01/13/2009 12:00AM

Sale's declines get steeper

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Keeneland's January all-ages sale continued Tuesday with losses even steeper than those seen at the opener on Monday. But many sellers appeared resigned to the sliding market, citing a weak broader economy as the new reality - one they hope will reverse itself soon.

The Tuesday session's total of $9,145,700 for 210 horses was down 66 percent from the equivalent session's gross in 2008, when 239 horses sold, including three seven-figure lots. The $43,551 average price was down 62 percent, and the $26,500 median was off by 56 percent. The session's buy-back rate rose from last year's 21 percent to 23 percent, but the cumulative buy-backs for Monday and Tuesday dropped from 27 percent last year to 25 percent in 2009.

The drastic slides were extreme but not surprising, given the ongoing global economic crisis and earlier severe drops in breeding stock prices.

Tuesday's session topper, the $300,000 broodmare Vestrey Lady, will head for Japan. Nobuo Tsunoda signed the ticket for the 6-year-old Vicar mare. A Grade 3 winner and earner of more than $490,000, Vestrey Lady is carrying a Broken Vow foal.

Ontario-based agent Bernard McCormack, owner of Cara Bloodstock, consigned the mare. The session-topping price was a good way to launch Cara Bloodstock. McCormack recently founded the company after leaving Windfields, where he had been a manager for two decades.

The big story from Monday's session - Michael Paulson's $4.4 million buy-back of the 2002 Horse of the Year, Azeri - got an update Tuesday when Paulson revealed that the three-time champion mare will remain under the Allen E. Paulson Living Trust's ownership rather than being marketed privately, at least for now.

"We ran her through the sale yesterday, and she didn't sell, so obviously there wasn't a buyer at the selling price, though it got mighty close," said Paulson, who said the attempted sale fell victim to the weak economy. Azeri is in foal to Ghostzapper.

Slots money scoops up bargains

Keeneland's slumping sales figures weren't entirely bad news for buyers, who were finding some good discounts. Buyers from Pennsylvania and Canada, where slot-machine revenue has plumped up lucrative breeding incentive programs, were especially active combing the catalogs for bargain mares to add for their relatively healthy breeding programs.

Patrick Morell, general manager of Mike Jester's new Penn Ridge Farm in Pennsylvania, could barely contain his delight over his purchases. Those included White Angelica, already the dam of Grade 1-placed runner Oro Blanco and in foal to Petionville, for $27,000, and Miss Elusive, an Elusive Quality winner in foal to Officer, for $3,000.

"I'm extremely pleased with it," Morell said. "To me, this is the perfect storm for buyers, especially for people who breed in Pennsylvania, because that program has taken off so well. You have to buy when everybody else is selling. In two to three years, when these horses in these mares are going to be racehorses, this market is going to turn around. We'll probably buy eight to 10 mares at this sale."

Morell pointed out that the Pennsylvania-bred program is set to get another boost with the opening of several new "stand-alone" casinos - not located at racetracks - in 2009 and 2010.

"Last year, they added one stand-alone casino, and it already has generated $3 million to the breeders' fund," he said. "Three to four more are supposed to come into effect. Do the math."

Canadian buyers are enjoying similar happy developments in Ontario, where Woodbine's slots also are helping fill breeders' coffers through richer purses and breeding incentives.

That's one reason that Bernard McCormack, seller of Tuesday's session-topping $300,000 broodmare, was likely to buy some mares at this auction, too.

"Purses equal opportunity equals optimism - I guess that's the equation," McCormack said.

McCormack has cataloged six black-type performing mares to the Keeneland January sale and says mares of that quality have appeal to regional markets with strong programs like Ontario's. And the promise of continued good earnings from those programs makes breeders willing to bid a little more for quality mares they can put into those incentive programs, McCormack said.

"I was underbidder myself on a nice mare yesterday," he said. "Owning broodmares is a little bit on the back burner for some people, but, as Ontario breeders, it's incumbent on us to try to improve the horses we're breeding."

Jones calls it a career

Pennsylvania horseman Russell Jones, a longtime consignor at East Coast and Kentucky auctions, announced this week that he is now retired. Jones, 73, sold his Walnut Green sales agency to bloodstock agent Mark Reid and his son in 2005 with the plan of overseeing the transition until January 2009, and those duties wrap up this week at the Keeneland January sale.

Jones and his late brother, Richard, operated Walnut Green together in Kennett Square, Pa., for more than 20 years until Richard's death in 2007. During that time, Walnut Green sold numerous Grade 1 performers, including the 1990 Arlington Million winner, Golden Pheasant. In 1983, Walnut Green consigned Producer, a Nashua broodmare, for a then-world-record broodmare price of $5.25 million.

Jones also bought many good horses on behalf of clients, including future Grade 1 winner Unaccounted For on John Kluge's behalf. And he was the first adviser to introduce the late Henryk deKwiatkowski to the sales at Saratoga.

"The business is different now," Jones said. "It's more commercial, maybe a little more cutthroat, not quite as friendly. There are times when it's still great fun, but it was more fun before, and I'm going to have some more fun now."

Jones said he'll still attend sales "because I'm addicted and love the business" and also plans to breed his own four mares to breed or to race, "whichever looks like more fun."

Jones also plans to devote himself full time to foxhunting in his position as Master of Mr. Stewart's Cheshire Foxhounds, as soon as he gets over the two broken ribs he sustained in a recent hunting fall.