09/14/2009 11:00PM

Half to Ashado tops session at $925K

Photos By Z/Keeneland
Coolmore bought the first session's top lot, a half-brother to Ashado who sold for $925,000. No horse topped the $1 million mark.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - The two-week Keeneland September sale got under way Monday in Lexington, and by the time the session ended, the situation was clear. The world's largest Thoroughbred yearling auction was the expected buyer's market. Selling was active but marred by buy-backs as bidders scouted for bargains and many sellers refused to discount their horses too far. And the crowd-pleasing duels between Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum and Coolmore Stud that resulted in multimillion-dollar bids were a distant memory.

Gross receipts fell 55 percent at Monday's session as 154 yearlings grossed $24,949,000. The average slumped 36 percent, from $363,942 last year to $233,168, and the median fell 33 percent, from $300,000 to $200,000. The 2008 opening session sold 107 horses for $56,047,000. Buy-backs climbed from last year's 29 percent to 41 percent in 2009.

Coolmore did provide a highlight. The Irish conglomerate has bought few yearlings at U.S. auctions this year but sprang for the session-topper, a $925,000 Unbridled's Song colt who is a half-brother to two-time champion Ashado. The gray or roan colt sold through Taylor Made, representing breeders Aaron and Marie Jones.

The last time Keeneland September's opening session failed to sell a $1 million horse was in 1996.

Coolmore chief John Magnier declined to say whether he thought the price was a good deal, considering the colt's exceptional bloodlines. "Ask me in two years," he said. "You never know. We're full of hope, all of us."

"I was pleased at the price," Magnier's agent, Demi O'Byrne, said. That was a common sentiment at Monday's opening session, even among buyers of the highest-priced stock.

Missouri-based owners Robert and Lawana Low swooped for an $800,000 Giant's Causeway filly out of 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri. Robert Low promptly judged the price a bargain.

"This is a really nice filly, a great family with Azeri, so we're just really thrilled to get this filly at this price," Low said. "We think the buyer's market is definitely reflected in her price. I think she's worth twice that much.

"Well, in past times," Low added.

But these are new times, and even buyers once put off by the pricey Keeneland select sessions were here bidding - and winning - this year in a season when Thoroughbred prices have fallen precipitously.

Jack Sims, a Wyoming Thoroughbred owner who campaigns about 15 horses at tracks around the country, was plainly amazed to pick up a Storm Cat colt out of champion 3-year-old Serena's Song for $450,000 from the Robert and Beverly Lewis Trust (Denali Stud, agent).

"I think he was a bargain," Sims said. "I figured he'd bring a million and a half."

Maktoum was as active as ever. He bought 14 yearlings for a total of $4.83 million, though he did not bid on the session-topping half-brother to Ashado. But even Maktoum was buying horses for less than in previous years.

"The market is definitely readjusting," said John Ferguson, Maktoum's chief bloodstock adviser. "I think that it is a fantastic opportunity for people who are interested in getting involved in the horse business, in the sense that there is value to be had."

But that value came at sellers' expense. Breeders who had paid high stud fees faced the distressing prospect of sending yearlings into a market that had dropped roughly 20 to 30 percent since the horses' conception. This accounted for a number of withdrawals and buy-backs (most notably the Eaton Sales agency's $775,000 buy-back of a Bernardini half-sister to E Z Warrior and J Z Warrior). Sellers who took their chance in the auction ring generally came back with slimmer profits than in 2006 and 2007, before the global financial troubles of 2008 and chronic oversupply brought about the Thoroughbred market correction.

Hip No. 4 was an early case in point. That colt was by A. P. Indy, one of the world's best sires who stood for a hefty $300,000 in 2007, and out of multiple stakes producer Quiet Eclipse. He went unsold on a $285,000 hammer price and returned to consignor Stonestreet Stables. Stonestreet's owner, Jess Jackson, could afford to put more aggressive reserves on his stock, and he did, particularly on Hip No. 135. That Distorted Humor colt was the first foal out of Grade 2 winner and Grade 1-placed Forest Music, and Jackson bought him back at $900,000.

Other sellers also saw dismal results in the downturn, even for horses with attractive pedigrees. Hip No. 130, a Giant's Causeway colt out of Grade 1 winner Flat Fleet Feet, failed to reach his reserve at $70,000, well below his sire's 2007 stud fee of $125,000.

But there were some big winners from the less expensive sire ranks. One was Hip No. 65, the three-quarter-brother to Pyro that Maktoum bought for $525,000. His sire, Tapit, stood for just $12,500 in 2007.

Still, the unhappy flip side of his bargain price for the Azeri filly

wasn't lost on buyer Robert Low.

"We have 16 broodmares at our farm in Springfield, Missouri," Low said, "and we're selling some yearlings, too. So the razor cuts both ways, you know."

The Keeneland September sale was to continue with a final select session Tuesday starting at 10 a.m., followed by 12 open sessions, also starting daily at 10 a.m. This Friday is a dark day.