09/15/2009 11:00PM

Son of Storm Cat breaks $2 million

Photos by Z/Keeneland
Hip No. 342, a son of Storm Cat, set off an old-fashioned bidding war between Coolmore and Sheikh Mohammed.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Three yearlings finally broke the $1 million barrier Tuesday at Keeneland's September yearling auction, and one of them revived a bidding rivalry that many had believed was a thing of the past.

With the September sale languishing after calamitous financial declines on Monday, it took a $2.05 million Storm Cat colt in Tuesday's session to revive the battle between the Thoroughbred sport's two big houses: Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum and Coolmore Stud.

Maktoum, represented by agent John Ferguson, bid from behind the sale ring and rapidly batted back Coolmore boss John Magnier's bids. In the end, Magnier, standing with the Coolmore team just inside a pavilion doorway, frowned under the brim of his white panama hat and folded, leaving the colt to Maktoum.

That auction-ring confrontation aided Keeneland's select returns, but the two select sessions still ended well down from last season. Together, the select sessions sold 222 yearlings for $58,756,000, down 48 percent from last season's gross for 300 horses. The 2009 average of $264,667 was down 30 percent, and the $215,000 median was 28 percent lower than last year's. Buy-backs for the two select sessions climbed from 31 percent last year to 38 percent in 2009.

The session-topping colt is the first foal out of 2006 champion older female Fleet Indian. Jane and Frank Lyon's Summer Wind Farm bred the colt and sold him as Hip No. 342 through Taylor Made.

Maktoum and Magnier had been avoiding each other in the auction ring since Maktoum let it be known in 2006 that he would no longer buy horses by Coolmore sires at auction. As Coolmore's North American auction purchases also have dwindled, the old Maktoum-Coolmore bidding wars have become rarer.

Until the bidding opened on Hip No. 342, Maktoum had had the Keeneland September market largely to himself. Accompanied by his wife, Princess Haya, and Ferguson, Maktoum bought 17 yearlings Tuesday. Total cost: $8,630,000. Their prices ranged from $220,000 for an A.P. Indy-Wife for Life colt to the more than $2 million for the Storm Cat colt.

Maktoum also purchased a $1 million Unbridled's Song-Strawberry Reason filly who is a half-sister to the late juvenile champion and sire Vindication. Stone Farm sold that one, Hip No. 245, on behalf of breeder Virginia Kraft Payson.

The other millionaire yearling Tuesday, a $1 million A. P. Indy-Madcap Escapade colt consigned by the Hill 'n' Dale agency, went to Coolmore.

The Tuesday session-topper was Summer Wind Farm's second $2 million colt in five weeks by the now-retired Storm Cat. Summer Wind topped Fasig-Tipton's Saratoga select sale on Aug. 11 with a Storm Cat half-brother to Aragorn. Maktoum bought that one, too, for $2.8 million.

"This is a dream come true, so please don't wake me," said Jane Lyon. "We knew that both Coolmore and Darley had looked at him and had some interest, but whether or not they were willing to actually bid on him or how far they were willing to go, we had no idea. The fact that they decided he was worth doing battle over was our good fortune."

The million-dollar horses added excitement but did little to ease sellers' nerves about the overall market. Monday's opener, the first of the two select sessions, lost 55 percent in gross versus last year. Average dropped 36 percent, and median fell 33 percent. Upper-level prices strengthened Tuesday, but talk around the pavilion still was about harsh economic realities.

"It's tough," said Taylor Made's Duncan Taylor. "We've got a lot of customers that are struggling and have had to take their horses back. It's what we expected in the market, but maybe not as much as it was on Monday."

The old axiom "quality always sells well" still held true. But there were only a handful of highly selective bidders even for the best-bred horses, so even at the million-dollar level, selling well in 2009 now means something drastically different than it did two years ago, when these yearlings were conceived.

Breeder Payson made plenty of profit on Hip No. 245 after paying Unbridled's Song's $200,000 stud fee. But in another year, she reckoned this yearling would have brought $3 million.

"I wasn't going to give her away, not at all," she said of her filly, the auction's most expensive female so far. "I felt that, given the state of the market, a million dollars was fair."

Other buyers did pick up expensive horses Tuesday. Ramona Bass spent $825,000 for an Unbridled's Song filly, the first foal of Win McCool, consigned by Blackburn Farm. Betty Moran's Brushwood Stable paid $775,000 for Lane's End agency's Dynaformer half-brother to Bel Air Beauty. Audley Farm bought a $650,000 A. P. Indy-Secret Place filly from the family of Secret Status and Alumni Hall, also consigned by Lane's End. AGS Thoroughbreds went to $700,000 for the Eaton Sales agency's Giant's Causeway half-brother to Grade 1 winner Startac.

That list of buyers revealed an interesting trend: Wealthy breeders were taking advantage of lower prices to snap up future broodmare prospects, bolstering well-bred fillies' prices.

One future broodmare that didn't sell was the Indian Creek agency's half-sister to Leroidesanimaux. The chestnut Giant's Causeway filly was a buyback at $775,000, judged too valuable to let go at that price according to Indian Creek's Dave Parrish.

Jane Lyon, breeder of the session-leading Storm Cat colt, was already contemplating the market to come as the September sale transitions from select to open sessions on Wednesday. Summer Wind has 19 more yearlings to sell between now and the auction's last day, Sept. 28.

"After yesterday, I was terrified," Lyon admitted. "We were seeing prices that we were expecting next week at the open sessions. That really frightened us, because this is the first year we've gotten up to the numbers to sell that we've being trying to get to. To have finally have achieved that and then come into a market like this to sell them, it's a little disturbing. So we have no idea what to expect."

The Keeneland September sale was to continue through Sept. 28 with its open sessions starting daily at 10 a.m. There will be no selling this Friday.