09/11/2008 11:00PM

Russians step up U.S. sale activity

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - There has been a noticeable increase in Russian buying activity this year at the Keeneland September yearling sale. That's due partly to increasing entrepreneurial wealth in the former Soviet Union and partly to the region's rapidly developing racing and breeding industry, according to bloodstock adviser Jean-Pierre Deroubaix, a consultant helping Russia's agriculture ministry reorganize the country's stud book and racetrack network.

"Four years ago, I went with a couple of other people to inspect the existing facilities - the racetracks, training centers, and breeding farms - and to find out who was in charge of what," Deroubaix said Thursday at the Keeneland auction, where he was helping Russian buyers. "What I found was that there was absolutely no organization. Some of the racetracks from the former Soviet Union were private, and some of them were the property of municipalities. So I told the Ministry of Agriculture that they have to organize themselves if they want to improve the racing. They had to coordinate racing."

That task is complex, Deroubaix said, partly because there are some 400,000 horses in Russia and the former Soviet republics that race or breed for racing. Several breeds race, including Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, Arabians, and Akhal-Tekes, the light-framed native breed of the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan in central Asia.

Deroubaix said that the stud books are still in relative disarray, making it difficult to determine exactly how many Thoroughbreds are in the region. But the Thoroughbred sector undoubtedly is growing. At least six Russian or former Soviet buying groups were on hand at Keeneland on Wednesday and Thursday.

Two factors in particular are encouraging Russians to import American Thoroughbreds now.

First, racing opportunities are likely to improve as the region's racetracks develop circuits. Deroubaix said Russia's racetracks will soon be classified according to the quality of their operations.

"Class 1 will be the best ones, with good security, proper quality tracks, rails, photo-finish cameras, and so on," he said. A German racing official is helping the Ministry of Agriculture with this organization, which currently involves seven Russian racetracks in good operating condition.

Second, a Russian law banning bookmakers in favor of a national tote system is set to take effect in 2009. That, horsemen believe, will provide a larger, more consistent source of funding for Russian purses.

"I tried to convince them that this is the only way to increase prize money and to clean the place, to make sure there is no 'black' betting, so that the government can control the whole operation," Deroubaix said.

For the moment, Russian racing is largely conducted over dirt, but the shift to synthetic surfaces is under way, starting at Pyatigorsk in the Caucasus, which has a new Fibresand track.

"Some of them will go to Polytrack or something similar," Deroubaix said, "and in the next four or five years, the seven Russian tracks will be at international standards and able to organize good quality racing."

Barring any political instability or economic turmoil, that could mean Russian buyers will only become a stronger buying force at American yearling sales.

Double-digit declines in first week

Thursday's session ended Week 1 with a seven-figure top price and a continuation of declines seen earlier in the week.

Despite the $1.1 million session topper, a Medaglia d'Oro-Amizette filly that English owner Karen Sanderson purchased from Liberation Farm and Stonewall Farm (Trackside, agent), Thursday's session posted declines in gross, average, and median. The session sold 267 yearlings for $40,534,700, a drop of 10 percent from last year's fourth session, which sold 257 horses. The average was down 13 percent versus last year at $151,815, and median plummeted 17 percent, from $150,000 last year to $125,000. But the buy-back rate improved from 30 percent last season to 28 percent.

Cumulatively, the first four sessions making up the auction's first week grossed $204,698,700, down 16 percent from 2007. Average price fell 14 percent, from $284,883 to $244,562, and median dropped 10 percent, from $200,000 to $180,000. For the four days, buy-backs rose slightly, from 27 percent last year to 28 percent in 2008.

The sale was dark on Friday but was set to resume on Saturday, then run through Sept. 23. Sessions begin daily at 10 a.m. in Keeneland's sale pavilion.

Storm Cat a surprise leader

The first week's leading sire by average, three or more sold, was not A.P. Indy, as many expected. It was the Overbrook Farm sire Storm Cat, whose popularity seemed on the wane last season but has rebounded in 2008 since the announcement that he would cover no more mares after the 2008 breeding season. According to SireAverages.com statistics, Storm Cat's 19 horses to sell averaged $584,737, edging out Lane's End stallion A.P. Indy, whose 27 yearlings averaged $550,555. The rest of the top five were Lane's End sire Kingmambo, with eight averaging $443,750; WinStar Farm stallion Distorted Humor, with 27 averaging $436,370; and Taylor Made Farm sire Unbridled's Song, whose 35 yearlings averaged $384,286.

Among first-crop sires with three or more sold, Adena Springs freshman Ghostzapper was king. His 23 yearlings averaged $309,783. Rounding out the top five freshmen were Rock Hard Ten (Lane's End), with 12 averaging $226,333; Afleet Alex (Gainesway), with 17 averaging $210,235; deceased Saint Liam (Lane's End), with 13 averaging $176,923; and Eddington (Claiborne), with seven averaging $123,429.

Etc. . . .

Jim Craig, goalie for the 1980 gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic men's hockey team, whose dramatic victory over the Soviet Union was portrayed in the film "Miracle on Ice," visited the Keeneland sale Thursday. Craig, who was in town to give a motivational speech, said he wasn't planning to buy racehorses but wanted to come back to Keeneland for the races. . . . The Green Monkey, sold for a world-record $16 million at the 2006 Fasig-Tipton Calder juvenile sale, will stand his first season at stud in 2009 for $5,000 at Hartley/DeRenzo Thoroughbreds in Florida. . . . Eddie Martin's Grade 2-placed Storm Cat horse El Nino has relocated from Florida to Indiana, where he will stand the 2009 season at Swifty Farms. No fee was announced.