08/02/2007 11:00PM

Saratoga sale hoping to hold steady

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The major yearling auction circuit travels to Saratoga this week, where Fasig-Tipton's Aug. 6-7 select sale could add some glitter to a market that, so far, has been healthy but workmanlike.

Sale officials and consignors say they're not expecting major increases, as buyers appear to be reining in their top-of-the-market spending. As always when a relatively small and select group of horses meets an enthusiastic buyer base in the Spa's heady setting, there's plenty of home-run potential. And the gross sales should get a bump due to this year's larger catalog of 214 horses, compared to 180 last season. But Fasig-Tipton chief operating officer Boyd Browning expects no sharp upturns in the current climate.

"I think it's going to be very similar to the July sale," Browning said, referring to the bellwether Fasig-Tipton July auction in Kentucky.

That two-day sale ended with mixed results, as gross rose 2 percent on a larger catalog but average ($102,941) and median ($80,000) each fell 11 percent from the previous year's record levels. Buy-backs rose from 25 percent to 32 percent. There were no million-dollar horses at the Kentucky auction, either, suggesting buyers might be tightening their budgets.

"Buyers continue to be discriminating and tend to focus on similar horses, but overall it's a pretty good market," Browning said, adding that the auction house increased its Saratoga catalog after "feedback from some buyers and some potential buyers said they wanted to have a little bit larger selection.

"You've got to have enough horses to make people feel it's worthwhile to make the trip, and, honestly, we feel more comfortable with a 214-horse catalog than we did with 180," he said.

The Saratoga auction, now in its 87th year, traditionally offers deeper pedigrees than the Kentucky sale, and there is ample black type on this year's catalog pages. Hip No. 28, for example, is a Giant's Causeway filly out of champion and Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Jewel Princess. Hip No. 86 is an Unbridled's Song colt out of champion Riboletta, and Hip No. 101 is an Empire Maker half-brother to multiple Grade 1 winner Pico Central. Hip No. 198 is an Unbridled's Song half-brother to champion and Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Kona Gold. And there is an even larger supply of siblings and half-siblings to Grade 1 winners.

But topping last year's returns by extravagant margins could be a tall task. Led by Ahmed Zayat's $1.6 million Empire Maker filly Mushka, the 2006 gross jumped 26 percent, while median gained 9 percent to hit $245,000. The $323,731 average represented a decline, but by such a small margin - only two-tenths of a percent - that it essentially was level and was the auction's third highest average in the last decade. Sellers seemed pleased by the market, as illustrated by the low buy-back rate of 19 percent.

"It will be difficult to have a buy-back rate that low this year," Browning said.

Last year's star first-crop sires are back in the 2007 catalog. Empire Maker has five yearlings, Vindication has nine, and Mineshaft has three. This year's class of freshman sires is smaller but contains quality. The much-loved Smarty Jones fields four, one of them, Hip No. 148, a half-brother to Grade 2 winner Keats. Lion Heart, whose yearlings proved popular at Fasig-Tipton July, has 10 in the catalog, including a half-sister to Teuflesberg. Others with their first yearlings are such racehorses as Pleasantly Perfect, Chapel Royal, Congaree, Saarland, Tapit, and The Cliff's Edge with one each; Medaglia d'Oro (seven); Speightstown (nine); and Strong Hope (five).

"They're not coming in at quite the stud-fee level that last year's group did with its big three of Empire Maker, Mineshaft, and Vindication, but as I look at them, they are a hell of a group of racehorses," Browning said of the freshmen. "I don't think for the average buyer going to the sale at Saratoga that the stud fee is a significant factor in their evaluation of a horse. There should be enough pedigree on every horse at Saratoga that, if the stars line up right, they could be a Grade 1 winner."

Sires aren't the only freshmen. Among the mares with first foals here are Grade 1-placed Victory U. S. A., whose Awesome Again colt sells as Hip No. 132, and Winter Garden, whose Speightstown colt is Hip No. 143.

It's not all about the new at Saratoga, of course. Horses with runners who already have won at a high level are always a market draw. This year, there are four yearlings by Storm Cat and six by his son Giant's Causeway. Unbridled's Song beats both with 11, and Smart Strike, the currently hot sire of Curlin, has six. But the supply of horses by other fashionable stallions is short enough to spark some bidding wars among their devotees. A.P. Indy and Gone West have just two youngsters in the book, Distorted Humor has four, and Mr. Greeley has one. Street Sense's popular sire, Street Cry, has a single offering, a colt out of Premier Playmate.

The Saratoga select yearling sale will take place this year on Monday and Tuesday, instead of on the usual Tuesday and Wednesday. Sessions begin each evening at 7 p.m. in the Humphrey S. Finney Pavilion.