07/31/2003 11:00PM

Spa sale a test for top yearlings

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - When Fasig-Tipton opens the bidding at its Saratoga selected yearling sale Tuesday, it will be in an unusual position. Since the 1940's, Saratoga has followed Keeneland's often spectacular July auction.

But this year, Keeneland officials canceled the July sale, citing foal-crop reduction from mare reproductive loss syndrome, leaving Saratoga as the bellwether for select yearlings.

Fasig-Tipton officials tentatively expect the select yearling market to be at least on a par with last year's prices and possibly up due to what they believe is a stronger catalog. The bad news is that par, at least for the top of the marketplace, is about 30 percent lower than in its most recent heyday from 1999 to 2001.

"We'd love for it to be the way the top end was in 2000 and 2001," said Fasig-Tipton chief operating officer Boyd Browning, "but I don't think anyone thinks the market today realistically can reach those heights. I do have reason for optimism, because I think the pedigrees and the horses themselves are better this year. But, I also don't think people are going to be bidding $2 million like it's play money. They don't bid like that anymore."

Last year, the summer yearling sales were fraught with declines. After 30-percent financial drops across the board at Keeneland July, Saratoga also ended on a down note, with a dramatic 44-percent drop in gross sales, a 35-percent decline in average, and a 23-percent loss in median. Much of the punch came at the top of the market, where prices had been inflated in previous years like 2000 and 2001, when single yearlings brought $4.2 million and $3.3 million, respectively, to top the sale.

It's unlikely Fasig-Tipton will repeat such precipitous slides this year, but the select yearling market appears to have settled at a new, lower level that makes roaring gains unlikely. On the face of it, there's little reason to believe buyers will pull out the stops and bid more exuberantly this year than they did in 2002.

"We have not seen evidence so far this year that the top of the Thoroughbred market will be dramatically different from last year," Browning said. "But we do have a couple of horses that could break through and get up some competition among bidders."

Recently, buyers have bemoaned the lack of established sire power available in the market. Saratoga's yearlings boast some of the best sires available, a fact that should encourage some strong bidding. But the catalog - which offers 217 lots, down slightly from last year's 228 - also reminds one that the commercial stallion ranks are facing a longer-term diminution. Saratoga's catalog offers a pair of the last Seattle Slew yearlings, a filly who is the first foal for graded stakes winner She's a Devil Due and a colt out of stakes-producer Bad Pussycat. Unbridled has three lots, including a half-brother to Grade 1 winner No Matter What and Grade 2 winner E Dubai.

And Kris S., another former stalwart, has a colt out of multiple graded winner Miss Golden Circle.

There are other well-bred yearlings who bolster the sale's class level this year but also poignantly remind of more recent losses.

Saint Ballado, who died last October, has eight yearlings in the catalog. Standouts include a half-brother to multiple Grade 1 winner Clear Mandate, a half-sister to champion sprinter Artax, and a full sister to Grade 2 winner Flame Thrower. And Chester House, Juddmonte's promising young stallion who died in June, is represented by six of his first yearlings, among them a half-sister to Grade 2 winner Private Emblem.

Such pedigrees are likely to have wide appeal. European-based buyers Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum and Michael Tabor have bought very few horses in the last year, and Fasig-Tipton hopes that this year's Spa catalog will put their hands in the air again - a scenario that could yield some high-priced bidding duels.

"We have horses that should suit them better this year," Browning said. "I'd be surprised if we don't sell them some fancy horses this year."

American buyers, who stepped into the breach left by Tabor's and Mohammed's idle representatives last year, also are expected to be active. Americans like Stanley Fulton, who bought Fasig-Tipton July's $800,000 sale-topping Fusaichi Pegasus filly, can do a lot to boost the company's average even if the biggest money, like Sheikh Mohammed's, isn't much in play. And the catalog should suit them, too. Among the lots with great appeal for Americans, and especially perhaps for Satish Sanan, is Hip No. 107, a three-quarter-brother to Sanan's champion juvenile Vindication, who sold at Saratoga in 2001 for $2.15 million.

"American buyers have made our day here and in Kentucky for the last seven or eight years," acknowledged Fasig-Tipton president Walt Robertson. "That's not something new. But we have seen them really step up. A good horse can earn a ton of money racing in this country, and the racing's good here."

Clearly, there are some elements in Fasig-Tipton's favor this year. But with no early summer results from Keeneland to give a hint about the current boutique yearling market, even the company is hard-pressed to predict an outcome for the August auction.

"We can't answer yet," Browning said. "We don't know what the market will be like until after Saratoga. But we do know the market gets thin now at $1 million. So I think the sale will be very solid, not very spectacular."

If a horse goes platinum in the bidding, it very likely will come from some of the catalog's better pedigrees. Some of the more intriguing catalog pages are outlined in the accompanying chart.

The Fasig-Tipton Saratoga auction runs three days, through Thursday, at the company's Finney pavilion, with sessions starting nightly at 7:30.