07/13/2001 12:00AM

HISTORY CHALLENGE: No such thing as a sure thing at yearling sales


In 1909, legendary racing official and historian Walter S. Vosburgh wrote, "The breeding of racehorses may yield to science, but I fear it will be when sunbeams are extracted from cucumbers."

In 1924, John E. Madden, who bred five Kentucky Derby winners, said, "Soundness has been sacrificed for speed to some extent. The horse of great speed belonging to an unsound family and unsound himself is ever a great attraction to some breeders."

As we begin the 21st century, science is no closer to yielding the answer to the breeding of the great racehorse and breeders and buyers are more than ever attracted to unsound families that produce precocious speed in their offspring.

Those axioms will be well in evidence Monday and Tuesday evenings when some of the most promising horses American breeders have to offer will be auctioned at the annual Keeneland Selected Yearling Sale.

Test your knowledge of breeding and yearling sales.

1. In 1920, the year Man o' War was on his way to becoming the most legendary horse in American history, horsemen began to closely watch a 2-year-old named Playfellow.

Owned by the Quincy Stable of Frederick Johnson, Playfellow failed to live up to his royal bloodlines and the colt was still a maiden by the time the season ended.

The following year, oil magnate Harry Sinclair paid $100,000 for Playfellow, a huge sum for a horse in that era.

Why was there such interest in Playfellow?

2. No one was surprised when Bold Ruler and Northern Dancer became two of the 20th century's top stallions. Both were classic winners and national champions.

But the addition of Mr. Prospector to the list of great sires may have surprised a few. While the son of Raise a Native was a record yearling purchase himself and was a brilliant sprinter on the track, he won only two stakes races - neither of which was graded.

Even more surprising might be two sons of Northern Dancer who are the only two non-stakes-winning horses to each sire more than 100 horses who have won stakes.

Name these two horses.

3. Keeneland held its first yearling sale in the spring of 1938. When the War Department restricted the movement of horses to Saratoga, the Keeneland summer yearling sale was born in 1943. Trade publications referred to the event as "the transplanted Saratoga sale."

By the 1960's, Keeneland's July sale was generally recognized as the most important in the world. A September sale was soon added.

To date, the July sale has produced the winners of 11 runnings of the Kentucky Derby, 10 runnings of the Preakness, and 6 runnings of the Belmont Stakes.

Name the first July sales graduates to win each of the Triple Crown races.

4. On the first Saturday in May, this chestnut colt - who two years earlier had established a world record yearling sales price at Keeneland - won the Kentucky Derby. He was the first Keeneland sales topper to capture the Louisville classic.

Four months later, a yearling with a somewhat questionable foreleg went through the sales ring at Keeneland. This colt became the lowest-priced yearling ever sold at Keeneland to win the Kentucky Derby.

Name these two horses.

5. Bidders might have thought they were suffering with double vision at the July 1944 Keeneland yearling sale. Arthur Hancock Sr., master of Claiborne Farm, sent two fillies into the sales ring at the same time.

The idea was that the winning bidder would pick which horse he or she wanted and Hancock would keep the other.

What was the outcome of this strange event?