07/14/2006 12:00AM

Hopes high as yearling season begins

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Fasig-Tipton Kentucky kicks off the yearling sale season in Lexington on Monday with a slimmed down catalog and a tighter selection process for its yearlings. Company officials hope that the smaller group of horses and the sale's record of producing winners will result in gains at the two-day auction.

Last year, the Fasig-Tipton July yearling sale was coming off a record season. But the 2005 sale catalog ballooned to a record 672 horses, and the extra offerings did not help the auction maintain its momentum from 2004. The result was declines across the board.

This year, the sale company is trying a different strategy in terms of the auction's size, as Fasig-Tipton chief operating officer Boyd Browning explained.

"We made a conscious decision to reduce the number of horses a little bit to improve the quality," he said. "We thought we may have been a little too lax on some of the physicals we took last year, and we wanted to raise the standard a little bit. We didn't adjust the pedigree parameters much or try to consciously move up the pedigrees with the same concentrated effort we did the physicals. But we may have gotten a little bit better pedigrees just due to the quality of the sires that are entering the marketplace in 2006 with their first crop of yearlings."

The 2006 catalog features 477 yearlings, with Hip Nos. 1-212 spotlighted in the auction's New Sire Showcase for progeny of first- and second-crop sires. Given some of the stallions in the New Sire Showcase, the early part of the auction could generate excitement among bidders, who are famously eager to try stock by unproven but flashy sires. Among the stallions with their first yearlings on offer this year are Vindication, Sky Mesa, Repent, Aldebaran, Hold That Tiger, Yonaguska, Harlan's Holiday, Wiseman's Ferry, Whywhywhy, and Volponi.

"Some of these sires were fantastic racehorses with real quality pedigrees," Browning said. "The group represented by their first crop of yearlings has some horses with fairly significant stud fees, and those were fair stud fees. People bred to them happily at that price, and I think those yearlings are going to be well received."

If last year's yearling sales and this season's juvenile sales are any gauge, the top of the yearling market, starting at Fasig-Tipton, could boom. Last year's yearling season produced a $9.7 million top price when Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum's Darley operation bought a Storm Cat-Tranquility Lake colt from Mill Ridge, agent. That was the highest price ever at the Keeneland September sale. Early this year, Fasig-Tipton's Calder select juvenile sale in Miami fired off a new world auction record of $16 million for a Forestry-Magical Masquerade colt that Randy Hartley and Dean DeRenzo sold to Coolmore. Those eye-popping prices provide a hopeful message for sellers who have particularly high-quality yearlings on offer this year. The message: End-users like Coolmore and Darley, who both race horses and stand stallions, are willing to pay astronomical sums for horses they find especially desirable. And yearling-to-juvenile resellers - the yearling sales' traditional middle-market buyers - made cash they will be looking to put back in inventory from the yearling auctions. That $16 million 2-year-old, incidentally, was a Fasig-Tipton July graduate.

But there is a note of caution. Not every horse will appeal to the world's wealthiest buyers, and not all the resellers, called pinhookers, got rich this year at the juvenile sales.

"You could see some modest decrease in pinhooking activity above $150,000," Browning said. "But, overall, the 2-year-old markets were pretty daggone good. The buyback rate at Calder decline significantly in 2006 as compared to 2005, and while I think there were a few jittery moments along the way for some consignors, they got some confidence at some of the later juvenile sales that were extremely bullish.

"There's a broad cross-section of horses being offered at our sale, and the pinhookers are an important part of our market. But they are by no means all of the market."

Fasig-Tipton has successfully tempted some of the game's biggest players to buy at its July sale. That's especially good news for sellers with top-of-the-line pedigrees and conformation in the catalog who can benefit hugely from a clash between the Coolmores and the Darleys of the world. But Fasig-Tipton officials hope to spread the money a little thicker this year with their smaller July catalog, and it will help, too, if a few new bidders turn up.

Buyers who are daunted by the idea of spending $650,000 for a yearling - that was last year's top July price for a Giant's Causeway-City College colt - can take heart by looking at the 2006 catalog's cover. The featured horse is 2005 Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Silver Train, whom Buckram Oak bought from Mulholland Farm for just $140,000.

This sale is best known for its selection focus on conformation and racy looks. But if you're looking for glowing pedigrees, there are some in the book. In addition to some notable catalog pages in the New Sire Showcase, there are also Hip No. 239, a Doneraile Court half-sister to champion Maria's Mon; Hip No. 253, a Victory Gallop filly out of Grade 1 winner Contredance; Hip No. 259, a Malibu Moon half-sister to dual Grade 1 winner Diazo; Hip No. 267, a full brother to Grade 1 winner D'wildcat; Hip No. 273, a half-sister to millionaire and multiple graded winner Lawyer Ron; Hip No. 315, a full brother to Preakness runner-up Sweetnorthernsaint; Hip No. 328, a Malibu Moon half-sister to Canadian champion Mobil; and Hip No. 389, another Malibu Moon, a half-brother to Grade 1 winner Hookedonthefeelin, among numerous others.

"Buyers are very, very sophisticated, and you want them walking around seeing good horse after good horse after good horse," Browning said. "That way, they stay bullish. I'm hoping it's a better sale this year throughout the whole marketplace, truthfully."

The auction runs Monday and Tuesday at Fasig-Tipton's Newtown Paddocks headquarters in Lexington. Sessions begin daily at 10 a.m.