09/10/2003 12:00AM

Small consignors score big

Martha Jane Mulholland sold three yearlings for $3.1 million.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Keeneland September yearling sale is known for its numbers. The world's largest Thoroughbred yearling sale, it offers more than 4,000 horses in 12 days this year, a giant marketplace that leaves the sale grounds flush with horses. One might think that would work against small consignments, but Keeneland's select-session results on Monday and Tuesday prove otherwise.

At the select sessions, a number of sellers with less than 20 horses rang up big numbers, despite the fact that most of them operate within budgets when buying mares and stud fees. Mulholland Springs, Matagorda Farm, Valkyre Stud, Trackside Farm, Michael Byrne, and Mt. Brilliant Farm all had horses sell above $1 million from select consignments of fewer than 10 horses.

How did they do it? Some, like Matagorda Farm, have clients who own well-bred mares with graded or group race records. Others, like Mulholland Springs, have carefully built their own mare bands through exhaustive research and a sharp focus on conformation.

Matagorda's consignment sold a Storm Cat-Bluemamba colt to Demi O'Byrne on Tuesday for $2.6 million, the day's second-highest price. The colt was one of only three select yearlings the farm brought to Keeneland.

One reason for Matagorda's success is its major client, Sir Tony and Lady Chryss O'Reilly of Castlemartin Stud. The O'Reillys have an international breeding program with about 120 mares in Ireland, France, and England. They keep about 20 mares at Matagorda near Lexington, where their classy mares' European pedigrees can be mingled easily with the best U.S. commercial sire lines. That's how the O'Reillys' French 1000 Guineas winner Bluemamba (Kingmambo) came to be mated to Storm Cat. The result was the $2.6 million colt, highest price ever for Matagorda.

"We expected a lot less than that," said Matagorda owner Sid Kleeman, who was with Bluemamba when she foaled this colt, her first foal. "From his birth on, he was always super-nice. He grew well, and we got lucky."

"Our goal is to breed good horses," said Chryss O'Reilly. "Sometimes it doesn't work, of course. Because we race our fillies and sell the colts, we try to do matings that are reasonably commercial if it's a colt but that we'd be happy to have in our broodmare band if it's a filly."

Mulholland Springs, John and Martha Jane Mulholland's 83-acre farm in Lexington, owns just nine mares. They sold fillies out of three of them on Monday and Tuesday and got spectacular results. Bob and Beverly Lewis bought their Saint Ballado filly for $1.4 million and a Deputy Minister daughter for $700,000, and Padua bought a Forestry filly for $1 million. The total receipts amazed Martha Jane Mulholland, who was overseeing the consignment, but there was little time to celebrate. The farm is selling horses in the open sessions, too, and Tuesday night she was back at the barn while a veterinarian did a heart scan on one of the Mulholland yearlings.

Mulholland was still accepting congratulations on Wednesday as she prepared the farm's consignment for the remainder of the sale.

"I can't dream that high," she said of the $3.1 million the farm got from its three select horses. "I knew they were lovely individuals and would be well received, but $300,000 or $400,000 is a lot of money to me!"

The Mulhollands, who used to be in the Quarter Horse show business in Oklahoma, moved to Lexington in the mid-1990's and bought their farm in 2001.

"We're very much focused on conformation," Mulholland said. "Our horses aren't the half-siblings to Grade 1 winners, but we buy only stakes winners when we buy mares, and we focus most on their race records and their conformation.

"If you stay small and have good people, you can do it yourself," she added, crediting farm manager Robert Turner, veterinarian Jim Morehead, and farrier Eddie Van Hook as integral to the farm's success. "Buyers will find a good horse in a one-horse consignment."

They did just that at Catesby Clay's Runnymede Farm, another small family-owned farm that hit a home run with its single select yearling. Although it didn't crack the $1 million mark, their $875,000 Giant's Causeway-Regina Maria colt was a still a major score.

"We have to be very prudent buying mares," said farm manager Martin O'Dowd. "We like depth in the pedigree, and, if we can get it, we like a little current action in the pedigree, too. We like to inbreed to major female families, families that have produced foundation mares and good stallions. It's pedigree first, conformation second, and commercial appeal third.

"Mr. Clay and I spend hours on each mare's matings. When you research pedigrees thoroughly enough, you find there are common denominators in the sire lines that work with a particular family, and you might find several stallions from that line. Which ever one is most compatible conformationally with the mare, that's who we breed to, and hopefully that's where you get commercial appeal."