08/07/2012 12:54PM

Fasig-Tipton: Soft market for opening night of Saratoga select yearling sale

Barbara D. Livingston
Opening night of the Saratoga select yearling sale saw sharp declines from last year's upbeat numbers.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – It took most of the night, but when Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum finally bid $1 million for a yearling Monday night at Fasig-Tipton’s Humphrey S. Finney Pavilion, the auction’s restless spectators spontaneously erupted in a loud cheer.

You could forgive their obvious relief. Consignors and sale executives, too, had arrived in Saratoga feeling optimistic, but Monday night’s opening session at the Saratoga select yearling auction provided an object lesson in today’s market reality. The small session sold 52 yearlings from an original catalog of 93, slightly more than the 49 sold at last year’s opening day, but total sales fell 15.8 percent. After grossing $13,590,000, the yearlings’ average price stood at $261,346, a 20.7 percent decline from last year’s figure, and median tumbled even further, dropping 29.8 percent to $200,000. Buybacks were 33.3 percent, up from 24.6 percent.

But Fasig-Tipton president Boyd Browning, who described himself as disappointed with Monday’s overall results, still cautioned that the two-day auction was only halfway over.

[For live video of Day 2, click here]

“It’s too early to make an overall judgment,” Browning said after the session. “I don’t know that tomorrow is dramatically different from today. It could be. You just don’t know where the buyers are going to line up and seriously compete. We have seen that there’s still restraint in the marketplace and buyers are still bidding with discipline, both on the number of horses they bid on and the level at which they’re willing to bid.”

“It’s a little tough in here right now,” consignor Tom VanMeter said early in Monday’s session after selling Hip No. 17, a $400,000 Bernardini-La Grande Mamma New York-bred colt to Greenogue Bloodstock. It quickly became clear that $400,000 was a hard ceiling for many bidders Monday night. Nine yearlings sold for more this year, compared to 14 last season, and soon more consignors echoed VanMeter’s assessment.

Maktoum’s crowd-pleasing $1 million bid was for the eventual session-topper, a colt by Maktoum’s stallion Street Cry and out of Canadian champion Serenading. Bidding paused when the crowd roared, then forged ahead until Maktoum landed the Hill ’n’ Dale-consigned colt for $1.2 million. That equaled last year’s highest price and was one of two seven-figure colts on Monday. The other, the Denali Stud agency’s Empire Maker-Sluice colt, brought $1.1 million from Stonestreet Stables and George Bolton. The bay colt is a full brother to Grade 1 winner and millionaire Mushka, who topped this sale in 2006 at $1.6 million.

But, as of the close of business late Monday night, the rest of the market was subdued compared to last year’s opening session, which saw double-digit gains across the board. One big difference: Maktoum, who is closely connected to Fasig-Tipton’s Dubai-based owners, cut his spending drastically. His agent, John Ferguson, bought five yearlings for $2,375,000 Monday night, 42 percent less than he spent at last year’s opener for six yearlings (over both nights last year, Maktoum paid $8,530,000 for 13 horses). Once again, Maktoum focused almost exclusively on yearlings by his own sires. In addition to the Street Cry session-topper, he picked up a Bernardini filly and colts by Darley stallions Street Boss and Elusive Quality, as well as a colt by WinStar sire Distorted Humor, in whom Maktoum bought an interest in 2007. But he hardly extended himself as his bidding rivals pulled up early. Maktoum’s median purchase price dropped from $575,000 last year to $350,000 Monday.

What was left was a deeply conservative group of buyers, but the good news was in their variety. Below Ferguson, Stonestreet, and Bolton on the buyers’ list were such names as Live Oak Plantation, John Moores and Charles Noell’s Merriefield Farm, Robert Burke, John Oxley, Robert and Lawana Low, the Centennial Farms public syndicate, Mark Stanley, and Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farms – a good sign that domestic buyers are still interested in select yearlings.

The sale started on a sour note when Hip No. 1, a Bernardini son of Heart of Grace, failed to reach his reserve at $525,000. But his consignor, Gainesway Farm’s Brian Graves, later celebrated a father-son pinhooking success when a Roman Ruler-It’s True Love colt he owned with his father, Fasig-Tipton executive Bill Graves, sold to Robert Burke for $435,000. The Graveses had bought him as a weanling for $135,000.

“We stubbed our toe on Hip No. 1, but I think horses are selling fairly,” he said. “The trick is just putting your reserve low and letting them buy them.”

“The market values the horses, we don’t value them,” said Denali Stud owner Craig Bandoroff, who consigned the $1.1 million Empire Maker colt. “We’re happy. We all know a million dollars is not like it used to be. It’s hard to get a million dollars for a horse.”

Lower prices spelled opportunity for some, including yearling-to-juvenile pinhookers. “We find the ones we like and go for it, and whether we get ’em or not, we see at the end,” said Dean De Renzo, half of the Hartley/De Renzo Thoroughbreds team who bought a $225,000 Bernardini colt out of Rooneys Princess. “We’ve bid on four horses tonight and we got this one. We’re landing on some of the horses that are bringing a little more money than what we wanted to give for them.

“It’s a little back to normal, to where it used to be three or four years ago,” he added. “It got a little high there for a little while, but when the stud fees adjusted down, so did the horses.”

“It seems a little sticky in places,” said pinhooker Niall Brennan, who signed for a $490,000 Medaglia d’Oro-Pretty ’N Smart colt, a half-brother to graded winners Heart Ashley and Ashley’s Kitty, for an unidentified new client that may or may not resell. “I thought there were some very good buys, quite honestly. I saw some horses selling in the $250,000 range that I thought would have brought more. But, again, people are probably trying to evaluate how they appraise horses now. I think the market is trying to find itself a little bit.”

The negative numbers had many people downgrading the yearling market’s recovery from “solid” to “fragile.” But at least one buyer on the front line of racehorse owner recruitment, West Point Thoroughbreds principal Terry Finley, was staying positive.

“I’ve had literally a hundred people ask me at Saratoga about our business,” Finley said after signing for a $225,000 Flower Alley half-sister to Canadian Horse of the Year Never Retreat that West Point bought with St. Elias Stable. “Without exaggerating, we find it very good, because we’re finding more people who are exposed to the business and think it looks pretty fun. They see I’ll Have Another, who cost just $35,000, and he’s generated a lot of enthusiasm over the Triple Crown. So this game ain’t dead, not by a long shot.”