cry from the family of Coolmore’s two-time champion One Cool Cat. WinStar Farm, which bred the colt and consigned him through Taylor Made Sales, had hoped to crack the million-dollar barrier with a colt that Maktoum’s chief bloodstock advisor, John Ferguson, had been keen on during farm visits earlier this year.

“We’re pleased but not overjoyed,” said WinStar vice-president Elliott Walden. “We felt like he was one of the two best colts in our crop. Eight hundred thousand dollars is a far cry from where the market was three or four years ago when we sold his relation, One Cool Cat, for $3.1 million. But it’s a different time, and that’s a fair price. We hope he wins the Derby with him.”

Monday night’s top-priced filly, and second most expensive horse overall at $775,000, was another Street Cry yearling. Helen K. Groves, who bred the bay filly in partnership with her daughters Helen Alexander and D.D. Matz, bought out her daughters’ interests. The filly is out of the Grade 3-placed A. P. Indy mare Alchemist; she will now race for Groves.

“We don’t know what the top of the market is yet,” said consignor Mark Taylor of Taylor Made. “So far, the horses we’ve put through the ring, it seems very similar to last year. If you put a very realistic reserve on and you’ve had a couple of scopes [endoscopic exams], you’re going to get your horse sold and you might get a pleasant surprise. If you think, ‘I’m going to make them pay for this one,’ you’re probably going to buy that horse back.”

Many North American-based Thoroughbred buyers do not have the luxury that Stan Dodson cited in Ontario. Slots installation is still distant at New York’s financially troubled racetracks, and Kentucky has yet to pass necessary legislation to bring them to Bluegrass tracks. Meanwhile, California racing is also in turmoil, and North American purses are continuing to slide.

Those trends worry Joe Bucci, a nine-year Thoroughbred owner who was nonetheless bucking pessimism and bidding on yearlings Monday night with his trainer, Bobby Barbara.

Bucci, co-owner of American Rock Salt, dueled briefly before losing to Maktoum for Hip No. 25. The dark bay colt, Stone Farm’s Elusive Quality son of graded winner Chamrousse, sold for $375,000. “Keep trying!” Fasig-Tipton executive Dan Pride told Bucci cheerily.

“I might own a salt mine, but he owns a country,” Bucci said of Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai. Bucci’s company owns the world’s second largest salt mine and provides much of the rock salt New York state uses on its roads in the winter.

“My goal is like everyone else’s: try to win some races and not lose my shirt doing it,” said Bucci, who races primarily in New York and Florida. “I’m really kind of worried about the future, because I see a whole generation of young people growing up who can’t even read the Daily Racing Form . As a businessman, that worries me. There doesn’t seem to be a system for young people to get involved in the sport. We need the fan base, and I don’t know how you turn that around.”

Asked whether he would slow down his purchasing in light of shrinking purses, Bucci said no. “I’ll probably buy more this year,” he said. “As long as it snows. If it doesn’t snow, I can’t buy horses.”