10/31/2008 11:00PM

Good market for bargain hunters

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Barbara D. Livingston
Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Stardom Bound is among those to be sold amid a buyers' market at the upcoming Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland mixed auctions.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - What a difference a year makes. In 2007, a strong yearling auction season preceded good results at the Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland November mixed sales. Fasig-Tipton's average and median both went up, while Keeneland put up a record-equaling median, the second-highest average in the sale's history, and 39 million-dollar horses, which also equaled a record. Keeneland also produced a world-record $10.5 million broodmare in Playful Act.

But far weaker economic conditions in 2008 are keeping expectations in check for the November sales, which open Sunday with Fasig-Tipton's one-day auction and then move to Keeneland from Monday through Nov. 17. Still, auction house executives say quality horses should draw competitive bidding, and they're hoping bidders will take advantage of what's likely to be a buyer's market for many horses on offer.

Fasig-Tipton offers Broodmare of the Year Better Than Honour and Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Stardom Bound, while Keeneland's vast catalog includes such jewels as Hystericalady, Romance Is Diane, and Wild Gams. The November sales also will give buyers a first glimpse of progeny by such outstanding racehorses as Aragorn, Bernardini, Bluegrass Cat, First Samurai, Flower Alley, and Henny Hughes.

The 2008 financial landscape looks bleaker, both in the Thoroughbred industry and in the wider global economy. The summer and fall yearling sales saw declines overall, and although young horses perceived to be high quality still commanded top dollar, buyers' definition of "top dollar" generally was lower than in the past. Breeders' expenses, driven by skyrocketing costs for fuel and hay, went up sharply. And the ongoing global financial crisis may put many buyers in a stingy mood.

That could give others who are flush the incentive to follow Wall Street's advice to "buy straw hats in the winter" and come bargain-hunting, especially for investment-quality fillies and mares.

In a tough economic climate, Fasig-Tipton's auction should benefit from its comparatively small, select catalog of 189 horses.

"To ignore the state of the economy wouldn't be realistic," Fasig-Tipton chief executive officer Boyd Browning said. "But historically there has been safety in quality. And we have a high percentage of horses in our catalog that would be desirable to a lot of the elite players. So we think there's real insulation in having a quality product."

Fasig-Tipton scored a coup when Hill 'n' Dale Farm and Southern Equine Stable consigned Better Than Honour in order to dissolve their partnership. A 12-year-old Deputy Minister mare, Better Than Honour is not pregnant, but her produce record is well established: she's the dam of consecutive Belmont Stakes winners Jazil (2006) and Rags to Riches (2007) as well as Grade 2 winner Casino Drive. She sells as the last horse through the ring Sunday evening as part of a Hill 'n' Dale consignment that also supplies Stardom Bound, Hip No. 65, as a racing or broodmare prospect.

Other highlights at Fasig-Tipton include Madcap Escapade, in foal to A.P. Indy; Malibu Mint, in foal to Mr. Greeley; Honey Ryder, in foal to Giant's Causeway; Point Ashley, in foal to Distorted Humor, and her filly by that sire; millionaire Somethinaboutlaura, in foal to Stormy Atlantic; Zoftig in foal to Hard Spun; Street Boss's dam in foal to Half Ours; and Divine Park's dam, in foal to Medaglia d'Oro.

Panty Raid, Lear's Princess, and Irish Smoke are among the broodmare prospects. Racing or breeding prospects feature Grade 1 winners Intangaroo, Backseat Rhythm, Dearest Trickski, Pure Clan, Unbridled Belle, Black Mamba, and Zaftig.

The going will likely be trickier at Keeneland, especially in the two-week auction's later sessions. The Keeneland catalog swelled from last year's record of 5,415 horses to a new record of 5,709, a sign that breeders are scaling down in leaner times.

Bargain-hunters scouring later sessions, in particular, will be mindful of horses like Forever Together and Maram. Forever Together, a $30,000 weanling at the 2004 sale, recently won the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf for earnings of more than $2 million. Before she was the 2008 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf winner, Maram was a weanling in the hinterland of the November sale catalog, Book 6. She failed to reach her reserve at just $9,500 but has since earned of $744,120.

"We hope we have people from regional markets, both domestic and internationally, that come in and take advantage," Keeneland sales director Geoffrey Russell said.

One growing part of Keeneland's November market is horses in training. Ahmed Zayat, WinStar Farm, Eaton Sales, Shadwell Farm, and Woodford Racing are among the consignors offer ready-made racing stock, a segment Russell believes could attract a new group of buyers - end-users, rather than breeders - to the sale.

"These horses are at the top of their games and ready to go on for new owners, whether at Churchill, Hollywood, Dubai for the racing carnival, or anywhere," he said. "You hear that good horses are so hard to buy at the racetrack. We're giving you the opportunity right here."

Mares often take Keeneland's spotlight. Among this year's Grade 1 winners and producers and millionaires are Hip No. 17, Ermine, in foal to A.P. Indy, and her dam, Red Mischief, who sells as Hip No. 152 in foal to Exchange Rate; Hip No. 68, the dam of Canadian champion Arravale in foal to Smart Strike; Hip No. 187, the dam of Sugar Shake in foal to Ghostzapper; Hip No. 189, Smok'n Frolic, in foal to Ghostzapper; Hip No. 195, Spoken Fur, in foal to Distorted Humor; Hip No. 210, Amorama's dam in foal to Giant's Causeway; Hip No. 271, Eight Belles's dam, carrying a full sibling; Hip No. 347, champion Halfbridled's dam, in foal to Distorted Humor; Hip No. 381, Lady Joanne, in foal to Mr. Greeley, and Hip No. 430, her dam, in foal to A.P. Indy; Hip No. 394, Unbridled Belle's dam, in foal to Bernardini; Hip No. 477, the dam of Visionaire carrying a full sibling; and Hip No. 539, the dam of Irish Smoke in foal to Street Cry.

Weanlings include half- or full siblings to champions Banshee Breeze, Lost in the Fog, Ginger Punch, and Electrocutionist, to name just a few.

The question is whether buyers will shake off the wintry financial chill and stock up on those "straw hats" before the economy rebounds. Sale companies think at least the upper-level buyers will. Russell pointed out that even in a recession some people are making money, and buyers usually are more willing to spend for quality.

"There will be some wonderful opportunities for people to acquire tremendous horseflesh this weekend, and I think you'll see those buyers be active," Fasig-Tipton's Browning agreed. "If I was a very wealthy person looking to expand my broodmare band, it would be logical to think this might be a good opportunity and time to do so."

The Fasig-Tipton select sale begins at 3 p.m. Sunday at Newtown Paddocks in Lexington. Keeneland's auction starts daily at 10 a.m. Nov. 3-17.