08/08/2001 11:00PM

Session topper was destined to be pricey


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - It was a pleasantly familiar scenario for Fasig-Tipton and the Taylor Made Sales Agency: a Storm Cat in the sale pavilion, seven digits lighting up the auction board, and bloodstock agent John Ferguson's signature scribbled across the sale receipt.

It's hard to be nonchalant about $3.3 million, but when Ferguson, buying as usual for Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum, cast the session-topping bid for Taylor Made's Storm Cat-Gone to Venus colt Wednesday night at the Fasig-Tipton selected yearling sale, no one was surprised.

"This horse was almost destined to be a multimillion-dollar yearling from the time he was born," Mark Taylor, whose family owns Taylor Made Farm, said.

The colt was "a very special offering," as announcer Terence Collier put it before bidding opened. Compact and coal-colored with a cross-shaped star on his forehead and two white socks, the colt is a full brother to Grade 2 winner Saudi Poetry. Taylor Made sold that filly here three years ago for $1.7 million.

The $3.3 million Storm Cat colt was one of three million-dollar yearlings at the Wednesday session. Lane's End, acting as agent for Stonerside Stables, sold a $2.4 million Storm Cat-Miss Caerleona colt to Charlotte Weber's Live Oak Plant-ation. Canadian owner Eugene Melnyk, who was the underbidder on the session-topping Storm Cat colt, came back to buy the night's top filly, a $2 million Canadian-bred daughter of A. P. Indy and Canadian champion Larkwhistle, from Anderson Farms.

Those horses helped keep the three-night sale on a record pace. Through Wednesday night, despite a larger catalog, the two-day average jumped 37 percent to $348,380. Gross revenue rose 59 percent to $37,625,000 from 108 lots sold; at last year's auction, which produced a record average price of $305,847, the company sold 91 horses in the first two sessions for a total of $23,731,000.

The buy-back rate rose from opening night's low 16 percent to a moderate 24 percent Wednesday.

The auction's powerful gains are partly the result of a long-term plan, according to Fasig-Tipton chairman D.G. Van Clief Jr.

"What we're seeing here is another step in a strategy we implemented 10 years ago," he said. "That was to do the best possible job, given what the breeders can provide, to put the right horses in the right market niche. That means not just good pedigrees, but also finding the equine athletes that the market demands. Back 10 years ago, the market already was telling us it would pay more for a good physical individual than for a fancy pedigree without adequate physical conformation."

Hip No. 88, the newest cannonball in Sheikh Mohammed's potential Kentucky Derby arsenal, was the right kind of horse from the day he was foaled at Taylor Made Farm in Kentucky.

"It's hard to pick him apart," Mark Taylor said of the Storm Cat colt, who was bred by Ed and Patricia Pavlish's Beau Ravine Farm. "He's really strong with a good front end for a Storm Cat, and he had that mental toughness. This colt is all man. He was running all winter with 10 other colts, and there was never any doubt about who ruled in the roost. I think that's the kind of attitude that translates into being a good racehorse."

John Ferguson saw the colt several months ago when he visited Taylor Made for a private viewing of the farm's July sale yearlings.

"This horse was one of the few individuals that you see in the course of the year that has a great pedigree, good conformation for a Storm Cat - good conformation generally - and great balance," Ferguson said. "He has a very good chance at being a serious racehorse. He could do that either in Europe or in the States."

Bidding opened at $500,000, then moved outside, where Ferguson stood near the walking ring. Melnyk, who was stuck on a plane over Saratoga until shortly after the sale of Hip No. 88, bid by phone through his representative, Dr. Robert McMartin, also stationed outside. That presented an inspiring sight for the Taylor brothers, who, after showing the colt an estimated 125 times, had some idea what would happen next. Melnyk couldn't see Ferguson's unconcerned manner of bidding, but the continual string of $100,000 raises undoubtedly let him know that Sheikh Mohammed's petrodollars could stretch the duel out infinitely.

"I have a budget, and I stick to it," Melnyk said later. "You have to be disciplined at this level. Otherwise, you'll just blow your brains out."

Melnyk, who had his sights on the A.P. Indy-Larkwhistle filly later in the session, folded, and Ferguson signed the ticket a few minutes later. A spectator standing nearby with a bottle of beer watched with the bored expression of a man who has seen this particular episode before.

For buyers like Sheikh Mohammed, a multimillion-dollar gamble has just started. As one of Melnyk's advisors put it, buying horses is "almost like win, place, and show betting. You pick where you want to be. The people who want to take the bigger risks will sometimes get huge rewards that justify them."

Whether or not the $3.3 million colt justifies his price tag for Sheikh Mohammed, he's already generated a substantial payoff for his breeders, his sellers, and Fasig-Tipton.