Updated on 09/15/2011 1:01PM

Storm Cat colt brings $5.5 million in bidding battle

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Monday's opening session of the Keeneland September yearling sale got off to a slow start but roared at its conclusion as a three-way bidding war ignited over the $5.5 million session-topping Storm Cat colt. Despite a buyback rate of 36 percent, the session posted gains in average and median, thanks in large measure to the session's seven-figure sellers.

The session-topper, a chestnut son of La Affirmed (Affirmed) selling as hip 203, got a ticket for Dubai after Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum outgunned rivals Prince Ahmed bin Salman of The Thoroughbred Corp. and agent Demi O'Byrne, representing Michael Tabor and Coolmore boss John Magnier.

It was the highlight of a session in which 156 yearlings were sold for $60,331,000, including nine for more than $1 million. Pushed upward by those millionaires and a smaller number of horses sold, the average rose 25 percent to $386,737. Last year, 218 lots sold for $67,552,000 and an average price of $309,872. Median also rose 25 percent this year, from $200,000 to $250,000. But the buyback rate also made significant gains, rising from 29 percent last year to 36 percent.

After prevailing in the spirited bidding war, Sheikh Mohammed, who bid for himself from behind the sale ring, declined to say whether he had reached his limit. "Every horse has his limit, and the limit is in my head," he said. "Everyone goes by how much they like a horse, and I liked this horse."

In addition to the lure of ever-popular sire Storm Cat, the colt, bred by Elizabeth Moran's Brushwood Stable, comes from a mare whose affinity for Storm Cat is obvious.. From three matings to Storm Cat, La Affirmed has produced three graded stakes winners: Caress, Country Cat, and Bernstein.

The colt was the session's eighth million-dollar-plus yearling and the second millionaire of the sale for consignor Eaton Sales Agent. Eaton also sold a $1.5 million Storm Cat--Jetapat filly to B.T.A. Stable.

It was a long way down to the second most expensive lot, a $2 million full sister to Grade 1 winner Startac that Narvick International, agent, sold on behalf of the Allen E. Paulson Living Trust. Sheikh Mohammed's brother, Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum, purchased the filly, a daughter of Theatrical (Ire) and the Mr. Prospector mare Tenga, in the name of his Shadwell Estate. The Theatrical yearling was the top-priced filly.

Sheikh Hamdan did not bid within public view, cloistered in a private room on the Keeneland grounds. But Sheikh Mohammed, clearly enjoying the competitive atmosphere of the auction, strolled the grounds and took over bidding duties from his regular agent, John Ferguson.

Accompanied by Ferguson and trainers Eoin Harty and Saeed bin Suroor, Sheikh Mohammed bid with a sense of fun. But inside the sale pavilion, his rivals wore the steely, fixed expressions of men engaged in trench warfare.

The bids rang around the pavilion as Salman, seated as usual in the back row of the pavilion, and O'Byrne, hiding out behind the press box wall with Coolmore principal John Magnier, parried Sheikh Mohammed's quick raises.

When the bids cruised past $2 million with no sign of flagging, the spectators - lulled by a long stretch of six-figure sales - roused themselves for the real fireworks. When the bidding reached $5.3 million and O'Byrne took a long moment to consult with Magnier, even announcer John Henderson and chief auctioneer Ryan Mahan craned around to see what would happen next. But the man actually doing the selling at that moment, auctioneer Cris Caldwell, kept up the pressure on the bidders, holding the $5.3 million mark with an electric patter that suggested he knew there was more money available.

O'Byrne finally raised an index finger for $5.4 million, which was quickly answered by Sheikh Mohammed, and O'Byrne and Magnier casually slipped out of the pavilion.

Having signed his ticket, Sheikh Mohammed, wearing a white T-shirt and jeans, said the colt will winter in Dubai and then return to race in America.

Mixed emotions for Paulson

Michael Paulson, attending his second Thoroughbred sale, seemed to have a pang of seller's remorse over the session's early filly leader. "It's hard to see them go," he said. "I keep wanting to raise my hand and say, 'I'll buy them back!' I can understand now why my father had 600 horses at one time."

The top filly put Paulson back in the headlines just weeks after he made some highly publicized and controversial moves with the family's bloodstock. As co-executor of the trust, Paulson last month surprised many by pulling the trust horses, including Startac, out of trainer Simon Bray's Southern California barn. Paulson followed up a day later by moving 18 horses, including Theatrical (Ire), from Diamond A Farms to John Sikura's Hill 'n' Dale Farms near Lexington.

Diamond A, in Versailles, Ky., farm had been operated by Michael Paulson's father, Allen Paulson, and Allen Paulson's second wife, Madeleine, until Gerald A. Ford purchased the majority of the property last year. After Allen Paulson's death last year, Madeleine Paulson continued to stand stallions there.

Since then, Michael Paulson has kept his long-term intentions quiet, except to say that the trust requires his late father's homebreeding operation - developed by Allen and Madeleine Paulson - to become a more commercial entity. To that end, the trust has made a good start here. But as he watched Startac's full sister head into the hands of another homebreeding operation, Michael Paulson acknowledged that he might well maintain his own racing stable.