08/12/2009 11:00PM

Spa sale a midsummer two-night dream


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - In case you hadn't heard, it has been widely reported in recent days in these parts that the recession is over, the bloodstock market is booming, and happy days are here again.

Well, at least two happy nights: Monday and Tuesday at the Fasig-Tipton Sales Pavilion here in Saratoga, where the cash registers were rocking in direct contradiction to every other global racing and economic indicator, including a previous string of generally disastrous 2009 horse auctions. But here in racing's version of Brigadoon, the gross for the sales was up 45 percent from last year, from $36 million to more than $52 million, and the average price for a yearling was up 11 percent, from $295,886 a year ago to $328,434.

As we'll get to shortly, there's some lingering debate about what all of this actually means, but there's no debate as to who was the driving force in the sale's gaudy numbers: Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum himself, who was making his first personal appearance at a Saratoga yearling sale since he was a young, new face on the auction scene in the early 1980s. The ruler of Dubai, described in local newspaper accounts as a "rock star," Maktoum wandered the crowded sales grounds surrounded by security guards, deliberately underdressed in a long-sleeved white T-shirt and blue jeans, like Hugh Hefner hosting a Playboy Mansion party in his silk pajamas.

In between waving to crowds and deferring all questions to his bloodstock advisers and spokesmen, Sheikh Mohammed bought 12 yearlings - including six of the eight sales-toppers - for a combined $11.85 million, or 22 percent of the gross for the entire sale. That figure nudges up against 30 percent if you count purchases by other Maktoum family members and their closest associates. Several of the most expensive purchases were for first-crop sons of Bernardini, the 3-year-old champion of 2006 who raced for the Maktoums' Darley Stable and stands at their Darley Stud.

Fasig-Tipton officials, when not proclaiming the sales a fabulous success, went to great pains to note that contrary to public perception, the Maktoums do not now actually own Fasig-Tipton. The auction company, founded in 1898, was sold last January, not to the Maktoums themselves but to Synergy Investments Ltd., a Dubai-based company headed by Abdulla Al Habbai, a close Maktoum associate. Synergy has invested strongly in its new acquisition, completing the first stage of an overdue and tasteful refurbishing of the sales grounds just in time for the auction, and spending lavishly on promotions, parties, and sponsorships in Saratoga this summer.

It was a welcome dose of glitz for those who come to Saratoga for that sort of thing. Earlier this year, town doyenne Marylou Whitney announced she was suspending her annual gala at the Canfield Casino because it struck her as being in questionable taste to have such a function at a time of economic upheaval. Two nights after when the Whitney party would normally have been held, Synergy threw a party for 800 on the eve of the sales.

If the idea was to put on a sparkling yearling sale that lent the impression all is well at the high end of the bloodstock market, mission accomplished. The question now is whether that will have any carryover to the industry below a handful of participants on its top rung. The Keeneland yearling sales next month may suffer from the diversion of some top pricey horses to Fasig-Tipton, and it will be interesting to see how more modest American buyers and sellers fare in the current climate.

Numerous investors who paid handsomely for shares of new stallions in boom times before last year's crash are tenser than usual. Stories abounded around the auction grounds about current difficulties in syndicating stallions and the willingness of some stud farms to defer breeding fees until the resulting foals pass through sales rings two years later.

Anyone struggling to make ends meet breeding and selling horses had to smile at the most memorable moment of the sales, when two unfamiliar strangers in the front row bid $1 million for a horse expected to go for much less. The bidders were described as carrying a plastic beverage bottle and as appearing perhaps to have partaken of a few cocktails before impersonating millionaires.

One of the men signed the sales receipt as "Josh Mann," and then quickly walked out of the pavilion, pursued by puffing sales executives, who lost him in the parking lot as he disappeared into the night. The filly was then resold for a legitimate bid of $300,000 to one of the Maktoum brothers.

At a time in the bloodstock world when no one knows whether $56 million in receipts means anything, it was sort of fun to see one Saratoga summer-camper live out the fantasy of bidding $1 million on a horse - and to see sales officials initially accept the faux bid without blinking.