08/09/2006 11:00PM

New big spender grabs $1.6M topper

Ahmed Zayat

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The battle of Saratoga - the Saratoga sale, that is - pitted a newcomer against a longtime player. And this time, relatively new buyer Ahmed Zayat outbid market stalwart Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum and took home the top-priced lot, a $1.6 million Empire Maker-Sluice filly.

The filly, Hip No. 146, sold by Craig and Holly Bandoroff's Denali Stud agency, was one of three yearlings to bring $1 million or more Wednesday night, the last session of Fasig-Tipton's select sale. The two-night auction grossed $42,085,000 for 130 yearlings, a 26 percent increase from last year's total of $33,415,000 for 103 lots. Average price slipped 0.2 percent from $324,417 to $323,731, but median gained, rising 9 percent from $225,000 to $245,000. The buyback rate fell from 24 percent last year to 19 percent.

Zayat has been buying young stock at an ambitious clip in the last several years, generally paying in the $100,000 to $500,000 range. At Fasig-Tipton's July yearling sale in Kentucky last month, he bought eight horses under his name for $2.16 million. He is known to have bought additional horses under other names.

But Saratoga marked a significant upswing in Zayat's average expenditure. Hip No. 146 had been widely touted as a big seller, but spectators hoping for the usual clash between Maktoum's agent, John Ferguson, and Coolmore agent Demi O'Byrne were perplexed to find Zayat - looking like an average suburban dad in his striped polo shirt and khakis - signing the receipt instead.

Zayat, sitting with his family in Fasig-Tipton's Humphrey S. Finney Pavilion, was just across the aisle from Ferguson as the two vied for the filly. Ferguson, surrounded by an entourage including Darley-at-Jonabell president Jimmy Bell, sat chin in hand and bid simply by raising his eyebrows. It was a futile attempt at subtlety; when you represent the world's most powerful auction player, your mere presence attracts attention. And among those watching the Zayat-Ferguson duel in the pavilion were Maktoum's arch-rivals from Coolmore Stud, including their main buying agent, O'Byrne. Despite his seemingly intense interest in the bidding, O'Byrne never appeared to make a bid.

Zayat seemed undaunted by his opposition's bankroll, and when Ferguson shook off and left the filly to Zayat for $1.6 million, the Egyptian-born businessman signed the receipt as nonchalantly as he might sign a memo. He had little to say about the purchase afterward, except that he was happy to have the Empire Maker filly and that she would go to trainer Bill Mott, who was seated in front of the Zayats.

The sire's name could be especially apt here. Bloodstock advisor Sobhy Sonbol noted that Zayat hoped to develop a substantial broodmare empire both for commercial and homebreeding purposes. Zayat's headquarters are in New Jersey, but he has horses racing nationwide and in Europe and, as Sonbol put it, "we're full-fledged into everything in this game."

"She's the kind of filly you can build a foundation on," Sonbol said of the sale-topper. "She's absolutely gorgeous, pedigree-wise. She's going to be a nice racehorse, hopefully a Grade 1 racehorse, and after that a foundation broodmare. She has everything going for her."

Ferguson did not leave the auction empty-handed. Earlier in the session, he picked up a $1.3 million Unbridled's Song colt out of Queen's Lady sold by the Taylor Made agency and three other lots for a total of $2,215,000.

Coolmore also spent lavishly, though not on a million-dollar lot. Its most expensive purchase was an $800,000 Mr. Greeley-Tell Me Now colt sold by the Gainesway agency, and in sum Coolmore spent $2,475,000 for four yearlings.

The night's final seven-figure yearling was Hip No. 171, a $1.45 million Mineshaft filly knocked down to Don Adam of Courtlandt Farm. The filly was offered by Will Farish's Lane's End agency and is a daughter of the Grade 1-placed Unbridled mare Unbridled Lassie.

Adam is a familiar face at broodmare sales, where he often bids high to supplement his homebreeding program.

"It's the first yearling I've bought in a while," said Adam, whom Farish introduced to racing at Saratoga a decade ago. "But her pedigree was one you couldn't pass up, and this was the only horse in the sale I had an interest in.

"This is one that we can have fun racing, and, hopefully, then she'll make a wonderful broodmare."

There might have been one more million-dollar horse Wednesday night, had breeder B. Wayne Hughes set a lower reserve on Hip No. 94, an A.P. Indy-Macoumba filly consigned by Taylor Made. The handsome bay left the ring with a hammer price of $1.3 million, but she was a buyback.

"That kind of mare could produce a good stallion, and if someone is willing to pay retail for her, he'd sell her," said Duncan Taylor of Taylor Made. "But there aren't that many people here that are willing to pay that much for a nice filly, and the ones that were here weren't willing to pay as much as he would to keep her."

Wednesday's top-priced lots

146FEmpire Maker-SluiceDenali Stud (C.&H. Ban- Doroff) Agt For Falls Creek FmZayat Stables$1,600,000
171FMineshaft-Unbridled LassieLane's End, AgentCourtlandt Farm 1,450,000
122CUnbridled's Song-Queen's LadyTaylor Made Sales Agency, Agent LIXJohn Ferguson1,300,000
99CElusive Quality-Mermaid's TaleGainesway, Agent Zayat Stables900,000
158CMr. Greeley-Tell Me NowGainesway Agent IDr Dermot O'Byrne800,000
160CPulpit-TempestinaStone Farm, AgentFox Hill Farms Inc800,000
111CDistorted Humor-Our TomboyEaton Sales, Agent For Bona Terra Farms LLCDr Dermot O'Byrne650,000
115FForestry-People's PrincessLane's End, AgentMike Ryan, Agent 650,000
149CMr. Greeley-Song To RememberTaylor Made Sales Agency, Agent LXVIDr Dermot O'Byrne550,000
153CEmpire Maker-Starboard TackTaylor Made Sales Agency, Agent LXVIDixiana Stables Inc550,000