11/04/2005 12:00AM

September momentum may continue

Ashado, the 3-year-old filly champion of 2004, is up for sale in the Keeneland auction.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - As buyers and sellers head into Kentucky's November mixed sales this season, the situation looks very much like last year. The question for Fasig-Tipton, which conducts its sale on Nov. 6, and for Keeneland (Nov. 7-18) is whether the market strength will hold up again in 2005. If it does, both companies could see some fireworks: Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland are offering some of the world's most valuable racing and commercial breeding stock this year. Among the chief attractions are 2004 champion 3-year-old filly Ashado, Hip No. 189 at Keeneland, and the dam of Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Folklore, in foal to Pleasantly Perfect and selling as Hip No. 131 at Fasig-Tipton, to name just two.

In 2004, fresh from a surprisingly strong Keeneland September yearling sale, sellers were confident enough in the yearling sales' future to spend more for new breeding stock and weanlings than many market analysts expected they might. Both Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland saw substantial gains at their November auctions as a result. Will the same hold true again this year?

If past really is prologue, it might. Having spent more, on average, for mares and weanlings at the 2004 November auctions, sellers had braced themselves for narrower profit margins at the 2005 yearling auctions. But, once again, the yearling market, and in particular the Keeneland September sale - the yearling sellers' largest and most informative marketplace in terms of determining economic trends - outperformed expectations. The mammoth two-week September auction cataloged a record 5,110 yearlings, which virtually guaranteed it a record gross. But even with the added numbers, the sale also pulled off a record average of $108,420 and record median of $40,000, up 13 percent and 8 percent, respectively, from records set the previous year. It also rang up a sale-record $9.7 million top price for a Storm Cat-Tranquility Lake colt.

Why do those numbers matter? Because the same people who sold profitable yearlings in September form the core market at the November auctions.

"When we have a successful September, we look forward to a successful November," Keeneland sales director Geoffrey Russell said.

And this year's November catalog - highlighted by Ashado - could provide major buyers with exactly the goods they're looking for. The catalog is flush with major racemares and producers that high-end buyers hunger for, so strong performance at the rarefied top of the market seems assured.

"Book one, especially Monday, is exceptionally strong this year," Russell said, referring to the catalog for the first two sessions. As for Ashado, offered by the Taylor Made consignment, Russell added, "We've never sold a mare that won seven Grade 1 stakes before. I'm not sure anyone ever has."

More of a question is the weanling market. Last year's high weanling prices may have hurt the profit margins for weanling-to-yearling pinhookers, even at the relatively flush yearling sales. Those pinhookers are significant players at November.

"They had a good time at the yearling sales, but not a great time," Russell said.

On the other hand, if pinhookers are more conservative this November, their competitors for weanlings - end users hoping to avoid paying even more for those weanlings at next year's yearling auctions - might take up some slack in the market.

Both sales companies' catalogs are bolstered by the kinds of pedigrees and race records that offer protection even in a down market. In addition to Ashado, the Keeneland catalog will feature such rare offerings as multiple Grade 1 winner Island Fashion; Grade 1 winner Megahertz; the dams of such runners as Pleasant Home, Flower Alley, Peace Rules, Successful Appeal, Heritage of Gold, and Borrego; and a group of weanlings that includes a Storm Cat half-brother to Tiznow and a full brother to Film Maker.

Keeneland didn't get all the good lots. Across town, Fasig-Tipton's catalog features such well-bred weanlings as a Pulpit half-sister to Toccet; a full brother to Wild Fit and Fusaichi Rock Star; and a Yes It's True half-sister to millionaire License Fee. Besides Contrive, Folklore's dam, the one-day auction of mares and racing prospects includes the dams of crack sprinter Lost in the Fog, Bellamy Road, Lion Heart, Bandini, and Toccet. It also is selling the outstanding female runners Riskaverse, Wild Fit, Amorama, Angara, My Trusty Cat, and champion handicap mare Hidden Lake.

It's not only the mares who attract attention at the November sales. Every year, a new group of sires has its first foals on the market as weanlings. This November, 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft, 2003 Belmont winner Empire Maker, 2002 juvenile champion Vindication, and Grade 1 winner Sky Mesa are among the horses whose weanlings are debuting. Sires with their first pregnant mares include Smarty Jones and Pleasantly Perfect.

"People are already talking about the first-crop sires' first foals this year, and they're excited to see them," Russell said. "That kind of excitement always helps."

And it could, Russell theorizes, offset some buyers' conservatism, if they like what they see by this new crop of young sires.

Fasig-Tipton officials are also optimistic.

"We feel very good," said Fasig-Tipton's chief operating officer, Boyd Browning Jr. "We have the best catalog we've had in years, and we did see a strong market throughout the yearling sale season as well as at the top of the 2-year-old sales. Based on that and what I'm seeing in the activity on the sale grounds, it looks like people want to buy horses."

If they want to buy, the stock will be there. How high will they go to acquire them? After the record-breaking September yearling sale, it's hard to predict what the market's peak might be, but market-watchers are expecting buyers' confidence to remain high - and that should keep prices high, too.

The Fasig-Tipton select November sale will take place Nov. 6 starting at 4 p.m. at Newtown Paddocks in Lexington. The Keeneland November auction will run Nov. 7-18 at Keeneland's sale pavilion, with sessions beginning at 10 a.m. daily.