Updated on 09/17/2011 8:55PM

Sale's high end looking up


Sellers at the March 15 Barretts select juvenile auction in Pomona, Calif., have reason to hope that history does repeat itself. Last year, after Fasig-Tipton's Calder sale produced a world-record $4.5 million juvenile price for Fusaichi Samurai, the Barretts sale followed up with a world-record price of $2 million for a juvenile filly for the Awesome Again filly Dubai Escapade.

This year, Fasig-Tipton Calder's March 1 auction proved even more extravagant, setting another world 2-year-old record of $5.2 million for a Tale of the Cat colt out of the Devil's Bag mare Carry All. That would seem to bode well for at least the upper market at Barretts, but the auction house's president isn't taking anything about the volatile 2-year-old marketplace for granted.

"I don't think you can predict that," the president, Jerry McMahon, said of the eight horses who sold for $1 million or more at Fasig-Tipton's sale at Calder. "That all just has to happen as a result of what happens on the racetrack. You have to have a nice horse to begin with, then the horse has to perform well, then it has to pass the vet."

But even the naturally conservative McMahon readily acknowledges that the 2005 Barretts March catalog, which features 202 horses, is unusually strong. The sale is dominated, as always, by out-of-state pinhooking operations, but this year they are bringing in some horses with exceptionally appealing pedigrees.

"I do think this is a better group of horses, overall, than we had last year," McMahon said. "The catalog is somewhat deeper. We ended up this time with a higher number of horses with above-average physicals. Generally, pinhookers brought better horses this year."

The March sale's consignors this year include agents Robert Scanlon, seller of the world-record $5.2 million Tale of the Cat colt, and Jerry Bailey, who sold the $2 million world-record filly at Barretts last year. And there are a host of prominent sales agents based in California, Florida, Texas, and Kentucky.

Among the horses they have cataloged are a Forestry half-sister to Arlington Million and Secretariat Stakes winner Kicken Kris; a Cat Thief half-sister to $550,000-earner Mellow Fellow; a Stormin Fever half-brother to Grade 2 winner and stakes-producer Suivi; a California-bred full brother to $740,000-earner Texcess; and a Forest Wildcat half-brother to Grade 1 winner Officer. The catalog even features a rare colt by Lure, whose fertility problems have prevented one of the era's most talented racehorses from fielding many runners. This colt is a half-brother to Grade 2-placed stakes-winner Glok.

Good conformation and deep pedigrees are what the wealthiest upper-market buyers are looking for. And, if Fasig-Tipton's Calder sale is any indication, buyers at that level are eager to spend if they find the right horse.

Pinhookers are dedicated to providing the right horse, but this year it has cost them more money, on average, to stock their shelves for the 2-year-old sales. Last year, McMahon said, the average pinhook price - the average amount pinhookers paid to acquire the yearlings they later resold at the Barretts sale - was about $65,000. That went up to about $75,000 this year, according to McMahon. That may be partly accounted by upgrading, as pinhookers sought to acquire upscale 2004 yearlings who could attract attention at the select juvenile sales in 2005. But last season's yearling market boom also meant that even middle-class yearlings often went for premium prices, forcing pinhookers to spend more even if they weren't upgrading. Will that financial risk pay off? History suggests that it will - for a few.

"The problem with the market is the buy-back rate," McMahon said, noting that juvenile sales traditionally feature buy-backs of between 30 and 40 percent. Fasig-Tipton's no-sale rate at Calder was an alarming 46 percent. Because the Barretts March sale is largely supported by sellers from out of state who ship from Florida and Kentucky to sell there, an excessive buy-back rate could be enough to kill the auction.

"If we have a couple of years in a row with 45 percent buy-backs, it gets real tough to keep going," McMahon said. "In Florida, you always have a core of professional local pinhookers who will fill the market with 2-year-olds to sell, but we don't have that here in California.

"The March sale is so dependent on horses from out of state that our sale is always on the bubble. If we stumble, we can take a hit at any time. You're never quite entrenched as long as that's the situation."

As at all boutique 2-year-old sales, the Barretts March buyers have tended to be highly selective. But their habit of showering money on a handful of horses has been enough to attract risk-taking out-of-state pinhookers and to keep the sale on the calendar. Last year, the one-day auction sold 79 juveniles for $13,728,000, up from the $12,222,800 that 86 horses brought in 2003. The average price also climbed, from $142,126 to $173,772, and the median leaped from $60,000 to $100,000.

The world-record $2 million filly, Dubai Escapade, whom Sheikh Mohammed purchased from Florida-based pinhooker Bailey, helped those returns considerably. Bailey had bought Dubai Escapade for just $75,000 at the preceding Keeneland September yearling sale. The chance to hit that kind of home run continues to lure pinhookers out to California.

McMahon said that the auction house also keeps out-of-state consignors coming with good customer service.

"Our sales pitch to them every year is that our sale is smaller and has had a great top end, and it is seemingly easier to stand out here," he said. "And we do an awful lot in our barn area to facilitate cross-country travel. We'll line up labor for out-of-state people, store tack, line up hotels and long-term rentals, anything we can do to make the trip easier for them."

But the best reason to come to Barretts is a home-run sale, and that's what McMahon is hoping the 2005 March auction will give consignors.

"The top of the market is great, and that's the positive," McMahon said. "We have some nice horses, and we're optimistic about that. But you don't know until the buyers show up and start competing for those horses."