09/08/2005 11:00PM

Hopes high for top end of Keeneland auction

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Keeneland's two-week September yearling sale, the world's largest auction with a record 5,110 yearlings in its catalog, opens Monday in Lexington, Ky. Once again, the mammoth horse sale will offer something for everyone - and provide the best gauge of the yearling market's overall health.

The sale runs from Sept. 12-26 with a dark day on Friday, Sept. 16, and will showcase first-year sires, old-guard stallions, early-maturing yearlings, and late-blooming distance prospects.

The 2005 auction has a tough act to follow after last year's sale set a record for gross receipts, with 3,370 yearlings bringing $324,904,300. It also set sale records for top price of $8 million for a Storm Cat-Welcome Surprise colt that Fusao Sekiguchi bought from Lane's End; for average price of $96,411; and for median price of $37,000. The buyback rate was a low 23 percent.

In terms of sire power, this year's Keeneland September has ample ammunition for some major bidding wars, especially in the first two days, the sale's select portion. The redoubtable Storm Cat has 35 yearlings cataloged, and Seeking the Gold (22), Danzig (16), Broad Brush (19), Danehill (5), Sadler's Wells (8), Machiavellian (1), and Gone West (43) are also among established, successful sires represented.

The height of new fashion will also take a turn through the ring. Awesome Again has 39 lots, while hot Coolmore stallions Giant's Causeway and Fusaichi Pegasus have 56 and 44 youngsters in the catalog, respectively. Among other first- and second-crop sires are Buddha, Came Home, E Dubai, Include, Johannesburg, Monarchos, Orientate, Smart Strike, Street Cry, Tiznow, and Yonaguska.

Reflecting the trend to breed 100-plus mares per stallion, many of the September sires have large contingents in the catalog. That, and the record number of yearlings, poses the single biggest question for the Keeneland sale company.

"Have we gotten to the point where supply is outstripping demand?" said Geoffrey Russell, director of sales. "We don't know yet."

The Thoroughbred yearling sale season has yielded mixed results. For those pointing horses for the Keeneland September auction's first two days, there is reason for some optimism. The opening days traditionally offer select-quality lots and attract the attention of the world's richest buyers. The so-called "boutique" marketplace showed some unexpected strength at Fasig-Tipton's recently concluded Saratoga select sale.

Top-market sellers might find competition for their better horses very lively indeed, if Saratoga's results are anything to go by. Typically dominant buyers such as agents Demi O'Byrne, representing Coolmore Stud and Michael Tabor, and John Ferguson, representing Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum usually attend. And relatively new players such as Kendall-Jackson winery owner Jess Jackson and liquor-company executive Lee Einsidler also could help buoy the upper market. Jackson purchased the Saratoga sale's most expensive filly, a $2.2 million Fusaichi Pegasus-Collect Call daughter. Einsidler, accompanied by trainer John Kimmel, bid aggressively at Saratoga and came home with, among other horses, a $1.1 million Fusaichi Pegasus-Lost the Code colt, a half-brother to champion sprinter Squirtle Squirt.

"The upper end is very solid at the moment," Russell said. "The Saratoga sale was excellent, and that's a good start for us to build on."

But middle- and lower-market sellers may have reason to set their sights - and their reserves - lower than they would like.

Fasig-Tipton Kentucky's two-day July yearling auction, considered a bellwether for the middle-class market, chilled consignors hoping for a reprise of the strong results that middle-class, regional sales enjoyed in 2004. One factor appears to have been a large catalog, a market condition that will be duplicated at Keeneland September. Another regional market, Fasig-Tipton's Texas yearling sale, also suffered losses with an expanded catalog, though Hurricane Katrina also had an effect by preventing Louisiana buyers from attending.

Yearling-to-juvenile pinhookers, always a strong customer base for middle-class sellers at Keeneland September, are spending more conservatively this year after sustaining losses at the juvenile sales earlier this year. And with so many yearlings to choose from, they will be able to be picky. For sellers who have invested in big stud fees to create these September yearlings, that combination could mean rough sailing in week two of the Keeneland auction.

"September will parallel Fasig-Tipton July," said Michael S. Brown, a bloodstock agent and industry analyst who operates SireAverages.com. "It has its largest catalog ever, as they did at Fasig-Tipton July. There are too many yearlings by high stud fees."

That presents consignors with a hard choice: lower the reserve you want for each horse or risk taking your yearling home again.

But Russell cautions against drawing too many parallels between Keeneland September and any other sale. "September is a market unto itself," he said. "There's a certain magic about it, in that buyers know they can come here and find a horse. You may spend five days looking instead of three, but you know you can go home with the full complement of horses you're looking to buy."

World's largest auction

What: Keeneland September yearling sale

Where: Keeneland sale pavilion, Lexington, Ky.

When: Monday - Sept. 26 except Friday, Sept. 16, when there is no selling. Sessions begin daily at 10 a.m.

Select Sessions: Monday & Tuesday

Catalog: A record 5,110 yearlings

Recent History: Last year's sale set a world record for gross receipts of $324,904,300 and sale records for top price ($8 million for a Storm Cat - Welcome Surprise colt), average ($96,411), and median ($37,000).

Internet: Streaming video, www.keeneland.com. Wireless results, pda.keeneland.com.

Telelvision: TVG will cover the first three sessions. Check local listings or www.tvg.com.

Hips to watch

First session, MONDAY, 10 a.m.

HIPPEDIGREE AND COMMENT

* 27Bay colt by Storm Cat - Myth, by Ogygian Strong, powerful half-brother to Johannesburg.

* 74Bay colt by Storm Cat - Serena's Song, by Rahy. With four stakes horses from first four foals, dam rivals top sires in significance.

* 149Dark bay colt by Deputy Minister - Aurora, by Danzig Dam from one of most sought after families in stud book.

* 216Dark bay colt by Fusaichi Pegasus - Fineza, by Lypheor "Built like a halfback," said co-breeder, consignor Arthur Hancock.

* 217Bay colt by Sadler's Wells - Fire the Groom, by Blushing Groom Handsome, masculine colt with more than a whiff of Northern Dancer.

* 247Chestnut colt by Giant's Causeway - Homewrecker, by Buckaroo Dam has four stakes winners, including Cat's at Home.

* 260Chestnut colt by Fusaichi Pegasus - Korveya, by Riverman Product of Kentucky Derby winner & legendary broodmare

SECOND session, TUESDAY, 10 a.m.

HIPPEDIGREE AND COMMENT

* 363Bay colt by Storm Cat - Spain, by Thunder Gulch Dam's second colt - her first brought $2.4 million

* 384Dark bay colt by Storm Cat - Tranquility Lake, by Rahy Product of desirable cross of Storm Cat with a Rahy mare.

* 401Bay colt by Kingmambo - Words of War, by Lord at War Half brother to two graded winners: E Dubai & No Matter What

- Frank Mitchell