07/17/2001 12:00AM

It's hard keeping up with the Joneses

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - When timber magnate Aaron Jones and his wife, Marie, bought broodmare Charm a Gendarme in November 1998, they were purchasing a $290,000 lottery ticket. On Monday night, the opening session for Keeneland's two-day July yearling sale, they cashed that ticket for $4 million, when bloodstock agent Demi O'Byrne signed the receipt of purchase for Charm a Gendarme's Saint Ballado colt.

O'Byrne and his clients, Michael Tabor and John Magnier, made a few consignors like the Joneses a good bit richer Monday night. They outbid Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum to buy the session-topper and two other seven-figure horses, spending some $9 million, more than a third of the session's total revenue. They were not the only million-dollar buyers: Betty Moran's Brushwood Stable bought the top filly, a $2 million Storm Cat out of Fitted Crown, and John Oxley, owner of 2001 Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos, bought a Seattle Slew-Cara Rafaela colt for $1.35 million.

Those bids gave Keeneland officials a hook to hang their optimism on, but even those extravagant prices couldn't hide the holes in today's marketplace.

Just 44 of the session's 69 yearlings sold, causing buy-backs to surge to 36 percent from last year's 28 percent. The average price dropped 12 percent to $587,432, and the median price plummeted 27 percent to $375,000. Gross revenue, affected in large part by the sale's smallest-ever catalog of 164 horses, slid 12 percent to $25,847,000.

The number of seven-figure horses also dropped, from nine last year to five in 2001.

None of those was by Mr. Prospector, whose last crop of yearlings sell this year. Three of Keeneland July's seven Mr. P yearlings were auctioned Monday, and all failed to sell. A colt out of Sunlit Silence failed to reach his reserve at $620,000; a daughter of Agami came home at $500,000; and a daughter of Classy Mirage was bought back at $475,000.

Heading the top five lots was Jones's $4 million Saint Ballado session-leader, whose price surpassed last year's $3.6 million sale-topper, a Mr. Prospector filly bought by Padua Stables. It was a far cry from Keeneland July's 1985 world-record price of $13.1 million for Seattle Dancer, but it still was a home run for the Joneses and the Taylor family's Taylor Made Sales Agency.

Taylor found a bargain mare

Aaron Jones and his advisors at Taylor Made began putting this moment together a long time ago. Jones, an owner and breeder for three decades, was interested in helping the Taylors develop a stallion division at their farm near Nicholasville, Ky. In 1997, when a Japanese deal to buy young Florida stallion Saint Ballado fell through, Jones and the Taylors rushed to buy him.

The following year, at Jones's behest, Frank Taylor bought about 10 mares at Keeneland November, including Charm a Gendarme, by popular California stallion Batonnier.

Jones and the Taylors had inside information for that purchase. Bob Baffert, the Joneses' trainer at the time - they have since parted ways - had one of Charm a Gendarme's daughters, Tout Charmant, in his barn. He tipped them that the filly, already a winner, had more potential than she had yet revealed.

Taylor dog-eared the dam's catalog page, and when Charm a Gendarme came to the ring in foal to Unbridled's Song, he felt he got the Joneses a bargain at $290,000. The following year, Tout Charmant won the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks, and in 2000 won the Grade 1 Matriarch.

The Joneses kept Charm a Gendarme's Unbridled Song foal in 1999 and bred her back to Saint Ballado, a mating that effectively cost them nothing, because of their interest in the stud. Essentially, the mating turned a $290,000 investment into $4 million in three years, minus upkeep expenses.

O'Byrne said that Tabor and Magnier will campaign the colt in Europe with trainer Aidan O'Brien.

"The market is very strong, isn't it?" O'Byrne added. "I think the consignors made a mistake by not bringing their yearlings here."

Middle market shaky

That was all very well for O'Byrne to say. But consignors stuck in the netherworld of a collapsing middle market could only have been relieved that the damage wasn't worse. The big buyers certainly were there: Prince Ahmed bin Salman's Thoroughbred Corp., Sheikh Mohammed's agent John Ferguson, and B. Wayne Hughes were among those placing aggressive bids on selected horses. But these men, like O'Byrne's clients, were interested only in a few seemingly perfect horses.

Twenty of the 44 horses sold brought $300,000 or less, with a bottom mark of $42,000 - an astonishingly low price for this Tiffany auction - for Hip No. 11, a Belong to Me filly out of Saucy Deb.

Bob Lewis, who withdrew his Deputy Minister colt out of champion Serena's Song from the sale and decided to race him instead, offered a possible explanation for the prevailing upper-market mentality; "I think some realism has crept back into the market," said Lewis, who with his wife, Beverly, spent $1,685,000 for a Seeking the Gold-Toga Toga Toga colt, an Unbridled-Beautiful Moment filly, and an A. P. Indy-Impetuous Image filly. "There are some people who bought some horses last year for astronomical prices that didn't, for one reason or another, quite work out the way they anticipated. I think maybe some of those people aren't back this year.

"I, too, may be guilty of wanting more for my dollar today than a year ago. I'll be realistic, but there are many people in this business who have no limit as to what they will spend, and we're not going to try to fight City Hall."

But the pillars of City Hall - namely, buyers like Tabor, Sheikh Mohammed, Oxley, and Moran - hold up the select market's ceiling. Until the market deepens with more wealthy owners eager to get in the game, the Keeneland July sale will continue to be a lottery of sorts for sellers, something even the most successful consignors acknowledge.

"Keeneland July can still be a great place to sell a horse," said Mark Taylor. "But the market's a little thin, and you have to have luck go your way."