04/18/2005 11:00PM

High buyback rate surprises sellers

Nearly half the horses at the Keeneland sale failed to meet their reserves.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - The major 2-year-old auction season unexpectedly petered out Tuesday at Keeneland's select juvenile sale, where a high buyback rate took sales officials by surprise and prompted sellers to ask, "Where have all the buyers gone?"

Led by an $800,000 Maria's Mon colt bought by Kentucky Derby-winning owner John Oxley, the one-day Keeneland sale saw buyback rates hovering at 47 percent at 6 p.m., with about two-thirds of the catalog accounted for. The only seven-figure horse by that time, an Unbridled's Song-In the Storm colt, failed to reach his reserve, on a final bid of $1.15 million. With selling still under way, a spate of $300,000 to $500,000 horses buoyed prices a bit, but participants expressed dismay that the ceiling was that low.

The so-called boutique juvenile auctions have enjoyed heated selling at their highest levels in recent seasons. Last year, Keeneland's April auction set a sale-record $3.3 million top price for a Pulpit colt. After Fasig-Tipton's 2005 Calder sale rang up a world-record $5.2 million Tale of the Cat colt in March and Barretts saw a $1.9 million topper by Songandaprayer two weeks later, the lavish spending appeared likely to continue at Keeneland - at least for the most select lots.

But even the top of the market proved surprisingly soft at Keeneland, despite a catalog that buying agents praised and two successful preview days that produced some stellar times.

The first sign that the boutique 2-year-old market might be about to hit a wall came after the second preview day on Monday, when the number of horses withdrawn from the auction stood at 70, or about 27 percent of the catalog. The withdrawals continued during the session the following day as some sellers, realizing they didn't have enough interest to reach their reserves, opted to take their horses home.

But why had the interest in select 2-year-olds tailed off? Consignors, surprised by the thinness of the market, had a variety of theories.

"Several of the big buyers just aren't here," said consignor Niall Brennan, the selling agent who offered the $1.15 million Unbridled's Song buyback. Brennan pointed out that some of the market's most important buying agents - including John Ferguson, representing Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum, and Demi O'Byrne on behalf of Coolmore - had not signed a ticket or even been seen in the pavilion. Those were precisely the buyers Brennan had believed would be on his colt. The colt appeared to have plenty to offer. A son of the Storm Cat mare In the Storm, he was from the family of millionaire Grade 1 winner Formal Gold and had posted the co-fastest quarter-mile time of 20.60 seconds at the under-tack shows.

"I thought he'd bring $2 million or more," Brennan said.

Brennan was optimistic that he'd strike a private deal to sell the Unbridled's Song colt before leaving the grounds, but he was as mystified as everyone else as to where the money had gone.

Nick De Meric, like Brennan a yearling-to-juvenile reseller, was enjoying a relatively good day, having sold a spate of horses ranging in price from $70,000 to $400,000. But he, too, had some buybacks, among them a $220,000 Wild Rush colt.

"It's not been too bad for us," he said. "We're staying intact. But it feels very, very thin, and I don't know why. The weather's perfect, the conditions have been perfect, we got two good racetracks for the previews. The stock is definitely here. I can't explain it.

"One dynamic may be that, a little like Fasig-Tipton in Miami, this sale might be something of a victim of its own success. It's created a perception that if you don't have $200,000 or more to spend, there's nothing here for you. That's a big misconception. As a consequence, there are some real buys to be made in the middle-market range, and we just have to get that message out."

Other consignors complained that buyers were unforgiving of minor faults in horses that are, after all, in training. But, for buyers, such conservatism often seems simply prudent.

"We're pretty hard on them," bidder Oxley acknowledged.

Oxley estimated that only about half of the horses on his list pass his veterinary requirements.

"We want a horse with a good hind leg and one that has a good scope, meaning we want the throat to be sound," he said. "We want it to be correct, or nearly so. We won't accept anything that doesn't scope or that has a fracture on an X-ray."

And it's not just veterinary criteria that horses have to pass. Buyers such as Oxley are looking for serious classic contenders, which necessarily makes their list of candidates very short indeed.

"We're looking for a colt or filly that has the potential, in our mind, for a Grade 1 winner, something that can be at the top of their division," Oxley explained. "That's definitely our objective, that this colt filled the bill."

Oxley's new acquisition had immediate appeal for his buyer. Sold by Murray Smith, the colt is by Maria's Mon, the sire of Oxley's 2001 Derby winner, Monarchos.

"Which doesn't hurt a thing," Oxley said. "And he's out of a Dynaformer mare, and I love Dynaformer.

"Actually he's very similarly bred to Monarchos," Oxley added, pointing out that the colt's dam, Kopenhagen, hails from a Roberto bloodline, as did Monarchos's dam.

Buyer and horse, it seemed, fit perfectly in this case. If only, Keeneland consignors were left to wish, that could have happened more often.