09/15/2010 3:22PM

New breed taking hold

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Keeneland/Coady Photography
Craig Lavin Bernick (left) talks with a Keeneland representative Wednesday, the day he paid $700,000 for a Malibu Moon filly.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Craig Lavin Bernick heralded a new era at Glen Hill Farm Wednesday when he bought a $700,000 Malibu Moon filly to lead the Keeneland September yearling sale’s fourth session in late afternoon.

Bernick, 31, is the grandson of the Ocala farm’s founder, 90-year-old Leonard Lavin. The elder Lavin, also founder of the Alberto-Culver company, announced two years ago that he was handing the reins to Bernick.

“He might be mad at me right now after spending all that money,” Bernick said Wednesday in Keeneland’s sale pavilion, where he bought the filly, a bay daughter of Grade 3-placed Erhu from Mr. and Mrs. Jody Huckabay’s Elm Tree Farm agency.

Bernick attended the reformatted auction’s two select sessions, which this year took place on Sunday and Monday nights, but so far he was having more luck in the first week’s open sessions. Under the new format, the Tuesday through Friday sessions are cataloged in the alphabetical order of their dams’ names, a process that spreads higher-quality horses at random over four days of selling. That’s a change from previous years, where quality – and prices – generally tended to decline as the sale progressed.

Keeneland and sellers had hoped the new format would encourage some of the select sessions bidders to extend their stays, and the early results suggested that they were.

The first open session, on Tuesday, sold a $1 million Smart Strike-Ask Me No Secrets ridgling to George Bolton and Jess Jackson and posted good financial figures, too. The session sold 204 horses for $27,292,000 for an average price of $133,784 and a $97,500 median and a 32-percent buy-back rate. Through Tuesday, the first three sessions grossed $71,597,000 for 331 horses for a $216,305 average and a $150,000 median with a 32-percent buy-back rate.

The reformatting makes exact comparison difficult. In 2009, from a larger catalog, day three sold 229 yearlings for $32,718,000 for an average price of $142,873, a $100,000 median, and a 35-percent buy-back rate.

Keeneland might have lost some income on the gross, but those sellers who liked the new format pointed to the increased median as a positive sign in a yearling market that has seen more declines.

On Wednesday, the fourth session revealed that Keeneland September’s traditional upper-market players were continuing to spend. Most notably, Shiekh Mohammed al-Maktoum of Darley and his brother Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum of Shadwell Estate Co.were still buying horses, albeit not at levels seen in the past. By 3 p.m., Darley agent John Ferguson had spent $330,000 for a pair of colts by Bernardini and Elusive Quality, both Darley sires. Shadwell also bought colts by Pulpit and Dynaformer for a combined $800,000. The Dynaformer colt, a son of Ensenada sold by the MIll Ridge Sales agency, was the session’s highest-priced colt by that point.

“He was one of the standouts of the sale, I thought,” said Shadwell’s European racing manager, Angus Gold, said of the May foal. “Everything is in the future for him. He’s a baby at the moment, but he was well-rounded enough that I don’t think he’s going to go tall and gangly and too backward on you. Obviously, he’ll take some time and make a better 3-year-old.”

Of the new format, particularly the massive, 1,500-horse book two catalog covering Tuesday through Friday, Gold said, “Everyone will tell you it’s too big. I can’t necessarily say that. For me, my original job was as a bloodstock agent, and I rather enjoy the challenge of trying to find the nice horses and being made to do so.”

The session-leader’s buyer felt he had done just that with his $700,000 filly after being shut out on earlier yearlings.

“I’ve missed on a couple, but I didn’t like any of them physically as much as I liked her,” said Bernick. “I wish she had a little more pedigree, but Malibu Moon has just now started getting bred to his best mares.”

American-based buyers like Bernick were prominent on Wednesday’s list of highest-priced horses. Mandy Pope’s Whisper Hill Farm paid $475,000 for a Giant’s Causeway-Crowning Touch filly from Cloverleaf Farms (Woodford Thoroughbreds, agent). Robert LaPenta bought a $400,000 Lemon Drop Kid-Panthera colt from Middlebrook, agent. And Scott Ford’s Westrock Stables spent $370,000 for Baccari Bloodstock agency’s Lion Heart-Earthquake Ride colt.

Bernick said he has changed little about the Glen Hill operation, where his grandfather remains chairman. Glen Hill bred and raced the 1994 Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner, One Dreamer among other successful runners.

“We bought three fillies in July, one in August at Saratoga, and now two here,” he said. Glen Hill bought a $240,000 Mr. Greeley-Chief Secretary filly from Kinsman Farm (Lane’s End, agent) on Monday. “We might buy one more, we might not. We’re about the same as we were last year and the year before. . . . We culled a ton of mares, so we’re sort of light on homebred yearlings this year. We really only have nine or 10 homebreds, and we’re trying to run in California, Kentucky, and New York. We needed a couple more horses. I don’t think we’ll buy any next year or the year after. We’ll see how these horses we’ve bought run and see if we can breed some good ones.”

As for the heavy book two catalog, Bernick simply shrugged. “It’s a long way up the hill to go look at horses for Thursday and Friday and then rush back here to bid on one, but, you know, I think it’s fine.Some people complain about it, but they complain about everything.”