01/09/2003 12:00AM

Keeneland January 2003 looks a lot like 2002 - conservative

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Keeneland January horses of all ages sale may be the first sale on the calendar, but usually it reflects the year just ended more than it predicts the year to come. As the auction entered the fourth of five sessions Thursday, the message at Keeneland January is that the general buying economy is still somewhat conservative, as it was for much of 2002. But, as always, good horses bring good money.

Midway through the fourth session Thursday, it appeared likely that the January sale topper would be Belle Nuit, a $475,000 Dr. Carter mare in foal to the popular young sire Unbridled's Song; she sold at Monday's opening session. Taylor Made Sales, a perennial leader among consignors, offered the mare, who went to a partnership that bought her in the name of Louis Brooks Ranch.

There was even more money than that available on the grounds for horses buyers liked. Earlier in the opening session, the Barathea mare Siringas fetched a final bid of $750,000 but was bought back.

As of 5:30 p.m. Eastern Thursday, the fourth session leader was a $100,000 Pleasant Colony mare named Crystal Power that Blandford Bloodstock bought from Warrendale Sales, agent. It was a considerably lower price than that posted by putative sale-topper Belle Nuit. But the sales figures overall remained solid for the catalog, which lacked top-level quality this year. That, and fairly strong trade in weanlings who are likely to be pinhooked to future yearling sales suggest that the bottom has not dropped out in terms of confidence in the Thoroughbred market.

"This is a typical January sale," Keeneland's director of sales, Geoffrey Russell, said of the 2003 January catalog. "In the past couple of years we've been lucky and had atypical January sales. But I think the market has been solid."

The "atypical" sales produced, for example, a $5 million sale for broodmare Mackie, in foal to Mr. Prospector, in 2000. Keeneland had hoped to have a jewel on offer this year when the great Southern Hemisphere-based racemare Sunline appeared headed to the auction, but her owners reconsidered and stayed home.

Even without that a horse of that caliber, there have been some bright spots in the January market. Though the cumulative gross of $26,371,000 for the first three sessions was down 19 percent and average of $37,512 was down 14 percent, the median had actually risen 33 percent to $20,000 this year.

Yearling sales begin in Australia

In Australia, it's time for yearling sales. The yearling season began Thursday in Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia, with the Magic Millions sale, where the first of six sessions produced a $403,690 session-topper. The opener's top lot was a Danehill filly out of the Pleasant Colony mare Nuwirah. Agent Adrian Nicol signed for the Coolmore-consigned filly, who is a full sister to Australian Group 1 winner Keeper. The filly will stay in Australia to race.

The opener sold 154 lots, up from 98 last year, for total receipts of $8,552,749. That is a 75 percent gain over last year's gross, thanks to the increase in lots sold. The 2003 opening average of $55,537 was 11 percent higher than last year's average price.

Elk Hill for sale

Elk Hill Farm in Lexington, currently operated as a division of Lindsey and June Williams's Southern Hemisphere-based Pacific Heritage Farms, is on the market. Lexington broker Tom Biederman of Biederman Real Estate and Auctioneers has listed the 197-acre property for $3.6 million.

The farm is surrounded by some of central Kentucky's most prestigious and historic properties, including Spendthrift, Elmendorf, Dixiana, Domino Stud, and Mt. Brilliant.

Elk Hill has undergone extensive renovations since the Williamses bought the property in 1999. It has six barns, including a new training barn, for a total of 84 stalls; a 5 1/2-furlong grass gallop, a 52-foot covered round pen, and a new 5,700-square-foot main residence.

Lindsey and June Williams opened Elk Hill as a full-service adjunct to their Southern Hemisphere operation, offering breeding, foaling, breaking and training, and sales preparation. The couple still maintains their racing program in Australia.