08/01/2015 1:52PM

Sparkman: Anatomy of a yearling sales star

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The yearling sale season begins in earnest next week with the 95th Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale of select yearlings, featuring 10 yearlings cataloged by 2014 and 2015 leading general sire Tapit. There also are five yearlings in the sale by 2013 leading sire Kitten’s Joy, three by 2009, 2010, and 2012 leading sire Giant’s Causeway, two by 2011 leading sire Distorted Humor, four by 2007 and 2008 leading sire Smart Strike, and two by 2004 leading sire Elusive Quality.

If history is at all a reliable guide to future performance, the racetrack success of the progeny of the sires of sales yearlings should be reflected in the prices those horses bring, but that is not always the case. Many other factors can affect the market performance of stallions, ranging from perception of a stallion’s potential as a sire of sires to the physical type a stallion typically produces to the quality of the mares he covers. Fashion, however, is not always logical.

Sales companies naturally try very hard to recruit as many yearlings as possible by the leading sires of the year – and previous years – but the boutique size of the Saratoga sale limits overlap somewhat, at least in theory. As shown in the accompanying table that lists stallions who appeared in both the top 10 of the leading sire list and the top 10 sires by average price at the Saratoga and Keeneland yearling sales over the past 10 years, the correlation between racetrack success and sales success in a given year is not very high and is wildly variable from year to year and sale to sale.

Over that 10-year period, the leading sire in the country and the leading sire by average matched up only once at Saratoga and once at Keeneland, both in 2014, when Tapit topped all three lists. Instead, what tends to happen is that the leading sire lists reflect the leading sires of previous years rather than the current year. For the first five years of the period under review, Storm Cat topped both the Saratoga and Keeneland sire lists three times each despite having not led the American sire list since his two-year reign in 1999 and 2000.

The major reason for Storm Cat’s longevity as a sales sire, long after his name had disappeared from among the top 10 sires of racehorses, was his reputation as a sire of sires. Of course, buyers of yearling colts at horse sales are looking first of all for racehorses, but in order to justify spending millions of dollars for a top prospect, the colt usually must be perceived as possessing a “stallion’s pedigree.” First and foremost, that means sons of his sire already have shown ability or potential as stallions themselves, and the colt usually also must hail from a fashionable female family in order to loosen the purse strings of major buyers.

Those requirements are regularly reflected in the pedigrees of sale-toppers at both sales. In 2005, for example, Storm Cat sired the sale-toppers at both Saratoga and Keeneland. The $3.1 million Saratoga sale-topper Black Cat Crossing was out of the Grade 1 winner Rings a Chime, by Metfield, and never won a race. The $9.7 million Keeneland topper Jalil was out of the multiple Grade 1 winner Tranquility Lake, by Rahy, and was a full brother to eventual multiple Grade 1 winner After Market. Jalil won a Group 2 race in Dubai but made no impact as a stallion.

Similarly, A.P. Indy led the Keeneland sire list for the first time in 2007, the year after his second North American sire championship. After Storm Cat’s second-to-last crop topped the Keeneland list in 2009, A.P. Indy picked up the baton for the three years from 2010-12. A.P. Indy also sired the Keeneland sale-topper twice and the Saratoga sale-topper once during that time period. A.P. Indy had succeeded Storm Cat as a putative sire of sires, just as Storm Cat succeeded Danzig and Mr. Prospector before him.

As a general rule, once a stallion proves himself to be a top-class stallion by leading or ranking very high on the general sire list, buyers continue to pay top prices for his offspring at yearling sales, regardless of where he later falls on the sire list. Distorted Humor soared to prominence when his first-crop son Funny Cide won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2003, and by 2005, he had climbed to second on the sire list through the exploits of Travers Stakes winner Flower Alley. He has ranked among the top 10 Keeneland sires every year since and topped the Saratoga list three times, even though he did not ascend to a general sire championship until 2011, when Drosselmeyer won the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

In contrast, some leading sires never gain comparable fashionability with yearling buyers. Smart Strike unequivocally proved himself a world-class sire, winning the North American championship in 2007 and 2008 and remaining among the top five through 2012, but he never has ranked higher than fourth on either the Saratoga or Keeneland leading sires list. Smart Strike himself was regarded as a somewhat plain individual, and his offspring, as a rule, did not fit the mold of physical beauty and conformational perfection required of high-priced yearlings. Obviously that did not slow them down on the racetrack.

Likewise, Kitten’s Joy, who led the sire list in 2013 and finished third last year, has appeared only once so far on a leading sales sire list. That is partly because so many of his offspring in his early crops were bred by his owners, Ken and Sarah Ramsey, who had faith in their 2004 champion grass male when no one else did and profited enormously at the racetrack. Like the Smart Strikes, the Kitten’s Joys are widely regarded as somewhat atypical sales yearlings.

As a sire primarily of turf runners, however, Kitten’s Joy is becoming increasingly popular with European-based buyers, which can be a huge factor in the popularity of a sire at the sales. Storm Cat’s enormous popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s was fueled largely by competition between the Coolmore partnership and the Maktoum brothers, both of whom race primarily in Europe. All five of the Storm Cat sale-toppers at Saratoga or Keeneland during the 10-year period under review were purchased by either Coolmore or Sheikh Mohammed.

Similarly, the rise of War Front as a sire of sales-topping yearlings over the last two years has been driven primarily by his success in Europe. War Front first appeared on both the general sire list and the Keeneland list of leading sires in 2013, the year his second-crop son Declaration of War won the Group 1 Queen Anne and Juddmonte International in England and ran a close third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Declaration of War raced for a partnership that included Coolmore, which purchased his two Keeneland sale-toppers. War Front also has sired five Grade 1 winners in the U.S., however, and American Willis Horton bought War Front’s 2014 Saratoga sale-topper, a half-sister to Horton’s champion 2-year-old filly Take Charge Brandi.

That filly, now named Take Charge Tressa, is a perfect illustration of the role of the female family in determining sale-toppers. At the time of Take Charge Tressa’s sale, Take Charge Brandi was only stakes-placed, having run second in the Grade 3 Schuylerville across Union Avenue from the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion, but her dam’s half-brother, Willis Horton’s horse Will Take Charge, by Unbridled’s Song, had earned a 2013 Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male, and another half-brother, Take Charge Indy, by A.P. Indy, had won the Grade 1 Florida Derby in 2012.

Finally, it is impossible to predict which well-bred sales yearling will top any sale without physical inspection. If the physical horse does not match the catalog page, no amount of Grade 1 wins on the catalog page can boost the horse to the top of the price list.

When the catalog page and conformation match up, however, a star is born – at least in the sales ring.