03/18/2005 12:00AM

High-end risk: Home run or strikeout

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Barretts March select juvenile sale's results on Tuesday in Pomona, Calif., provided more evidence that the boutique juvenile auction market is not for fainthearted sellers.

Fasig-Tipton's Calder sale on March 1 set a world-record juvenile price of $5.2 million for a Tale of the Cat colt that Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum bought, and Barretts saw a $1.9 million sale-topping Songandaprayer colt who went to Bob and Beverly Lewis. Both sales posted high buy-back rates, though, with Fasig-Tipton's hitting 45 percent and Barretts's finishing up at 39 percent. In practical terms, such a selective marketplace means that sellers often rely on one home-run sale to carry their whole consignment into profitability.

The reason, consignors say, is that there are relatively few buyers for their horses.

"Take Bob and Beverly Lewis out of the mix at Barretts, and it was scary," said Jerry Bailey, a pinhooker who is based in Ocala, Fla. "I thought the quality of the horses at Barretts was better this year than in the last couple of years, and it concerns me that more buyers weren't there."

"There is no middle market anymore," consignor Eddie Woods, also a Florida-based pinhooker, said. "At the boutique sales, you get everything or you get nothing. I think the middle-market buyers feel they can't go to a sale like this and be competitive, that they'll be priced out of it all the time. Even some of the guys that are a little stronger than the middle-market guys, they want to be competitive for the top horses, but they can't compete with Sheikh Mohammed and Demi O'Byrne and Bob Lewis. So they wait around for a sale where they can be more competitive, even though some of the horses they're ignoring at this sale might be better than the best horses at a secondary sale."

Some buyers' agents, though, say the selectivity is justified.

"I've done well out of this sale, actually," trainer Craig Dollase said, echoing a common sentiment among bidders in the $100,000-to-$250,000 range. "But it's kind of hit-or-miss at this sale. To me, it seems like the pedigree is there, then you look at the individual, and it's not to our liking. I don't know why that is. Maybe some of these guys wait on their better horses a little later, maybe for the Keeneland April sale. I've been lucky to find a few, but it's tough."

Trainer John Sadler, who purchased a $900,000 Indian Charlie-Tupelo Belle colt from H.T. Stables and a $250,000 Forest Wildcat-Style and Class filly from Bailey, noted that his shortlist included just four horses this year. "We're looking for a good horse," he said. "The last three or four years here, we've been buying up, so we're willing to pay for something we really like."

That leaves a lot of horses, and potential stars, overlooked, consignors say.

"It's a fact that a high proportion of quality horses come out of 2-year-old sales," Bailey said. "The horses are there, and they're easier to identify as 2-year-olds than they are as yearlings. We just need to attract more buyers into the horse business."

But, for now, a few high-end buyers rule the market. To accommodate them, yearling-to-juvenile pinhookers are spending more to stock their shelves with better-bred, more attractive yearlings, consignor Woods said.

"It appears that, to compete at the select 2-year-old sales, you've got to take the ultimate gamble and buy very nice, expensive horses, and hope that everything goes right," he said. "It's not a game for the timid."

Drive to give GI's day at the Derby

Thanks to various organizations and individuals in the Thoroughbred industry, some Iraq war veterans will be in the crowd for this year's Kentucky Derby on May 7. Terry Finley, founder of West Point Thoroughbreds and a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, is spearheading an effort to give soldiers from combat units stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., free trips to Churchill Downs for the Derby. Among the contributors so far are the Fasig-Tipton Co., the Keeneland Association, Ocala Breeders' Sales Co., bloodstock agent Buzz Chace, various consignors, and a number of West Point clients and trainers.

A $125 donation will cover expenses for one soldier's day at the races, including track and infield admission, a betting voucher, a box lunch, and a coupon for drinks.

So far, the fund has gotten commitments of more than $20,000. Fort Campbell officials have told Finley they believe that more than 2,000 soldiers might want to attend, and Finley has committed to raise enough to bring all interested soldiers.

Those interested in contributing can make checks payable to the Thoroughbred Thank You Fund and mail them to the fund at 900 Briggs Road, Suite 415, Mt. Laurel, NJ 08054.

* The Japan Racing Horse Association plans to hold its first select yearling sale in July 2006, according to a Blood-Horse report. The one-day auction will be held at Northern Horse Park on Hokkaido in conjunction with the association's annual select foal sale.

* Sweet Life, dam of the 2004 juvenile filly champion and recent Santa Anita Oaks winner Sweet Catomine, produced a full sister to that runner on March 5 at Mill Ridge Farm in Lexington. The mare has been bred back to Sweet Catomine's sire, Storm Cat.

* Pinhooker Jerry Bailey is about to purchase 425 acres from Carl Bowling for a new facility in Ocala. The property, located between highway 316 and 318, includes a training track, and Bailey said he intends to build additional barns after the sale closes in April.