01/08/2007 12:00AM

Point Ashley joins Hill 'n' Dale for $1.8M

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - When owner Ahmed Zayat decided to put his Grade 1-winning filly Point Ashley in the Keeneland January all-ages sale, he was giving the market exactly what it wants the most: a young, high-quality broodmare prospect. In return, he got the opening session's highest price of $1.8 million.

In November, the market for young broodmares and broodmare prospects was spectacularly bullish, peaking with the $6 million Madcap Escapade, a 5-year-old who sold in foal to Pulpit. Zayat gambled that demand in recent seasons for elite fillies would continue in January 2007. In Point Ashley's case, he was proven right, thanks to his own selling agent, Hill 'n' Dale Farm principal John Sikura.

Point Ashley was the high point at the eight-day auction's opening session. Monday's session grossed $18,970,000 for 211 horses sold, down 16 percent from last year, when 250 sold. The average price of $89,905 was up slightly from last season's $89,492, and the $55,000 median rose from $50,000 last year. The buyback rate was 28 percent, compared to 22 percent in 2006. The day's second-highest-priced mare was $525,000 Swan Nebula, a 5-year-old Seeking the Gold mare in foal to El Prado; John McCormack Bloodstock was the buyer.

When Point Ashley's bidding ended at $1.8 million, it was Sikura who signed the ticket. This is the latest in a string of expensive mares Sikura has purchased at auction in the last three months. He signed the ticket for Madcap Escapade, and his other purchases at the Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton November sales included Madcap Escapade's dam, Sassy Pants, for $4.5 million; Diplomat Lady for $1.3 million; and three mares sold through his Hill 'n' Dale agency: $1.75 million Last Song, $950,000 Peinture Ancienne, and $800,000 Irish Cherry.

The reason for all these acquisitions, Sikura said, is to build the best possible broodmare band at Hill 'n' Dale.

"She's a beautiful filly, and I thought she was fairly priced," he said, adding that Zayat had set Point Ashley's reserve at "just under $1.5 million."

Sikura said he purchased Point Ashley himself but hadn't ruled out bringing in a partner or two on the mare.

"She has a world of ability and is a great physical horse," he said. "We're trying to build a band of elite broodmares, and she fits all the criteria."

That doesn't mean that Point Ashley necessarily is retired. Zayat sold her as a racing or broodmare prospect, and, at age 3, she could have more racing ahead of her. Sikura said he hadn't decided whether to race or retire her.

"Now I own her, and I have to figure out what to do," he said.

Aside from an obvious standout like Point Ashley, buyers said, the catalog had less quality than they would have liked, a situation they felt was exacerbated when sellers withdrew 84 horses from the session. After November's booming prices for broodmares, several buyers were mystified as to why any breeder would hesitate to sell in January. But the downside to a hot mare market is that it's expensive to replace what you've sold.

"If you're in the business, you need the factory," explained Mike Akers, whose Dapple Bloodstock breeds, buys, and sells. "If you take the opportunity to sell a good mare at a decent price, you still have to replace her somehow."

November mare prices, Akers and others reasoned, might have prompted some sellers to hang on to mares they might not be able to afford to replace.

"Anything of quality is selling really well," said breeder and owner John Gunther, who was seeking both yearlings and broodmares. "The sale is spotty, but quality still sells. It's a tougher catalog than in previous years, especially with the outs. There's less to look at and less to choose from, especially at the mare end. But there are quite a few nice yearlings."

The day's most expensive yearling was Hip No. 256, a $500,000 Distorted Humor colt out of Andrea Gail consigned by Legacy Bloodstock, agent. The colt, a half-brother to Grade 3 winner Areyoutalkintome, went to Jess Jackson's Stonestreet Stables.

"We're going to grow him, feed him, water him, and see how he trains," Jackson said. "We're not planning to pinhook him. I think a lot of the bidding was pinhookers. We're end-users.

"We hope he can run like he looks," he added.

Jackson, a prominent buyer of high-end bloodstock, was also among the sellers at Keeneland January. Stonestreet has cataloged 28 broodmares or broodmare prospects to the auction through the Taylor Made agency.

"We're upgrading right now," Jackson said. "We think we're in the top 15 to 20 percent of mares already, but we want to be in the top 5 percent."

Not that Jackson wasn't tempted to keep this draft of mares, too.

"I almost shipped all of these to California, because they would have been a good start for a farm out there, and someday we'll do that," he said.

The Keeneland January sale was to continue through Jan. 15, with sessions beginning daily at 10 a.m.