01/07/2005 12:00AM

Middle market key in Keeneland sale

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Keeneland's January all-ages sale opens Monday in Lexington, and middle-market buyers are probably steeling themselves for some hand-to-hand combat in the bidding arena.

The bulk of Keeneland's record 2,073-horse catalog consists of broodmares and broodmare prospects, which were in startlingly high demand at Keeneland's bullish November breeding stock auction. The November market's strength was highlighted by an 8-percent jump in average to a sale-record $97,348 that surprised even Keeneland officials. But such lofty numbers left a lot of regular middle-market bidders in the dust as mare after mare went for premium prices. Those buyers will be looking to fill their orders at the six-day January auction, their last opportunity to buy breeding stock at Keeneland until November 2005.

The January catalog plays directly to them, offering numerous mares that could be best described as "solid," the kind of producers whose decent pedigrees and five-figure earnings records appeal to commercial breeders, Keeneland January's primary customers. Fresh off a strong yearling sale season that made Keeneland's September yearling auction the highest-grossing Thoroughbred sale in history, those commercial breeders might be inclined to spend a little more to replenish or upgrade their breeding stock.

"It's a good middle-market group," Keeneland director of sales Geoffrey Russell said. "There are a couple of nice jewels that we hope will spur people on, and there are a lot of good, useful horses. We hope people will reinvest their September earnings here."

While it has shot off fireworks - the record is $5 million for Mackie in 2000 - the January market is not generally as lofty as the November sale. Last year, the top price was $850,000, for Beckys Shirt, dam of 2003 Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Cajun Beat. The 2004 sale posted gains across the board, grossing $49,344,900 for 1,258 lots for an average of $39,225 and a $13,000 median.

There are fewer jewels than in previous years, because the 2005 auction has no prestigious dispersals in its catalog. But there are still some there to attract major bidders. One of the sparklers is Native Roots, the Irish-bred dam of Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and Eclipse Award contender Wilko. Crescent Hill Farm will offer the 8-year-old Indian Ridge mare in foal to Street Cry, whose first foals are yearlings this season.

Cozzene's Angel, dam of Champagne and Hollywood Futurity winner Toccet, is cataloged in foal to Pulpit and sells through Hill 'n' Dale, agent. And another standout in the catalog is Cahooters, the 16-year-old dam of Grade 1 winner and sire Buddha. Cahooters is cataloged not in foal and is part of the Paramount Sales agency's consignment. Her foal, a full sister to Buddha, also sells.

Buyers who missed out on high-priced weanlings in November will have a catalog of 796 new yearlings and 255 horses of racing age to consider. There are also 26 stallions or stallion prospects.

"The Thoroughbred market is buoyant now, so we hope that continues," Russell said, adding that relatively new players like Kendall-Jackson Winery owner Jess Jackson - a big spender in November - and Richard and Audrey Haisfield will buy mares to support their stallion holdings.

And Russell said that Keeneland's credit office has evidence some players will step into the breeding stock market for the first time, too. "There are two things we can look at before we actually see people on the sale grounds," he said. "They are catalog requests and requests to establish credit. We've received more of both this year."

Sessions begin at 10 a.m. daily through Jan. 15 at the Keeneland sale pavilion.