06/10/2004 11:00PM

Hopes high for Del Mar yearling sale

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The Del Mar yearling sale on Aug. 16 has a catalog of only 122 horses, a drop from the 159 in the 2003 sale.

But with a move to a one-day sale this year from a two-day sale last year, and a switch in venue from the Del Mar Horsepark to the paddock at Del Mar racetrack, sale organizers expect a higher average sale price, according to Doug Burge, the general manager of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association, which conducts the sale.

Last year, the sale averaged $34,506 for 90 horses, a drop of 21 percent from the record average of $43,770 in 2002.

Fewer horses is likely to mean higher prices for this year, Burge said.

"We're looking at a $40,000 average or higher," he said.

Burge said the CTBA tightened its policy on sale prospects regarding conformation and pedigree. The sale will be dominated by California-breds, with only five yearlings offered that were bred in other states.

"We've really been stricter with the criteria for acceptance," Burge said. "With that, we took less horses. We were able to stress quality.

"I'm expecting some pretty good results. We've got very significant sire power, but also many Cal-breds by marketable, out-of-state stallions as well."

Last year, there were 141 California-breds among the 159 cataloged. Offering primarily California-breds is a reflection on the increase in quality among statebreds and a shift from what the sale offered in the mid-1990's.

"You go back eight or nine years, and we were searching for the Kentucky-breds and the non-Cal-breds," Burge said. "Now, we're at the point where there is market demand for a California-bred. We've come full circle."

Bertrando and In Excess lead all stallions with 11 yearlings in the sale, followed by Cee's Tizzy with seven, Smokester with five, and Beau Genius, Benchmark, General Meeting, and Valid Wager with four each. All of those stallions stand in California.

Burge said he was encouraged by the recent gains at the Barretts May sale of 2-year-olds in training, which has a market similar to the Del Mar yearling sale. Held on May 11, the average price at Barretts rose 22.5 percent, to a record $37,351. The sale also reduced its catalog and went from a two-day sale to a one-day event this year.

The decline in average price at the 2003 Del Mar yearling sale caught organizers by surprise. Part of the reason was a weak catalog, Burge admits, but the daunting workers' compensation costs paid by trainers created a burden that some owners were not willing to shoulder.

Last month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation to lower those costs by increasing the takeout on exotic wagers placed on California races by one-half of 1 percent. The legislation is designed to raise $10 million annually to go toward insurance premiums paid by horsemen.

One aspect of the legislation, a $400 fee paid to each starter in Southern California, took effect on May 29. In addition, a subsidy paid to policies held by trainers is expected to start on July 1.

"In reviewing the sale and talking to buyers and consignors, one of the reasons that people mentioned for the decline was the increased costs of ownership," Burge said. "That, and the quality of the horses we had."

This will be the first time since the mid-1990's that the sale has been held at the Del Mar racetrack. The move is a cost-saving measure, and also brings the yearlings directly to the buyers.

"In talking with consignors and breeders, they were looking at other options as well, such as taking some of these well-bred Cal-breds to Kentucky sales," Burge said. "One of the strong points and reasons for sticking with the market in California is the optimism people have with having the sale at the racetrack."