04/05/2010 11:00PM

A home run for the Helmbrechts


LEXINGTON, Ky. - There was a wild cheer at Keeneland's April 2-year-old sale Monday night when the gavel fell at $625,000 for Hip No. 73. The joyful roar reverberated from behind the bidding ring to the sale pavilion's front foyer, and it came from the extended Helmbrecht family.

Hip No. 73, a stout son of Bernardini, came to the sale as a one-horse consignment for trainer Bill Helmbrecht. He left the auction ring as the sale-topper for Bill's brother, Mike Helmbrecht, who bred the bay with partner Bill Geist.

Other members of the Helmbrecht family also played roles, from galloping the colt every morning to leading him to the auction ring. But the sale, Mike Helmbrecht said, had a melancholy note, too.

"The family was cheering, but after he walked out the door, it was like, 'He's gone,' " Helmbrecht explained. "He's been our big horse all winter. That's all we talked about."

Jess Jackson's $625,000 bid for their colt gave the Helmbrechts more reason than most to celebrate the April sale, but other sellers (and Keeneland sale officials) also sounded relieved by the auction's bottom line. The April sale grossed $12,013,000 for 71 horses, a slight improvement of 2 percent from last year's total for 66 juveniles. The $169,197 average price fell by 5 percent, but that was a much shallower decline than the 16 percent slide in average last season. Median grew 15 percent and reached $135,000. And buybacks improved to 37 percent from last year's 44 percent rate.

The turnaround came at the right time for Mike Helmbrecht and Geist. Helmbrecht lives in Ocala, Fla., where he manages Bill Grube's Destiny Oaks Farm, but he and Geist also operate Woodbridge Farm, a breeding business. They had been impressed with their Bernardini-Moonlight Sonata colt from the moment he was foaled, Helmbrecht said. He was imposing even at birth, a 150-pounder, a son of 3-year-old champion Bernardini and a half-brother to Grade 2 winner Beethoven.

When he didn't bring enough money at Fasig-Tipton's October yearling sale, they bought the colt back at $75,000 and figured they would race him themselves. Mike Helmbrecht named the strapping colt Wilburn, in honor of their longtime Lexington-based farrier Bill Wilburn, and in November he sent him to Bill Helmbrecht at Turfway Park.

The more Wilburn trained, the better the Helmbrechts and Geist liked him, but they entered him in the April sale to keep their options open. The sale became Option No. 1 earlier this spring when Dr. Gary Lavin, then a member of Keeneland's inspection team, gave the colt his highest rating for a 2-year-old, Mike Helmbrecht said.

"At that point, you almost can't afford to keep him," Helmbrecht said. "If they're going to give you that much money, you've got to play the game."

Wilburn came to auction with a string of published works, then put up a professional-looking three-eighths in 33.80 seconds at the sale's under-tack preview.

"What they've done with him is kind of amazing," Jackson's buying agent, John Moynihan said after signing for the 16.2-hand Wilburn. "He's been working every week, you know he's sound. Hell, he's been working half-miles out of the gate."

Still, Moynihan said, he thought the price was high. The pricing equation has changed for 2-year-old buyers, especially regarding colts, since the collapse in Thoroughbred prices 18 months ago.

"The way everybody looks at it, even if these horses turn out to be good, for the next two or three years breeding farms might not be looking to buy many of them [when they retire]," said trainer John Ward, who paid $525,000 for a Maria's Mon colt on behalf of John Oxley. "So you have to worry about how much residual value a horse will have. You can't be as confident anymore that you can buy 10 horses and sell one of them well enough to bail you out."

Bidders' economizing was sometimes dispiriting for resellers hoping for profits on their expensive 2009 yearling purchases. The $525,000 Maria's Mon colt was a good example. The half-brother to multiple graded winner Miss Isella put in a fast eighth-mile work in 10.20 seconds. But he sold for just $25,000 more than the price IEAH Stable paid for him at last year's Saratoga yearling sale.

"Any more, a half-million is a lot for a horse in this economy," the Maria's Mon colt's consignor, Eddie Woods, said. Woods led all consignors with 16 sold for $3,267,000.

It might be harder to hit the million-dollar home run in today's juvenile market, but a variety of buyers contributed to some profitable singles and doubles. The most interesting new player was Didier Reed, a France-based agent representing Prime Equestrian. The group declined to speak to sale reporters, and Keeneland also offered little insight, except to say that Prime Equestrian apparently has about 50 horses in training abroad. The media-shy entity quietly racked up 10 horses for $2,107,000 as the auction's leading buyer, far outpacing Jackson, who was second with expenditures totaling $865,000.