02/08/2008 12:00AM

Steroid ban, synthetic track may benefit buyers

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OCALA, Fla. - The Ocala Breeders' Sales Co.'s February select juvenile sale on Tuesday will showcase two important new features. It will be the first American 2-year-old auction to ban exogenous anabolic steroids within 45 days of the sale, and it will be the first OBS sale to use a synthetic racing surface for its breeze show.

OBS general manager and sale director Tom Ventura thinks both innovations will be a boon to buyers. The new Safetrack surface produced fast times at OBS's Feb. 3 breeze show and got good reviews from consignors, and Ventura believes that synthetic tracks' reputation as safer, more fair surfaces will give buyers confidence. Similarly, he believes the new steroid ban will make buyers more comfortable that a ready-to-race purchase is not risking a positive steroid test at the track.

"We sell to buyers who race in all jurisdictions, and we felt once we had the science to enforce the policy, it was time to take that step," he said. "Buyers that buy here and then race in states with steroid testing in effect can feel comfortable in that added level of protection."

But Ventura expects the OBS February auction's sale graduates will prove the main temptation to bring bidders in.

"We've had a lot of interest pre-sale," he said. "Hotel rooms are hard to come by, interest in the [under-tack preview] videos has been exceptional, and some players who have been on the sidelines a little bit have shown some sincere interest. So from those aspects, I've got a positive outlook.

"The other side of the equation is the economy in general, which is a little uncertain, and that certainly could impact the overall market. We might not find that impacting us at this sale, but maybe down the road as the number of horses for sale increases. The 2-year-old sales have been very productive, and this sale in particular has had more than 11opercent stakes winners over a 10-year period."

The 2008 catalog has 172 horses, down about 10 percent from last year, a reflection of pinhookers' decision to reduce their inventory after downturns last year in the juvenile market. The 2007 OBS February sale posted 4 and 9 percent declines in average ($133,656) and median ($100,000), and those dips were borne out for most of the rest of the select 2-year-old season. But the sale's buybacks fell, from 33 percent in 2006 to 30 percent.

"We still saw the quality," Ventura said of the horses nominated to the 2008 auction. "I think if the pinhookers gave anywhere, it was in numbers, not quality. That's where the tightening was."

Conventional wisdom says that when yearlings are expensive and the juvenile sales are weaker, resellers seeking a profit margin will be more likely to compromise on a yearling's pedigree, not on its conformation. Still, the OBS February catalog has a number of solid stakes-winning pedigrees, including that of Hip No. 146, a Forest Wildcat half-brother to Grade 1 winner Irish Smoke.

Among others with close Grade 1 connections are Hip No. 38, an Action This Day colt out of Grade 1-placed millionaire J J'sdream; Hip No. 83, a Monarchos filly out of Grade 1-placed Plenty of Sugar; Hip No. 102, a Macho Uno colt out of Grade 1-placed Secret of Mecca; Hip No. 127, a three-quarter sister to Grade 1-placed stakes winner Maddalena; Hip No. 144, a Put It Back half-sister to Grade 1-placed Mystery Girl; and Hip No. 148, a Strong Hope half-brother to Group 1-placed Coral Reef.

"I think if we can keep pace with last year, everyone would be happy," Ventura said. "The market really has been pretty resilient. It's not quite moving counter to some of the financial markets, but it hasn't had some of the dramatic swings.

"I'm hoping we can improve off last year, but, at the end of the year, when we look back over the season if we have maintained where we were, we'll be in good shape.

"The purse structure in this country has improved, and because of that buyers feel they have a good chance of getting out on their investment," he added. "They don't have to race at the most lucrative racetracks in the country to succeed. They can run at Delaware and Woodbine, and Pennsylvania now has slots, so these tracks where the purses have increased make racing more in these owners' favor. We need that to continue for buyers to continue buying these horses and taking the risk."

The one-day OBS February select sale will take place Feb. 12 at the OBS pavilion in Ocala, beginning at noon.