07/17/2001 11:00PM

Keeneland sale ends with a bang

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - When hip 136, a dark bay filly with a white star in the center of her forehead, walked into Keeneland's July selected yearling sale ring Tuesday night, she created a ripple of anticipation in the audience.

People stirred in their seats and smoothed out the filly's page in their catalogs. Hip 136, widely believed to be the best filly in the two-day auction, was the first foal out of champion Escena, and by the fashionable sire Seeking the Gold.

She did not disappoint, and neither, in the end, did the two-day Keeneland July auction. Fueled by a $4 million Saint Ballado colt on Monday night and Reynolds Bell Jr.'s session-topping $3.7 million bid Tuesday for Escena's daughter, bought for Richard Santulli's Jayeff B Stables, the auction set a record average sale of $710,247.

In all, 16 lots sold for a million or more, proof that the auction, despite its record-low offering of 132 yearlings, is still one of the best places to sell the right horse with the right pedigree.

While the average price of horses sold jumped 14 percent over last year's record, the small-sized catalog hurt the sale's gross revenue, which slipped 22 percent. In all, 89 yearlings sold for $63,212,000. The two-day median rose 8 percent to $430,000. But the positive figures were offset somewhat by 33 percent buyback rate, up from 28 percent last year.

Two buyers dominated the auction. Irish bloodstock agent Demi O'Byrne, representing the formidable partnership of Michael Tabor and John Magnier, bought the $4 million Saint Ballado-Charm a Gendarme colt and four other horses for $9,025,000 on Monday. On Tuesday, agent John Ferguson, representing Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin operation - a consistent underbidder to O'Byrne on Monday - bought nine for $16,325,000.

Ferguson fired his first broadside early in the second session. Bidding from his customary position behind the auction ring, where those seated inside could not see him, Ferguson paid $3.6 million for the third lot through the ring, a colt from the final crop by Mr. Prospector.

The colt, consigned by Three Chimneys Farm on behalf of the legendary horseman Warner Jones's widow Harriet, was by far the biggest success for Mr. Prospector at Keeneland July. Of seven offered, only two sold. Ferguson bought both Mrs. Jones's yearling, out of Nuryette (by Nureyev), and a $1.9 million daughter of Windy Mindy (by Honey Jay). Among the five Mr. Prospectors who failed to sell was a daughter of Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Desert Stormer, who returned to breeder Joanne Nor on a final bid of $1.95 million.

The $3.6 million colt started a heated session that eventually produced 10 more seven-figure yearlings, but none reached the $3 million level again until consignor Craig Bandoroff sent Guy and Diane Snowden's daughter of Escena into the ring.

Escena filly drew crowd of shoppers

The Snowdens own half of Escena, who owner Madeleine Paulson put into Keeneland's January sale in 1999. The mare brought $3.25 million and was reported sold. That was, as it turned out, only half-correct. Under their agreement with Paulson, the Snowdens get every other foal out of the mare, who remains on the former Paulson property in Versailles, Ky. That farm, formerly Brookside, is now owned by Gerald A. Ford.

On Tuesday afternoon, chatting with his friend Bill Mott, who trained some of the Paulsons' best runners, Bandoroff observed of Escena's daughter, "This filly, she's never been sick, she's never been hurt. She's one of those horses you never know is in the barn."

"That's exactly how her mother was," Mott replied.

By the time Bandoroff slipped into his seat to watch the bidding on her, Escena's first foal had been shown 225 times in the walking ring in front of barn 12.

"You know what you've got when you lead them over there," Bandoroff said later. "We knew what we had, we knew she was going to do well."

How well quickly became apparent, when two bidders, one of them Ferguson, simultaneously opened at $500,000. The price raced upward to $3.4 million and two men were left: Ferguson, behind the pavilion, and Bell, bidding with a barely perceptible nod, inside the arena. Ferguson countered Bell with a $3.5 million bid, and Bell sat stock still. Just 10 feet away across the aisle from Bell, Craig Bandoroff turned slowly to the left and glanced at Bell, who, sitting next to client Santulli, seemed to have capitulated.

Suddenly, a new bid for $3.6 million, from Eugene Melnyk, shook the arena.

Shocked, the pavilion crowd turned to find the new bidder.

But Bell remained still, listening to hear whether Ferguson would respond to the new challenge. In the tense pause, Bell's bid-spotter, a barrel-chested man named Mitch, raised his eyebrows slightly, as if to ask, Would you like back in?

As auctioneer Ryan Mahan's gavel hovered, Bell finally nodded again, for $3.7 million.

When a Keeneland official brought Bell the receipt, he trembled slightly with adrenaline and the vertigo of acquiring a filly he thought he had lost to Ferguson.

"When you get up that high, the air gets pretty thin," Bell said later. "It was a price we were hoping we wouldn't have to go to, but we were prepared to."

Long after the sale, a beaming Bandoroff was still accepting congratulations for his best yearling sale ever, though he was already thinking about the next morning, which would find him overseeing a Denali Stud consignment across town at Fasig-Tipton's July selected yearling sale.

"This is something you never get used to," he said. "You never take it for granted, because horses like that, they just don't come around very often."