03/24/2006 12:00AM

Rising purses help fuel sales boom

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The record-breaking March select juvenile sale at Ocala Breeders' Sales Co. in Ocala, Fla., last Tuesday and Wednesday gave another boost to an auction that has been on the upswing over the last decade.

The sale's 2006 edition set an all-time price record for an OBS auction when a Belong to Me-Vassar colt consigned by Ciaran Dunne's Wavertree agency drew a $1.8 million bid from agent Buzz Chace. That broke a record that had stood since 1982, when K D Princess sold in foal to Timeless Moment for $1.725 million at the OBS fall mixed sale.

The sale also set a record for juvenile filly price when Darley purchased a $1 million Indian Charlie-V Sign daughter from Leprechaun Racing, agent. And the auction also set marks for gross, selling 286 lots for $31,044,000; average, $108,545; and median, $75,000. The OBS company also enjoyed a relatively low buy-back rate for a juvenile auction this year, as the rate at which horses failed to reach their reserve prices fell from 32 percent last year to 27 percent in 2006.

"When you look at the sale results from the March sale 10 years ago, the average was around $40,000, and now we're over $100,000," OBS president Tom Ventura said. "The sellers have got to get the credit for that, because they've been bringing better and better horses here, and they've been rewarded for that."

Ventura noted that more large consignors are pointing better horses for the March auction now, a sign that they're confident well-heeled buyers will show up and bid.

"It hasn't been luck," Ventura said of the sale's reputation in recent years. "It was a matter of over the years the sale has progressed in terms of producing stakes horses, and high-end horses sold here were bringing as much as they could. So, over time, consignors became more confident about bringing that higher-end horse."

Ventura had said before the auction that the upper-market stock would "take care of itself," and the high sale-topping figures for colt and filly proved that point. But he added that he was most pleased that the middle-market horses, which Ventura pegs at the $75,000 to $200,000 range at this auction, were "very strong."

"You have some progress in purses, often through supplements from slot machines and other gaming," he said. "New York is getting closer to that, and Pennsylvania looks good, too, so there's some promise that horses will be earning more. That gives owners who purchase horses in a range where they're wanting to justify the price some hope that they can recover some of that investment without needing a major stakes winner, but by winning a few races."

Al Gold: New kid on the very best block

Bloodstock agent Buzz Chace was representing a new player at the top level of the game when he signed the $1.8 million receipt for the OBS March sale-topper. He bought the Belong to Me-Vassar colt for New Jersey real estate investor and developer Al Gold.

"He's a nice guy that goes to the races, loves the races, and likes to bet on the races," Chace said. "He's a friend of mine from Monmouth Park."

Chace said he's known Gold for almost a decade and bought Gold's first horse for him in 2004 at Fasig-Tipton Midlantic's yearling sale in Timonium, Md. That $70,000 Elusive Quality filly, now named Handlewoman, won in her first start this year for trainer Steve Asmussen, taking a Gulfstream Park maiden race by 1 1/2 lengths.

Gold has a house at Saratoga, and Chace said one of the owner's goals is to have a stable to compete at the Spa. Gold's focus is mainly on racing these days, not breeding.

Chace said Gold went to $1.8 million for his new Belong to Me colt after being outgunned at the Fasig-Tipton Calder and Barretts 2-year-old sales earlier this season.

"He really stepped up to the plate," Chace said. "And I think he's bought himself a real nice horse. Only time will tell."

Group helped pave way for ethics task force

For Headley Bell of the Nicoma Bloodstock agency in Lexington, recent pushes for a code of ethics for Thoroughbred sales have a familiar ring.

Back in 1989, Bell and a number of other bloodstock market participants teamed up to form the Thoroughbred Agent and Consultant Association, a group whose main goal was to establish and promote a code of ethics for agents, brokers, advisers, and consultants.

But TACA laid largely dormant as far as the public was concerned, until prominent Thoroughbred buyer and breeder Satish Sanan began agitating in 2004 for the auction world to weed out dual agents and offer full disclosure on such matters as veterinary procedures performed on sale horses. When Sanan's effort led to formation of the Sales Integrity Task Force, task force chairman Cot Campbell asked Bell for a copy of the TACA code as a foundation to build on. Why did it take so long to get from TACA to the task force?

"Who wants to change?" Bell said. "People probably aren't going to change unless they're forced to. Horse trading has been horse trading forever, and it's hard to change its customs."

The task force's code, issued in December 2004, lacked any method of enforcement, but Bell said it was a good start. He also supports owner Jess Jackson's recent push in the Kentucky legislature to specifically outlaw undisclosed dual agency in horse sales. The bill he lobbied for, HB 446, is awaiting Gov. Ernie Fletcher's signature.

"They're each steps forward," Bell said.