02/22/2008 12:00AM

Fresh optimism for F-T's Calder sale

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The general economic outlook might be uncertain, but North America's 2-year-old market got some good vibes from its bellwether Ocala Breeders' Sales Co. select auction on Feb. 12. That's creating some optimism - of the cautious kind - as the juvenile auction circuit swings over to Miami for Fasig-Tipton's Calder sale on Tuesday.

OBS's Ocala auction was small, selling just 89 horses, but it set sale records for both average ($157,640) and median ($125,000) after ringing up double-digit gains in each category. The sale outperformed expectations at a time when major auction house executives were saying they hoped to hold level, or gain slightly, on last year's returns. The OBS February numbers were encouraging news for sellers heading into Fasig-Tipton Calder, the calendar's largest select auction this year, with 265 horses cataloged.

Last year's Fasig-Tipton Calder sale posted mixed results. The 2007 auction saw a 30 percent drop in gross after selling 124 horses, down from 154 - and a world-record $16 million hammer price for The Green Monkey - in 2006. Average price dropped, too, falling 13 percent to $351,790, and buy-backs rose from 33 percent the year before to a high 41 percent. But the median, unaffected by the aberration of 2006's world record, actually climbed 25 percent to $250,000. The declines in gross and average were steeper than at other auctions that didn't come off world-record seasons the year before, but they were also broadly in keeping with a slowdown across the select 2-year-old marketplace.

Consequently, yearling-to-juvenile resellers had less to spend at the 2007 yearling sales to restock their inventory. The juvenile marketplace is highly selective, meaning resellers couldn't afford to lower the quality of the yearlings they chose, even at sales where quality yearlings were selling for a premium. Instead, they generally opted to trim their gross spending by buying fewer horses. The OBS prices suggested that the resellers, known as pinhookers, did indeed bring quality to the auction ring again in 2008. Fasig-Tipton's chief operating officer, Boyd Browning, said he sees a similar trend at the Calder sale.

"We've been delighted with the quality of the horseflesh we've inspected that's coming to Calder," Browning said. "I think they have cut back in the number of horses they have bought as a collective group, and they probably reduced their average purchase price. But I think it's still a very strong catalog both in terms of pedigree and in terms of horse quality.

"I think there's going to continue to be an emphasis on quality in most every marketplace, whether it's a regional marketplace or a national marketplace," he added. "Buyers continue to get more sophisticated at every sale you attend, and so do the consignors."

At Calder, the stakes can be especially high. In the last decade, the auction has reeled off a series of world records, culminating in The Green Monkey's sale price. Increasingly, major international buyers like Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum's Darley organization and Coolmore Stud, prominent agents such as Buzz Chace, and well-known racehorse owners like B. Wayne Hughes - all of whom bought horses at Calder last year - are making the sale a regular stop. Not surprisingly, this audience requires sellers to put forward high-quality stock, including the best pedigrees possible. Consignors to the 2008 auction do not appear to have skimped on pedigree.

A handful of horses in the Calder catalog are closely related to champions. Hip No. 113, a Monarchos colt who sold last year for $200,000 at the Keeneland September sale, got a big boost two months later when his half-brother War Pass won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and then went on to take the divisional title. Hip No. 24 is a Vindication colt that's a half-brother to champion grass horse Paradise Creek and to Grade 1 winners Forbidden Apple and Wild Event. Hip No. 129 is an Elusive Quality half-sister to Grade 3-placed Southwestern Heat and the daughter of champion Xtra Heat. Hip No. 176, a colt by first-crop sire Speightstown, also is a half-brother to the late champion sprinter Lost in the Fog. Hip No. 198 is an Unbridled's Song half-brother to another champion sprinter, Kona Gold. Hip No. 251 is an Action This Day half-sister to Canadian champion Mobil.

Horses who are half- or full siblings to Gradeo1 winners include Hip No. 4, an Unbridled's Song half-sister to On a Soapbox; Hip No. 33, a three-quarter sister to Diplomat Lady; Hip No. 54, a Vindication half-brother to Rutherienne; Hip No. 67, an Empire Maker half-brother to Pico Central; Hip No. 102, a Storm Cat half-sister to Pohave; Hip No. 132, a Trippi half-brother to Appealing Zophie; Hip No. 191, an El Corredor half-brother to Dark Ending; Hip No. 195, a three-quarter sister to D'Wildcat; Hip No. 196, a full brother to Marylebone; Hip No. 216, a Tale of the Cat half-sister to Early Pioneer; and Hip No. 269, a Not for Love half-brother to Happy Ticket.

The catalog also is helped by an unusually strong group of first-crop sires. Smarty Jones's first juveniles will hit the track at the Calder auction. He has one filly and four colts in the catalog, including Hip No. 42, a colt from the family of Albert the Great. Medaglia d'Oro has two especially noteworthy horses in the catalog: Hip No. 240, a half-sister to Grade 1 winners Spun Sugar and Daaher, and Hip No. 34, a half-brother to Grade 1 winner Southern Image. Also sending their first crops of juveniles out this year are Grade 1 winners Action This Day, Birdstone, Candy Ride, Congaree, Cuvee, Friends Lake, Lion Heart, Peace Rules, Perfect Soul, Pleasantly Perfect, Tapit, The Cliff's Edge, and Toccet. Other first-crop sires are Canadian Frontier, Chapel Royal, Domestic Dispute, Even the Score, Soto, Strong Hope, and Teton Forest.

Clearly, there are still good pedigrees on offer. The question now is whether buyers will continue paying high prices for such horses or whether the cloudy economic outlook will dampen spending. Sales companies necessarily are betting that the optimism started at OBS can carry on, thanks to the economics of hope and potential that fuel the upper-level Thoroughbred game.

"There's nothing like the experience of having a good horse," Browning said. "That's the truth. It's a thrill, and it doesn't matter how much money you've got. The highs when you get to the top end of this game are pretty intoxicating and addictive, and people are striving to get there. And obviously the economic rewards when you do get it right with a top horse, be it a colt or a filly, are immense, too. There's a bunch of expensive lottery tickets out there."

The Fasig-Tipton Calder auction is to take place Tuesday at Calder Race Course, starting at 11 a.m. The sale's under-tack preview was held Friday.