Updated on 09/16/2011 8:58AM

First session lacks electricity, high prices

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Fasig-Tipton's 82nd annual Saratoga yearling sale opened without fireworks Tuesday night, posting declines across the board as buyers played conservatively in the boutique market.

A $750,000 Unbridled's Song-Dreamscape filly offered by Gainesway, agent, topped the opening session on a final bid from Bob and Beverly Lewis. The night's most expensive colt was a $700,000 A. P. Indy-Fleet Road colt, a half-brother to stakes winners Tuzia and Tanja, that Laddie Dance and Jeanne Vance bought from Lane's End, agent.

Those prices were low compared to last year's first-day leader, a $1.85 million Unbridled's Song colt now named Mister C's Song, and that difference suggested a possible climate change at the top of the boutique yearling market.

Heavyweight buyers filled the Humphrey S. Finney Pavilion and bought a few horses, but without the dazzling two- and three-way bidding duels that characterized last year's record-setting Saratoga auction. At this year's opener, when Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum and the Coolmore conglomerate bought horses, their agents signed receipts for six figures rather than seven. And they bought just one apiece: Coolmore's Demi O'Byrne bought a $300,000 Grand Slam half-brother to Grade 3 winner Gin Talking, and Sheikh Mohammed's regular representative, John Ferguson, acquired a $200,000 Forest Wildcat-General's Mistress colt.

The session ended with 46 yearlings sold for a total of $11,112,000, down 37 percent from last year's first night, when 58 lots brought $17,725,000. The average price fell 21 percent to $241,565. Median slipped to a lesser degree, dropping by 5 percent to $195,000.

The buyback rate - the percentage of horses that failed to reach their seller's minimum required bid - rose from an unusually low 16 percent last year to 32 percent, a figure that has become common in the select yearling market.

"It was a workmanlike session," Fasig-Tipton chief operating officer Boyd Browning said of the opener. "It lacked any significant momentum throughout the sale, because there wasn't a run of horses with enough pedigree to create a ton of excitement."

But Browning and buying agents agreed that the second and third sessions, set for Wednesday and Thursday nights, were likely to produce stronger results. Still, Browning cautioned that Fasig-Tipton did not expect the auction to finish above its mark last year, when the three-day sale achieved a sale-record average of $385,259.

Five horses brought $500,000 or more during the Tuesday night session. In addition to the top filly and colt, those lots were a $600,000 Grand Slam-Heartful Star colt sold by Dromoland/Hartwell, agent, to Mr. and Mrs. Robert Baker; a $575,000 Kingmambo-Clandestine Caller colt that Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas bought from Derry Meeting Farm, agent, for new clients Clinton and Susan Atkins; and a $500,000 Tale of the Cat-Doppio Espresso filly that Highclere, agent, sold to the Lewises.

"With sessions of only 70 horses a night, you don't want to overanalyze, and there aren't enough numbers yet to develop a real market trend," Browning said. "Ultimately, it still depends on the quality of the individual physical horses you present. We think the Wednesday and Thursday sessions are stronger in terms of horse quality, both in physicals and pedigrees."

A magnificent filly

The session-topping filly, bred in partnership by Bob Levy's Muirfield Ventures and Graham Beck's Gainesway Thoroughbreds, was one lot that had both the looks and the genes. Buyer Lewis, who raised his hand high to cast the last-second $750,000 bid, called her "magnificent." Not surprisingly, Gainesway representative Michael Hernon agreed.

"We've raised this filly from birth, and she's always been a very good filly," Hernon said after the hammer fell. "She's a big, strong horse who's very sound. She came up to the sale in superb condition, and she showed herself effectively. She was bought by a good judge of a horse, and we wish him a lot of luck."

The bay filly sold as Hip No. 31 and is out of Dreamscape, a full sister to Levy's champion sprinter Housebuster.

The $750,000 filly didn't create the same electricity that the $1.85 million Unbridled's Song session topper did last year, but it was a dramatic profit on the popular young stallion's stud fee. When Hip No. 31 was bred, Unbridled's Song stood for $40,000; he has since gone up to $75,000.

"We felt that horses in the Saratoga sales environment that are of superior conformation and presence tend to bring superior returns," Hernon said, noting that the filly had brought a price at the high end of Gainesway's expected range for her. "This sale lends itself to selling the superior individual because it's a smaller catalog and a smaller sales ground. People reinspect the horses and reinspect again. Consequently, the cream rises to the top."

Exuberance tempered

But economic concerns, discussions of a possible war with Iraq, and the absence of major buyers like the late Prince Ahmed bin Salman's Thoroughbred Corp. may mean the rise to the top won't be as steep as it has been in the last several years. Certainly, such formidable seven-figure bidders as Eugene Melnyk and Shadwell Estate Co. seemed unwilling to spend as much as they have in the past as the sale began. Melnyk bought a $450,000 A. P. Indy-High Heeled Hope filly from Taylor Made, agent, and a $350,000 Capote-European Rose colt from Derry Meeting Farm, agent. Shadwell purchased one lot, a $350,000 Gulch-Good Cents colt, from Ironwood Farm.

As one agent said after the auction, "No more irrational exuberance."

The lack of exuberance may have made for a less exciting opener, but sellers remain optimistic that the market will stay healthy even as the top end readjusts.

"I think this was a solid sale for what was offered," said Pete Bradley, buying agent and head of the Bradley Thoroughbred Brokerage. "There are plenty of good physicals here. The horses coming up are better, and I think that will be reflected in the prices."