08/04/2005 11:00PM

Mixed outlook for Spa sale

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Fasig-Tipton's Saratoga sale kicks off the so-called boutique yearling sale season on Tuesday with a two-day sale that's likely to draw some of the sport's wealthiest buyers. The Saratoga select auction has a long history as a source of talented, well-bred runners, but this year the catalog is one of the sale's smallest, reflecting a recent trend that has seen more horses head for the less rarefied air of Fasig-Tipton's July market and the larger Keeneland September sale.

Fasig-Tipton has cataloged 150 yearlings to the 2005 Saratoga sale, the smallest presentation in several decades, and trimmed the sale dates from the usual three nights to two.

Despite the smaller catalog, the auction's past performances suggest that buyers will still bid aggressively for the horses they think are the best of the group. And they will have the opportunity to be among the first to purchase yearlings by such first-crop sires as Buddha, Came Home, Include, Johannesburg, Officer, Orientate, Red Bullet, and Yonaguska.

What buyers and sellers get during the Saratoga sales week is an atmosphere heady with high-quality horseflesh, both at the racetrack during the day and across Union Avenue at the sale pavilion at night. It's a combination that has helped Fasig-Tipton achieve extraordinary numbers in previous sales, most notably in 2001, when the auction posted record returns of $62,412,000 for 162 yearlings, yielding an average price of $385,259 and a $235,000 median.

Prices tumbled at Saratoga in 2002, when the entire select market lowered its ceiling. The average has since rebounded to above $300,000. At last year's auction, prices slipped somewhat, finishing with a $45,705,000 gross for 150 yearlings, resulting in an average price of $304,700 (down 3 percent) and a $212,500 median (down 12 percent) - not far off 2000's $305,847 average and above that season's $190,000 median. The buyback rate in 2004 was 22 percent.

But the recent past of the highest-caliber sales makes the future look somewhat less buoyant. Changes in the boutique marketplace helped put the Keeneland July select sale on what that company calls a "hiatus" since 2003. And it seems clear that, for the moment, many sellers are hesitant to shoot for the plushest auction rings unless they have the perfect horse to offer the boutique buyers. A relatively small group of buyers - bidders such as Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, Coolmore Stud and its associate Michael Tabor, and Bob and Beverly Lewis - have recently dominated those sales. But they've also been highly selective in the horses they've bid on, a habit that seems to be spreading to other levels of the market, too.

"We're continuing to see highly professional buyers who have the same tastes, and that makes it more difficult in the market," Browning said. "They're looking for the same attributes and characteristics in the same group of horses."

That narrow, common focus can cause buyers to drop any horse that doesn't fit the bill, but it can also result in sky-high premium figures for an elite group of yearlings that happens to suit the dominant buyers' tastes. If and when buyer-recruitment efforts like TheGreatestGame.com begin funneling more new upper-level investors into the market, sales officials hope, the boutique auctions could become the sellers' playground.

"We have not seen the addition of a major new participant in the yearling marketplace in recent years," Browning said. "The major yearling buyer list has remained fairly stagnant for the last several years. Ultimately, they're the future of our business. We have to be developing new fans and new investors. Regardless of what business you're in, you've got to be able to develop new customers."

For now, sellers may feel that the boutique marketplace is challenging for them, but no one appears to be calling for the Saratoga sale - a distinctive fixture on the yearling calendar that combines a high-class sale with high-class racing - to go on hiatus, too.

"I think it will continue to be a source of top-notch runners for the foreseeable future," Browning said. "We've tweaked the format this year, and there's always an evaluation process. We're curious to see the impact of those changes this year.

"I think the boutique sale still has a very important role, and that marketplace is being well served at Saratoga."

Hips to watch

Fasig-Tipton's Saratoga yearling catalog is one of its smallest, with 150 horses. In the smaller catalog, pedigree buffs may find fewer yearlings with Grade 1-winning dams or siblings, but, as one would expect at a select sale, there are still a number of families that will attract the attention. Among those are a number of well-known runners whose first foals are entering the auction ring here. A few of the more interesting lots, in terms of pedigree, are presented below.

* No. 5a Buddha-Valiant Jewel colt, a half-brother to Grade 1 winner Friendly Michelle

* No. 6a Grand Slam-Varnish filly, a half-sister to graded-placed stakes-winner Swingforthefences

* No. 7an Elusive Quality-Very Special Lite colt, a half-brother to Grade 3 winner Strategic Partner

* No. 11a Touch Gold colt out of Grade 1-placed stakes-winner Abby Girl

* No. 16a Forest Wildcat half-sister to Grade 1 winner Songandaprayer and four other stakes performers

* No. 23a Grand Slam filly out of Chilean juvenile filly champion Bella Di Notte

* No. 25A Giant's Causeway colt, the first foal out of Grade 2 winner and Grade 1-placed Belterra

* No. 29a Gone West colt out of Grade 3 winner and $797,959 earner Biogio's Rose

* No. 47a Fusaichi Pegasus filly, the first foal for Grade 3 winner Collect Call

* No. 55a Mr. Greeley colt who is the first out of Diversa, a Grade 3-placed stakes-winner

* No. 57a Thunder Gulch-Do Mountain Doo colt from the family of champion Banshee Breeze

* No. 61an Include-Fast and Early filly, a half-sister to Grade 3 winner Sharp Impact

* No. 71an El Corredor-Halloween Joy colt who is a half-brother to multiple graded stakes-winner and $946,844 earner Witchful Thinking

* No. 73a Mr. Greeley-Hard Knocker colt, a three-quarter brother to Grade 3 winner and Grade 1-placed Chimichurri

* No. 77a Dixieland Band colt out of Canadian champion 3-year-old filly Hope for a Breeze

* No. 82an Unbridled's Song-Irving's Girl filly, half-sister to Grade 3 winner and $763,022 earner Irving's Baby and Grade 2-winning earner of $479,472 Deeliteful Irving

* No. 83a Yonaguska colt out of multiple stakes-winner Jazzy One, half-brother to multiple stakes-winner Bruanna

* No. 84an Unbridled's Song-Jinger Feathers colt, half-brother to Grade 2 winner and $455,034 earner Caught in the Rain

* No. 88an Unbridled's Song filly, first foal for Grade 3-placed stakes-winner Katy Kat

* No. 91a Johannesburg-L'Amour Toujours colt, a half-brother to Grade 2 winner and Grade 1 placed C'est L' Amour and stakes-winner Passion Flower

* No. 98a Fusaichi Pegasus-Lost the Code colt, a half-brother to champion sprinter Squirtle Squirt

* No. 105a Capote-Miss du Bois filly, a half-sister to Grade 1 winner Film Maker

* No. 113an Orientate-Ms. Strike Zone filly, a half-sister to English champion and North American Grade 1 winner Magistretti

* No. 116a Pulpit-Nabla filly, a half-sister to record-setting Grade 2 winner Walkslikeaduck

* No. 124a War Chant colt, the first foal for Grade 3 winner Prairie Princess

* No. 126a Forest Wildcat-Raska filly, half-sister multiple graded winner and $662,841 winner Posse and Grade 2 winner and $494,545 earner Green Fee

* No. 127an Unbridled's Song-Razzi Cat daughter, half-sisterto Argentine Grade 1 winners Rocking Trick and Randy Cat

* No. 130a Storm Cat colt out of Grade 1 winner Rings a Chime

* No. 131a Storm Cat filly out of champion 3-year-old filly Sacahuista and a half-sister to multiple group winner Ekraar

* No. 151a Came Home colt out of Grade 3 winner and multiple Grade 1-placed Til Forbid, a half-brother to Grade 3 winner Scoop

* No. 153a Storm Cat filly who is the first foal for dual Grade 1-winning millionaire Tout Charmant