08/11/2009 11:00PM

Numbers up sharply at first night of Saratoga sale

Barbara D. Livingston
Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum (left) confers with bloodstock adviser John Ferguson at the sale.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - It almost felt like old times Monday night at Fasig-Tipton's Saratoga auction pavilion. When final results came out at 11 p.m., there were plus signs in every financial category and corks popping merrily in the new Buyers' Balcony bar (reserved exclusively for purchasers bearing a red pass they received with each sales receipt). The flow of cash and Champagne was reminiscent of sales here a decade ago, when Thoroughbred yearling auctions were booming.

Despite the Thoroughbred sales industry's nosedive in recent months, the opening night of Fasig-Tipton's Saratoga select yearling sale managed to put up impressive gains: a 40 percent increase in gross receipts, an 11 percent increase in average price, and a 6 percent rise in median. The first of two sessions sold 76 horses, up from 60 in a smaller catalog last year, for a combined $25,470,000. That resulted in an average price of $335,132, the highest since 2001, and a $250,000 median. Buybacks also improved slightly, from 29 percent in 2008 to 28 percent.

Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum and his friends and associates provided a lot of the night's revenue.

Maktoum attended the auction for the first time in at least 20 years and spent $5.5 million in his own name. He bought three of the night's four seven-figure yearlings, including the $1.5 million session-topper, a daughter of Medaglia d'Oro and the Storm Cat mare Cat Dancer that Taylor Made consigned. Other associates - such as the Rabbah Bloodstock stable Maktoum organized for his friends; the Shadwell Estate Company owned by Maktoum's brother Sheikh Hamdan; and occasional Maktoum agents Richard O'Gorman and John Gosden - collectively spent another $3.375 million.

Dressed in faded jeans and a white long-sleeved T-shirt with the Godolphin stable logo embroidered the chest, Maktoum strolled around the grounds throughout the evening with a small entourage that included his chief bloodstock adviser, John Ferguson, and a group of security men dressed to resemble casual spectators, but with telltale wires snaking up from their shirt collars to earpieces. Approached by fascinated auctiongoers, the ruler of Dubai politely shook hands and accepted everything from congratulations on his runners to thanks for visiting Saratoga to advice on using his horses to promote world peace. Approached by the media, he deflected all questions to Ferguson.

"On the one hand, he is phenomenally busy as the ruler of Dubai and everything else," Ferguson said. "But on the other hand, this is his passion, and there are certainly horses here he now has a real affinity for. Therefore, it's perfectly natural that he try to come whenever he can."

This was Fasig-Tipton's first Saratoga sale since Dubai-based Synergy Investments purchased the 111-year-old auction house in April 2008. Both Ferguson and Fasig-Tipton officials have pressed the message that Maktoum has no formal interest in the sale company or Synergy, but Synergy has described its chairman, Abdulla al-Habbai, as a "close associate" of Maktoum, and the deal was initiated through Ferguson.

Maktoum has another reason to keep a close eye on the auction results. Several stallions owned by his Darley Stud - former 3-year-old champion Bernardini, Grade 1-winning sprinter Henny Hughes, and multiple graded winner Rockport Harbor - have their first yearlings selling this season. Also, the Saratoga catalog features yearlings by Darley stallions Street Cry and Medaglia d'Oro, who between them are represented by the nation's two outstanding female runners in Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra.

It was no surprise that Maktoum stepped up to buy Hip No. 88, the nearly black Medaglia d'Oro filly. She had some of Rachel Alexandra's aura, and the pavilion grew hushed when she entered the ring. Maktoum and Ferguson took up the bidding from Ferguson's customary position outside, behind the auction ring. Nearby, Padua Stables owner Satish Sanan kept pace to $1 million before bowing out with a good-natured shrug, saying, "You just can't bid against them."

Maktoum bought a majority interest in Medaglia d'Oro earlier this summer from Stonewall Stallions. The Versailles, Ky., farm had been facing lawsuits in Kentucky from a number of creditors that were settled after the stallion's private sale. Stonewall owners Richard and Audrey Haisfield also bred the $1.5 million filly from the Storm Cat winner Cat Dancer.

Maktoum's other million-dollar purchases were Hip No. 79, a $1.3 million Bernardini colt out of champion Bird Town offered by the Gainesway, agent, and Hip No. 34, a $1.2 million Bernardini-Storm Beauty colt from Eaton Sales, agent. The night's other seven-figure yearling also was by Bernardini, the $1 million son of Crystal Music was consigned by the Lane's End agency and went to trainer Ken McPeek.

Other Americans also bid aggressively. B. Wayne Hughes of Spendthrift Farm paid $900,000 for an A.P. Indy-Splendid Blended colt consigned by Eaton Sales. WinStar Farm's purchases included a $400,000 Unbridled's Song-Arabis colt from Taylor Made, and WinStar's affiliate Maverick Racing bought a $300,000 Smart Strike-Sails Unfurled colt from Sam-Son Farm. And Rick Porter's Fox Hill Farm bought a $575,000 Henny Hughes-Tash Dash colt from Gainesway and a $175,000 Quiet American-Testy Trestle filly from Eaton.

"We paid a little bit more than I thought for them," Porter said. "It was funny, because they were both gonna be my last bid. So maybe it's fate. Good fate or bad fate, we'll find out next year."

(Porter intimated that a stallion deal is almost complete for his 3-year-old graded stakes winner Old Fashioned. Porter wouldn't identify the Kentucky farm but expects to make an announcement this week.)

Not every sale went successfully, however. Among the buybacks was Hip No. 39, the subject of an astonishing pinhooking gamble. The Bernardini filly was out of the Storm Cat mare Teeming, herself a daughter of the great broodmare Better Than Honour. That grande dame sold last year at Fasig-Tipton's November sale for a world-record broodmare price of $14 million. On the strength of that pedigree and this filly's good looks at last season's Keeneland November sale, a group calling itself Chesapeake Partners paid $1.475 million for her as a weanling. Their attempt to resell her here fell short when she was bought back on a final hammer price of $1.6 million.

"She's back in her stall and she's going to have some hay tonight, and we'll figure it out tomorrow," said consigning agent Reiley McDonald of Eaton Sales. "The partnership remains steadfast and sure doesn't mind racing her."

The auction's second and final session was to take place 6 p.m. Tuesday.