01/26/2006 1:00AM

Juvenile sales are where the action is

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Nobody wanted Buzzards Bay and he was bought back for $6,000. He's gone on to earn $650,000.

The appeal of buying ready-made racehorses is obvious. You're getting a relatively known quantity with timed workouts, and the horse has already stayed sound enough to withstand the early training process. What's not to love?

Increasingly, that seems to be the attitude of major Thoroughbred buyers. Two decades ago, juveniles-in-training sales were the auction of last resort for breeders left with unsold stock after the yearling sale season ended. But now these horses have become a boutique market, attracting owners who are looking for quality runners just a month or two from making their first start.

One reason for the change is the increasing appetite of owners for fast action and a quick return on their investments. Another is the involvement of professional pinhookers, who buy yearlings specifically to resell them as 2-year-olds. In recent years, despite criticism that juvenile auctions push young horses to perform too soon, the 2-year-old sales have produced some outstanding runners. A handful of recent examples include the reigning

champion juvenile, Stevie Wonderboy, and his Grade 1-winning rival Brother Derek; 3-year-old champion and dual classic winner Afleet Alex; champion sprinter Lost in the Fog; and numerous other top-level runners.

With a record like that, it's no wonder that buyers who have long patronized the yearling market have now also turned their attention to the 2-year-old sales. Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum and his frequent bidding rivals at Coolmore Stud have contributed to a boom in the juvenile market's select auctions over the last six or seven years. And they're not the only ones. Kentucky Derby-winning owners Bob and Beverly Lewis, Mike Pegram, and John Oxley have all sent agents to the juvenile sales.

As a result, the prices have reached unprecedented levels at the high-end 2-year-old sales. Fasig-Tipton's 2005 Calder sale, the highlight of last year's 2-year-old auction season, fired off a world-record $5.2 million bid from Sheikh Mohammed's Darley organization for Ever Shifting, a son of Tale of the Cat sold by Robert Scanlon's agency. The sale set records across the board. Even before that, the season-opening Ocala Breeders' Sales Company's select sale at Calder rang up new marks for average ($136,890) and median ($120,000). Another major sale, Barretts March select in California, sold a $1.9 million Songandaprayer colt that went to Bob Lewis. Interest seemed to tail off at the last major select sale of the season, Keeneland's April auction, where the market peaked with an $800,000 Maria's Mon colt bought by Oxley, then posted declines across the board.

This year, those four so-called Tiffany sales start on Feb. 7 with OBS at Calder; followed by the Fasig-Tipton Calder sale, also in Miami, on Feb. 28; the Barretts March sale in California on March 14; and the Keeneland April auction in Lexington on April 18.

Scattered around those sales are the less heady regional sales, which feature larger catalogs with more bread-and-butter offerings, and which provide a wider view of the 2-year-old market's overall health. The proliferation of those sales, from California to the Gulf Coast to the Mid-Atlantic states, speaks to the growing popularity of the juvenile sale as a source of racehorses at all price levels.

Some of the lower price ranges are producing star racehorses. Stevie Wonderboy was a $100,000 purchase from the Fasig-Tipton Calder sale. Grade 1 winner Bellamy Road cost just $87,000 at the OBS April sale in Ocala, Fla. Afleet Alex was even less expensive, fetching $75,000 from a Fasig-Tipton Midlantic auction. Buzzards Bay, another Grade 1 winner in California last year, was actually bought back at one OBS juvenile auction for just $6,000; he has gone on to earn more than $650,000.

Sellers have good reason to promote middle- and lower-market successes because although buyers are increasingly frequenting the juvenile sales, they are notoriously choosy about what they will bid on. That makes selling, even at the Tiffany-style auctions, a risky game. For pinhookers, the 2006 season could be especially dangerous. Forced to restock their barns out of a hot 2005 yearling market that featured high retail prices, they have invested more than usual in their inventory. They'll need a strong 2-year-old market - and probably a broad, deep market - to make a profit this time around.

Buyback rates at 2-year-old sales frequently run 30 percent to 45 percent, often because big buyers are fiercely selective at juvenile auctions as they look to scoop up the few horses they might have overlooked at yearling sales. That selectivity has long been the bane of the 2-year-old marketplace, as it was last year at the Keeneland April sale. The auction had been expected to be robust but ended on a surprisingly quiet note, with buybacks at 40 percent despite a catalog that was generally lauded for good pedigrees and conformations. Bloodstock agent Larry Ensor, watching the sale progress, made a succinct analysis that applies to much of today's 2-year-old marketplace.

"People aren't looking for diamonds in the rough anymore at 2-year-old sales," he said. "They're looking for diamonds."

Will they find them this year? If past performances are any indication, they will. And, chances are, tomorrow's stars will come from every level of the juvenile market.