07/31/2008 11:00PM

Smaller may be better in this market

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Fasig-Tipton's Saratoga select yearling sale, scheduled to take place Monday and Tuesday in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., has a slimmer catalog this year, and that looks like a good thing in a market where the prevailing climate is one of economic recession and "select" really is the operative word.

In 2007, Saratoga's select auction suffered losses as gross dipped 2 percent to $41,082,000, average dropped 11 percent to $289,310, and median fell 7 percent to $227,500. This year, sellers hope the auction's smaller supply of horses (195 as compared with 214 last year), and the fact that some of the Thoroughbred business's major investors are well insulated against recession, will help it weather the economic downturn and hit figures similar to last year's.

Certainly, commercial breeders and sellers have cause for some concern. Even before escalating fuel prices and international economic slowdowns became major worries, high-end yearling sellers had fretted that the ranks of upper-level buyers were diminishing, and that the ones who remained often set impossibly high standards for their yearling purchases. The recession is likely to trim the buyers' population further, especially among buyers for whom Thoroughbred yearlings really are a luxury. Many of those bidders sat out the season-opening Fasig-Tipton July sale in Lexington, and the auction suffered double-digit declines in gross, average, and median.

But Saratoga caters to a wealthier segment of purchasers. And while there have been fewer upper market buyers in recent years - due, for example, to the deaths of Robert Lewis, Ahmed Salman, and Roger King - the ones that are left, and some new ones coming in, appear to have stable wealth. Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum's Darley operation and other upper-level buyers with oil interests are richer than ever these days. And Maktoum's great rivals, John Magnier and partners at Coolmore Stud, have created enough wealth in the global stallion operation and other business interests to remain major players, even now that Ireland has started taxing stallion earnings. Newer players in the Thoroughbred market include Internet mogul Halsey Minor, the CNET founder whose net worth Forbes estimated at $286.1 million in 2004, and Mammad Mirza Huseynov, a real estate investor and racetrack owner from oil-rich Azerbaijan.

And many foreign buyers will enjoy a favorable exchange rate again this season, thanks to the dollar's continuing weakness - additional padding against a market decline.

One of the best hedges against low prices is a quality catalog, and there are some interesting offerings in Saratoga's select book this year. The catalog features first yearlings by such sires as 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper and 2005 champion 3-year-old and dual classic winner Afleet Alex. Ghostzapper's seven yearlings include Hip No. 32, a half-sister to Grade 1 winner Pomeroy, and Hip No. 179, a half-sister to Grade 1 winner In the Gold. Afleet Alex has three yearlings, all colts. They are Hip No. 12, a half-brother to stakes winners Patriot Love and Deputy Country and to graded-placed Riley Tucker; Hip No. 42, a half-brother to Grade 3 winner Sabellina; and Hip No. 185, from the family of Grade 1 winner Arewehavingfunyet.

Other sires with their first yearlings this summer include Grade 1 winners Eddington, Purge, Rock Hard Ten, and Roman Ruler. Grade 1-placed Limehouse and Value Plus also are represented by their first yearlings.

One freshman sire, in particular, is likely to get a good bit of attention from buyers, sadly because his first crop is also his only crop. That is Saint Liam, the 2005 Horse of the Year who was euthanized after breaking his left hind leg in April 2006. He left 115 mares in foal, Lane's End Farm reported at the time, and four of the resulting foals are cataloged to the Saratoga select auction. They are Hip No. 4, a half-sister to stakes winners Run with the Lark and Marc's Rainbow; Hip No. 113, a half-brother to Grade 3 winner Tessa Blue and stakes winner Inner Harbour; Hip No. 175, a filly from the family of Canadian champion Honky Tonk Tune; and Hip No. 192, a colt from the family of graded-placed runners Magical Illusion, Lily O'Gold, and Shah Jehan.

Rarity can increase value, and there are at least four other sires whose crops are nearing their end. Storm Cat, pensioned after the 2008 breeding season, has Hip No. 80, a half-sister to Lil's Lad; Hip No. 158, a half-brother to Grade 1 performers Daydreaming and Accelerator; and Hip No. 161, a daughter of Grade 1-placed Golden Reef. (Storm Cat's home, Overbrook Farm, also has some entries to the sale, including Hip No. 115, a Smarty Jones half-brother to Grade 1 winner Albert the Great.)

Another popular sire who looks likely to be pensioned soon is Silver Deputy, who at 23 has shown a marked decrease in fertility this year. The Deputy Minister horse has three daughters at Saratoga's select sale. They are Hip No. 106, a full sister to stakes-placed Silver Seven; Hip No. 157, a half-sister to Grade 1-placed stakes winner Aggadan and to stakes winner Love You Madly; and Hip No. 194, a filly out of Grade 3-placed Literary Light.

Vindication, who died this summer at age 8, has four yearlings, including Hip No. 16, a three-quarter sister to the 2000 sale-topper, Distinction, who sold for $4.2 million; he also has Hip No. 147, a colt from the family of champion Sacahuista and Group 1 winner Ekraar. And Maria's Mon, who died last year at 14, has five, including Hip No. 123, a filly from the family of Strodes Creek, and Hip No. 164, a filly from the family of Stalcreek.

Hip No. 130, though sired by the alive-and-well Songandaprayer, will be a sentimental favorite for some. She is a half-sister to the late sprint champion Lost in the Fog.

Of course, horses with Grade 1 winners or major earners in their immediate family are always worth a look, and the catalog has some of those, too. Songandaprayer's contingent also features Hip No. 183, a half-sister to Adieu. Hip No. 15 is an Aldebaran half-sister to Z Humor. Hip No. 24, one of three A.P. Indy yearlings, is out of Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies runner-up Platinum Tiara. Hip No. 108 is an El Corredor daughter of Irish champion Bezelle. Hip No. 142 is a full sister to Wicked Style. And Hip No. 138, a Cactus Ridge filly, is out of Chilean champion Cristalline and is a half-sister to two other Chilean champs.

If you're looking for close relatives of big earners, Tale of the Cat's son, Hip No. 153, is a three-quarter brother to Hot Storm, winner of $840,647. Hip No. 17 is a three-quarter brother to Dr. Kashnikow, who banked $777,351. Hip No. 104, by Medaglia d'Oro, is out of $678,210 earner Atlantic Ocean. Hip No. 137 is a Smarty Jones half-brother to Megans Bluff, who bankrolled $743,263.

The two-night auction runs Monday and Tuesday at the Humphrey S. Finney Pavilion, with sessions beginning at 7 p.m.