03/12/2008 11:00PM

Frugal spenders spur Barretts slide


POMONA, Calif. - When the bidding for Hip No. 169 hit $750,000 at the Barretts March sale Wednesday night, it looked like agent John Moynihan was going to get his horse.

Moynihan, representing Jess Jackson of Stonestreet Stables, had taken an unusual tack in bidding on Hip No. 169, a Silver Deputy filly. She had attracted a lot of interest after her eighth-mile breeze in 10.20 seconds at the March 4 under-tack show, and Moynihan was understandably eager to escape a costly bidding war, if possible. So he stood, cell phone in hand, on a strip of lawn well away from the pavilion but still within view of an open door leading into the bidding arena, where his bid spotter stood some 30 feet away.

Anyone walking by wouldn't have noticed Moynihan bidding, but his competition inside the pavilion knew, and they weren't giving in. The party inside the pavilion bid $775,000. Moynihan swore, and after some thought, bid again. This time, he got the filly for the sale-topping price of $800,000.

It was a rare dramatic duel at the one-day auction, which saw steep declines in a select juvenile market that is enduring a slowdown in the $700,000-to-$1 million range.

Last year, the Barretts March auction was one of the season's best for consignors, with a $1.4 million sale topper and gains across the board inspired partly by leading buyer Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, who spent more than $3.9 million for five horses. But this year, Maktoum, his rivals at Coolmore Stud, and last year's second-leading spender, Ahmed Zayat, didn't sign a single ticket. The only Maktoum to buy any horses was Sheikh Mohammed's son, Sheikh Rashid, whose purchases included a $390,000 Maria's Mon-Runnymede Bride colt from David Scanlon, agent, and a $380,000 Pleasantly Perfect-Fireman's Ball filly from Niall Brennan, agent.

But even the market's high-rolling buyers were feeling more budget-conscious than in past years, resulting in a market that Sheikh Rashid's agent, Omar Trevino, called "dicey."

Buyers' conservatism - and the Maktoums' decreased presence - showed in the day's returns. The one-day auction sold 73 horses for $12,996,000, a 33 percent slide from last year's total of $19,340,000 for 88 horses. The average price of $178,027 was down 19 percent from last year's figure of $219,773, and median fell 25 percent from $147,500 last year to $110,000. The buy-back rate climbed, from last year's 41 percent to 45 percent.

"The numbers don't look great, but we were kind of anticipating that, as far as gross, and, really, I thought it was a pretty lively market overall," Barretts president Jerry McMahon said. "The buyers were so plentiful here, but as usual they were selective, and we probably didn't have enough of that kind of horse to satisfy that need."

McMahon said that the loss of a few key horses who scratched from the sale - including a Lion Heart-Whattacapote colt that cost $440,000 as a yearling - and the lack of a $1 million horse contributed to the slides.

Jess Jackson was the day's leading buyer with three purchases totaling $1,760,000. In addition to the Silver Deputy filly, a daughter of the Cox's Ridge mare Duchess Kiss that leading seller Jerry Bailey Sales Agency consigned, Jackson also bought the sale's most expensive colt, a $650,000 Sir Cherokee half-brother to champion sprinter Midnight Lute whom Niall Brennan, agent, consigned as Hip No. 148. And he paid $310,000 for an Unbridled's Song-Just Out colt from Eddie Woods, agent.

"For the good horses, it's certainly pretty good," said Moynihan. "Everything I've tried to buy today has sold really, really well.

"I love Silver Deputy as a broodmare sire, and she's big, she's tall, and she'll run two turns," he said of the sale topper. "She's just beautiful, one of the best fillies I've seen this year."

Other top-level buyers said the top of the market was stronger than expected for the day's top picks.

"I was surprised we had to stretch that much for him," agent Mike Ryan said after paying $600,000 on William Warren's behalf for a Seattle Fitz-Whiskey Babe colt from David Scanlon's consignment. "He was a very special horse, but it was more than I anticipated he'd bring, to be honest, for a Seattle Fitz, a first-crop sire."

The three top-priced horses all hit home runs for their sellers. Jerry Bailey and partner Lance Robinson bought the sale-topping Silver Deputy filly for $210,000 at the 2007 Keeneland September sale. A partnership headed by Brennan and Ryan paid just $150,000 at the auction for the half-brother to Midnight Lute. And agent Buzz Chace picked up the Seattle Fitz colt for just $22,000 at Fasig-Tipton's October yearling sale for Terry Finley and Lewis Lakin's L & F Stable.

But even the day's most successful sellers agreed that the market was too thin below the $350,000 level, where buyers were far more scarce and the letters "RNA," for reserve not attained, appeared more often on the results sheet.

Terry Finley of L & F put it succinctly: "We need more buyers."

Instead, what the market has seen in recent years are more sellers as some of the market's former juvenile buyers decided to try their hand at pinhooking, or reselling yearlings as 2-year-olds. That trend could change if the shortage of buyers persists, the market slows, and new pinhookers - especially those who spent lavishly for their yearling stock - get stuck holding expensive inventory.

"Some very successful racehorse owners have gone into our pinhooking business as an attempt to supplement their racehorses and offset some of the cost of their racing fun," said longtime pinhooker Becky Thomas of Sequel Bloodstock. "But pinhooking is not as easy as it might appear from the outside, and a lot of those guys are now ending up with high-priced racing stables with horses that maybe they wouldn't have bought if they'd just remained end-users."

But for pinhookers who plan to tough it out for the long term, the Barretts sale proved a stark reminder that it's no game for the faint of heart. As one observer - and former pinhooker - put it, "You get it right, or you don't get anything at all."