07/15/2002 11:00PM

Opening session takes a major hit

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Keeneland's July select yearling sale got off to a rocky start Monday night when the first of two sessions posted steep declines across the board and a 47 percent buyback rate.

The sale flared briefly when John Ferguson, agent for Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum, paid $2 million for the session topper, a Belong to Me filly out of Grade 1 winner Tomisue's Delight. There was only one other seven-figure horse, a $1,350,000 Gone West-Primedex filly that Wayne Lukas bought for the partnership of W.T. Young and Bob and Beverly Lewis. Lane's End, agent, which returned to the July sale after two years of dominating the Keeneland September auction, sold both fillies and was Monday's leading seller with three sold for $3,825,000.

Major buyers John Magnier, Eugene Melnyk, Satish Sanan, and Aaron Jones were mostly inactive as receipts marked RNA - for "reserve not attained"- accumulated in the sales office.

Forty-one horses sold for a total of $15,740,000, a collapse of 39 percent from last year's $25,847,000 gross for 44 yearlings. Average price plummeted 35 percent from last year's $587,432 to $383,902, and median fell 29 percent to $290,000.

The buyback rate was the only figure on the rise, and it leaped to 47 percent, up sharply from last year's 36 percent.

There were hopes for improvement at the final session Tuesday, which was to feature a couple of possible sale toppers. Doninga Farm's Storm Cat half-sister to champion Chief Bearheart and Grade 1 winner Explosive Red and Taylor Made's Unbridled's Song colt out of Roll Over Baby, a $1 million weanling last January, were still to sell.

"Last year, night two was a lot better, and internally we've got a lot more fire-power Tuesday night, so I'm not pushing the panic button yet," Taylor Made's Mark Taylor said. "It is a little thin. If you take one of those top buyers out of this market, it can make the difference between a $2 million horse and a $500,000 horse."

Tuesday seemed far away after the buyers' stinging verdict on Monday's catalog.

"I am very disappointed and surprised," Keeneland's director of sales, Geoffrey Russell, said after the session. "We didn't come in thinking we were going to increase our average, but we didn't see ourselves having a big hit in the average. It's a very boutique sale. We have a limited number of buyers every year, and this was very slim."

Early signs of trouble

Consignors were busy in the days before Monday's opener, but they were disturbed by what they weren't seeing: veterinarians, traditional harbingers of a buyer's serious bidding intent. The lack of pre-sale vetting prompted a flood of scratches as consignors opted not to run unpopular horses through the ring needlessly. From a Monday catalog of 100 lots, sellers offered 78.

The week's stock market losses may have made midlevel American owners less confident about buying luxury racehorses. That left sellers' fates resting on men like Sheikh Mohammed and Coolmore principal John Magnier, who are relatively unaffected by Wall Street's woes. Those big guns were ranged around the sale pavilion all Monday evening, but they were largely silent. As horses passed through the ring, Magnier never raised a hand, and Ferguson whiled away most of the night engaged in conversation near the walking ring.

Yearlings not good enough

Outside, buyers' agents confided that the yearlings, conformationally speaking, were simply not good enough.

"These were just bad horses," said one agent who asked not to be identified. "I couldn't find 10 to like out of the catalog."

A pair of fillies reminded sellers that fireworks were still possible.

Ferguson had a long wait before he acquired the session topper, and he made easy work of the bidding. From his customary place behind the ring, he cast a bid at $750,000 and cruised to $2 million with the certainty of a man who knew he would get the horse.

"That's it for tonight," Ferguson said of the Belong to Me filly, the first foal for her dam. "She's an exceptional filly. I saw her as a foal on the farm, and she's one of the best fillies I've seen this year, so she deserves to be worth that kind of money."

Ferguson said the filly might go to California but that Sheikh Mohammed would make that decision in September.

Bob Lewis, the night's other million-dollar spender, was pleasantly surprised that he had gotten his Gone West filly, a half-sister to Grade 2 winner Prime Directive, for $1,350,000.

"I don't want to be presumptuous, but I think it was a little low," Lewis said of the price. "We were prepared to go considerably higher. I'm going to go home tonight and sleep well, because I think we made some good buys."

The two fillies made Lane's End's night.

"The way the market was going, we were nervous about it," Lane's End's Bill Farish said. "We had three horses who had a lot of vetting, but there was a steep drop-off in activity from there, and we heard that from a lot of people. I am a little surprised by this market.

"But this is the first day of the first yearling sale of the year," he added. "I think tomorrow and the rest of the year will be stronger."