04/03/2008 11:00PM

Keeneland optimistic for night sale

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Keeneland's April 2-year-old auction will be held Tuesday and Wednesday, with a new two-day nighttime format that sale officials believe will increase buyers' interest and excitement about purchasing juveniles. But for sellers there's some caution in the air as well, due to the turbulent market at this year's earlier select 2-year-old auctions.

The market view is clouded by across-the-board decreases at Fasig-Tipton's Calder sale in February, steeper double-digit declines at last month's Barretts March sale in Pomona, Calif., and an obviously lower ceiling on top prices. But there have been bright spots, too. The Ocala Breeders' Sales Co.'s two auctions in Ocala, Fla., which featured the select arena's more middle-class stock, fared extremely well, even in the face of concerns about a looming economic recession. At its recent March select sale, OBS rang up impressive increases of 26 percent, 37 percent, and 22 percent for a record gross, average, and median, respectively - and many sellers breathed a sigh of relief before heading to Keeneland.

The message Keeneland director of sales Geoffrey Russell gets from those tea leaves is that the top may have lost the world-record-producing momentum it had in recent years, but as prices come down to earth, relatively speaking, a number of buyers still appear willing to compete in the $250,000 to $700,000 range for a top racing prospect.

"We'd prefer to have more stability in the market, needless to say," Russell said. "But I think the 2-year-old market is still doing very well. The OBS sales were very strong, and there was depth all the way through. We hope that that part of the market continues.

"The breakout horse is harder to come by, and there are several major buyers whose ceilings have shrunk for whatever reason. But looking at the OBS sales in depth, the quality of horses was obviously there, and the buyers were there to buy them, and we hope it continues."

Keeneland had a breakout horse last year, when a $1.75 million Mineshaft filly, now a maiden named Patricia's Gem, set a sale record. But Keeneland also saw mixed results overall. Gross for 82 horses dropped 10 percent, to $16,637,000, from the total for 87 the year before, and the average price fell 4 percent to $202,890. Median ticked upward slightly, climbing 3 percent to $155,000. But the buy-back rate ballooned, from a high 41 percent to a disconcerting 47 percent that suggested sellers often were in sharp disagreement with buyers as to what their horses were worth.

If consignors a year ago overestimated what buyers would pay, they are less likely to do so this year, when even big buyers have made it clear they will rarely bid very far past $1 million anymore. As always, quality is king for choosy 2-year-old buyers, and Russell is confident that this year's April catalog is up to scratch in that regard. Recent history certainly gives a positive impression: Big Brown, who dropped jaws when he won the March 29 Florida Derby by 7 1/2 lengths, came out of this sale and cost a relatively low $190,000.

The 2008 catalog features a bevy of Grade 1-related horses that should hold some interest for the top of the market. Those include Hip No. 22, a Giant's Causeway half-brother to Grade 1-winning millionaire Victory Speech, and Hip No. 73, a Forestry half-brother to Secretariat Stakes winner Startac. Hip No. 117 is an Unbridled's Song colt out of Garden City Breeders' Cup winner Gaviola, now a young broodmare. The venerable Storm Cat has but one on offer, Hip No. 123, a three-quarter brother to Kentucky Oaks winner Summerly.

First-crop sires also have 2-year-olds with lofty connections. Hip No. 28, by freshman Speightstown, is a son of multiple Grade 1 winner Jersey Girl. Medaglia d'Oro-sired Hip No. 156 is a half-sister to Canadian champion Kiss a Native. And Smarty Jones's contingent boasts Hip No. 166, a half-brother to Silver Wagon; Hip No. 85, a half-brother to Grade 1-placed Fairbanks and major earner Keats; Hip No. 105, a half-brother to major earner Formal Miss; and Hip No. 82, a filly from the family of Student Council.

The catalog also features close relatives to some major money winners of the recent past, such as Hip No. 12, a Gone West three-quarter brother to $635,912 earner Roar Emotion; and Hip No. 33, a son of Elusive Quality and the $743,263 earner Megans Bluff.

Russell hopes the sale's format change from a single afternoon session later in the Keeneland meet to two evening sessions taking place just before the April 12 Blue Grass Stakes will help excite racehorse buyers.

"I think we're getting more buyers out looking at these horses before the breeze show, which is a good thing," Russell said, adding that the change to one under-tack show, down from two, also seems to have pleased consignors. Russell hopes the new format, a healthy middle market, and Big Brown's emergence will help put the Keeneland April sale on the positive side of the 2-year-old season's ledger.

"I think there is still money in the industry and the economy for top racehorses," Russell said.

Keeneland's under-tack show is to take place 10:30 a.m. Monday. The auction will run Tuesday through Wednesday, with sessions beginning nightly at 7 p.m. in Keeneland's sale pavilion.