09/14/2007 12:00AM

Maktoum vs. Magnier isn't happening

EmailLEXINGTON, Ky. - One of the most striking things about the Keeneland September yearling sale's first week is how little money Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum has spent this year at the auction, as compared to his expenditures last year.

Last year, pushed along by his rival and frequent underbidder John Magnier of Coolmore Stud, Maktoum paid $59,785,000 for 33 yearlings in the first four sessions. The most expensive horse he took home was $11.7 million Meydan City, one of four horses for which he paid $5omillion or more.

This year, by contrast, Maktoum has bought 20 horses for $17,650,000. The major reason for the drop in price was clear to auction spectators: Maktoum and Magnier rarely bid against each other in 2007.

Maktoum's spending slowdown at Keeneland comes after a summer in which he has aggressively pursued stallions or prospects privately. Since May, his Darley operation has acquired breeding rights to such American standouts as Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense and runner-up Hard Spun, and Haskell winner Any Given Saturday; he also bought an undisclosed number of shares in WinStar stallion Distorted Humor. In Europe, Maktoum privately invested, either outright or in part, in breeding rights to Epsom Derby winner Authorized, European champion Manduro, top Japanese runner Admire Moon, former champion juvenile Teofilo, and current juvenile star New Approach.

John Ferguson, Maktoum's chief bloodstock adviser, said the two trends - less buying at Keeneland and more buying privately - are more happenstance than plan.

"There was no preconceived plan to buy fewer horses and spend less money," Ferguson said of Maktoum's Keeneland 2007 shopping list. "We came and worked the sale just as usual, and we're delighted to buy the horses that we set our sights on."

Coolmore, incidentally, has raised its activity at Keeneland. At the end of the 2006 auction, Magnier had purchased 10 horses for $9,845,000; at the conclusion of 2007's first week on Thursday, he already had picked up 11 yearlings for $16,850,000.

Neither Darley nor Coolmore has commented publicly on their apparent avoidance of each other in the bidding this year, but Ferguson suggested the reason was about sire power rather than intrigue.

"The most significant factor surrounding this sale as compared to the last 10 years is that the two greatest turf stallions which last year created the rivalry were simply not here - namely, Kingmambo and Danzig," Ferguson said.

Only two Kingmambo horses have sold, and Danzig, now dead, has none in the catalog.

Last year, Maktoum spent a total of $21.4 million for progeny by Kingmambo and Danzig. But even when those horses are removed from the equation, Maktoum's total financial outlay at the 2007 September sale so far is down 54 percent - a reflection of the lack of competition from Coolmore. Still, Ferguson said, the seeming shift from yearling auction to private purchases off the racetrack is not due to any policy change at Darley.

Ferguson said the wave of private purchases was due to an extraordinary convergence of good horses, willing sellers, and a ready buyer.

"It just so happens that the U.S. has an outstanding crop of 3-year-olds, and we've been fortunate enough to buy three of them," he said. "To my mind, they're three of the most exciting prospects to come along in years, and they happened to come up in the same year."

Middle market picks up steam

The top of the September yearling sale was less frothy without the Maktoum vs. Magnier bouts, but by the end of the first week, it was clear that the all-important middle market was faring well.

Thursday's session, the last of four in the first week before a dark day on Friday, rang up impressive gains over last year. It sold 257 yearlings for $45,078,500, an increase of 8 percent from the equivalent session in 2006. The $175,403 average was up 15 percent, and the $150,000 median leaped 25 percent. The strong selling might have tempted some sellers to raise their reserves too high, as buy-backs also rose from 25 percent to 30 percent.

The auction's cumulative numbers, on the other hand, were still marked by downturns, a sign that the slowdown at the opening two select sessions was still having an overall effect despite good sales in the Wednesday and Thursday open sessions. Through Thursday, the auction was running below last year's figures in gross and average. The auction has sold 854 yearlings for $243,290,500, a drop of 11 percent from last season, and average price fell 10opercent to $284,883. But the $200,000 median provided a strong positive note, as it was up 8opercent, and buy-backs rose only slightly, from 26 percent to 27 percent.

"It's a very good sale overall," Keeneland's sale director, Geoffrey Russell, said Thursday night after the final hammer fell. It's still very selective, there's no mistake. It's not easy, but there's lots of money there for the right horse."

Thursday's session-topper was a $750,000 El Prado colt out of Grade 1 winner Favorite Funtime. English bloodstock agent Charlie Gordon-Watson signed the ticket for an undisclosed client, saying only that the colt would head for Europe. The bay colt hails from the Mabee family's Golden Eagle Farm, which is conducting phase one of a major bloodstock reduction at the auction. Mill Ridge Sales, agent, consigned the colt.

The auction, which cataloged a record 5,553 yearlings this year, was to resume Saturday and continue through Sept. 25.