08/08/2003 12:00AM

Saratoga sale sees gains in all areas


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Fasig-Tipton's Saratoga select yearling sale ended Thursday night with substantial gains over last year's edition and strong selling at every level of the market.

The three-day auction's top seller was a $2.7 million colt from Unbridled's last crop. Satish and Anne Sanan's Padua Stables bought the colt from breeders Arthur Hancock III and Stonerside Stable.

The 2003 auction sold 154 horses for a total of $48,257,000, an increase of 37 percent from last year's $35,242,000 gross for 140 horses. This year's average price was $313,357, up 25 percent from the 2002 average of $251,729. Median increased 33 percent, from $180,000 to $240,000. Meanwhile, the buyback rate declined from last year's 29 percent to 21 percent.

The climbing numbers restored much of the losses the auction suffered last year, when the wealthiest buyers pulled in their horns and the top of the select yearling market slipped by 30 to 40 percent.

"Part of the dramatic downturn last year was caused by the unbelievable fairy-tale sale that occurred in 2001," said Fasig-Tipton's Boyd Browning, referring to the record-breaking auction of two years ago. "What we hope to have every year is a steady sale. It's more fun selling in a very bullish marketplace, but it's probably not very realistic."

The sale-topping Unbridled colt, a half-brother to E Dubai and No Matter What, was one of five yearlings to sell for more than $1 million this year. The others were a $1.9 million A. P. Indy colt, a three-quarter-brother to 2002 juvenile champion Vindication, that trainer Patrick Biancone bought on behalf of a partnership that includes breeder Virginia Kraft Payson; a $1.4 million Unbridled's Song-Silken Cat colt that John Oxley bought; a $1.2 million Storm Cat-Broad Smile colt purchased by Stanley Fulton; and a $1.1 million Storm Cat filly out of champion older mare Jewel Princess bought by Eugene Melnyk. All but one of those lots was sold by the Taylor Made agency; Lane's End, agent, consigned the Storm Cat-Jewel Princess filly.

Coming into the auction, consignors in the most expensive upper tier of the market worried that fewer players would be interested in their best horses. That worry increased when word emerged that Bob and Beverly Lewis would sit out the select yearling sales this year as they prepared to reduce their bloodstock holdings.

The relatively small number of serious seven-figure bidders disappointed spectators who hoped to see high drama and multimillion-dollar yearlings. But, in the end, consignors were relieved to find that the money was spread healthily around the market. The key to selling well lay primarily in athleticism, and the combination of physical attractiveness and pedigree could make a horse a millionaire.

"Success in this business is finding new homes for the horses," said Bluewater Sales principal Meg Levy, whose sales included a $675,000 Forest Wildcat-Subtle Fragrance colt to Barry Berkelhammer, agent, and a $575,000 Touch Gold-Miss Insync filly to Bob Baffert, agent. "We're lucky: We've got owners who understand the market and were very reasonable in appraising their horses. If you have that nice athlete, all it takes is a couple of heavy hitters and you have breakout potential."

Breeders buy share in sale-topper

Arthur Hancock and Robert McNair, co-breeders and sellers of Satish Sanan's $2.7 million Unbridled colt, have bought back a quarter-interest in the colt.

"Satish asked us today if we'd take a leg," Hancock said Thursday night. "I asked him, 'What's a leg?' And he said, 'Well, there are four legs on a horse, so it's a quarter.' "

Hancock said he and McNair have split a quarter-share in the colt, who is out of the stakes-winning Lord at War mare Words of War.

"I believe in this horse so much," Hancock said, adding that the colt shipped Thursday to Sanan's Padua Stables in Florida, where he will be broken.

Sanan has said he won't make any decision regarding a trainer until the colt is broken. "We'll be patient and take our time with him," he said.

Sale a busy time for veterinarians

Some of the busiest people on the sale grounds are the veterinarians who perform general physicals, X-rays, and endoscopic examinations on yearlings.

Dr. Craig Van Balen, 49, estimated that his three-member vetting team looked at 75 to 100 horses at Saratoga. And that number might be lower than usual.

"When the market is thin, as it is now - there are not a lot of buyers, and often they are bidding against sellers' reserves - there's not a lot of vetting going on," Van Balen said.

Consignors take vetting as a sign of a buyer's intention to bid, and they also know that a negative report from a vet can make the difference between a sale and a buyback. Consignors have complained that buyers can be too selective, dismissing horses for minor flaws that probably will have no practical effect. But Van Balen noted that the decision to pass or fail a yearling is ultimately the bidder's and has a lot to do with the buyer's attitude toward risk.

"A little radiographic lesion doesn't scare some clients, but others aren't risk-takers and want a horse to be absolutely radiographically clean," he said.

Van Balen also said that the repository for health information, where consignors can put X-rays and videos of endoscopic exams for buyers' perusal, has helped educate buyers and veterinarians alike in the past seven or eight years. Researchers have been able to compare years' worth of yearling data with those horses' eventual racing careers, and that has led to a better understanding of which flaws are more likely to affect performance.

"We've learned a lot, and our level of comfort with certain radiographic lesions has gone up considerably," he said. "We realize now that particular kinds of lesions have a great prognosis and have no detriment to a horse's racing career.

"Clients come off horses for a number of different reasons: conformation, the horse looks tired and is dragging his feet, the client didn't like the way the horse handled the challenge of being at the sale ground," he added. "The idiosyncrasies of buyers are very wide. But I think buyers as a whole at yearling sales are much more educated and have a better understanding now of what the results of these examinations mean. If anything, I think they're better informed and more tolerant of things not being exactly textbook-perfect. They want things to be within a range of normal, but that range has expanded for them."