04/03/2009 11:00PM

No denying the tough times

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Buyers and sellers will arrive at Keeneland's 2-year-old sale this Monday and Tuesday with a clear view of the 2009 select juvenile season's economic landscape. Based on results from four previous major sales from Florida to California, the select 2-year-old gross sales have been down a combined 34 percent, and the collective average price from all four has dropped 30 percent.

At each sale, figures for gross, average, and median have all been down, with declines roughly from 25 percent to 40 percent.

"I think people went into this year knowing it was going to be tough," said Keeneland's sales director, Geoffrey Russell. "But as one consignor told me, 'At least they're still buying horses.' "

Indeed, since the stock market plummeted in the middle of the Keeneland September sale last year, the horses who have performed best in the auction ring (and in the private market, according to bloodstock traders) are those who are either already racing successfully or close to a start and showing promise. That's good news for high-end 2-year-old sellers. But 2-year-old auction buyers are increasingly selective, and "top dollar" isn't as high as it used to be.

At last year's Keeneland sale, 77 horses grossed $16,299,000 for an average price of $211,675 and a $150,000 median. Gross was down 2 percent and the median fell by 3 percent, but the average increased 4 percent. The sale-topper was $800,000 Don Gato.

The 2009 catalog originally had 237 horses, but by Friday that number had dropped to 168 because of scratches.

The catalog contains a number of royally connected juveniles. Most notable is Vallenzeri, the son of A. P. Indy and 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri. The Allen E. Paulson Living Trust first consigned him to Keeneland's 2008 September yearling sale, where he was a Keeneland record buy-back at $7.7 million. He returns to the auction ring as Hip No. 22.

Among the catalog's fillies are half-sisters to champions English Channel and Lost in the Fog. The first is Hip No. 143, by Ghostzapper, and the latter is Hip No. 150, by Songandaprayer. There also are half-siblings to such Grade 1 performers as Fairbanks (Hip No. 17, by Songandaprayer); Antonius Pius (Hip No. 29, by Bernstein); Victory U.S.A. (Hip No. 49, by Pleasantly Perfect); Sand Springs (Hip No. 72, by Eddington); Composure (Hip No. 96, by first-crop sire Afleet Alex); Z Humor (Hip No. 196, by Aldebaran); and Massive Drama (Hip No. 201, by first-crop sire Woke Up Dreaming).

Among the Grade 1-connected colts are Hip No. 58, an Aldebaran three-quarter brother to Pies Prospect; Hip No. 76, a Speightstown half-brother to On a Soapbox; Hip No. 128, a Medgalia d'Oro half-brother to Middlesex Drive; Hip No. 152, a Mr. Greeley half-brother to Circle of Life; Hip No. 157, an Elusive Quality half-brother to Marylebone; and Hip No. 167, an A. P. Indy half-brother to Eddington.

There is one Storm Cat juvenile: Hip No. 100, a son of Profit Column and half-brother to Grade 1-placed Final Round.

In a bid to add excitement to the auction, Keeneland timed it close to the track's key Kentucky Derby prep, next Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes. It's also holding the sale in night sessions, traditionally thought more glamorous. But the sale will take place under some daunting circumstances, ranging from broad global issues like the recession to Thoroughbred industry problems such as the Magna Entertainment bankruptcy and worries over purse levels following parimutuel handle declines.

"You have the macro and the micro problems," Russell acknowledged. "The micro are our own industry and its problems, and the macro is the whole world. Both will have an effect on the sale."

Keeneland officials are bracing themselves for declines on the order of those seen at the earlier auctions and hope any decreases will not be steeper. In such uncertain times, the auction house is stoking buyers' Derby dreams with ads claiming the first Saturday in May "starts with the first Monday in April," the auction's opening night.

"Spring in Kentucky gives you something that everybody wants: hope and optimism," Russell said.

The question is whether buyers will have enough of that to translate into good sale returns.

The auction runs Monday and Tuesday at Keeneland's sale pavilion here, starting at 7 p.m. each night.