Updated on 09/17/2011 12:08PM

Storm Cat filly draws $1.1 million bid

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - It was raining steadily in Saratoga Springs on when Fasig-Tipton's select yearling sale opened, and this made things a little less pleasant for Dr. Robert McMartin.

McMartin, a veterinarian who lately has been signing auction receipts on behalf of the prominent racehorse owner Eugene Melnyk, stood outside the sale pavilion, talking on a cell phone, sheltered from the relentless drizzle by an umbrella that a friend held over him.

On the other end of the line, in the comfort of Barbados, Melnyk was waiting to bid on Hip No. 13, and so McMartin - the designated bidder - waited, too. It did not appear to be a glorious job, what with the rain dripping off the umbrella's edges and the mud splashed across his shoes and trouser legs. But McMartin and Melnyk were about to steal the show.

On a single bid of $1.1 million, McMartin secured for Melnyk Hip No. 13 - a Storm Cat filly out of champion Jewel Princess - and gave the session its only seven-figure lot. It was the only moment of true drama in a session that otherwise had little flash but plenty of financial rewards for sellers.

Overall, the first of Fasig-Tipton's three evening sessions sold 54 yearlings for $16,547,000, yielding an average price of $306,426 and a $250,000 median. Those figures represented impressive increases over last year's first-session returns, with gross rising by a staggering 49 percent, average by 27 percent, and median by 28 percent.

But the gains were less dramatic than they appeared because they were compared to a 2002 session that suffered 30- to 40-percent declines as the inflated top of the bloodstock market collapsed last season.

The result was a solid market for sellers, who kept their reserves low. The buyback rate settled at an unusually low 17 percent, well down from last year's 32 percent rate. The low buyback rate and the appearance of only one million-dollar lot in a session widely praised for its quality told the story of today's market. The heyday of multimillion-dollar yearlings is over for now, but buyers will pay a fair price for a promising racehorse.

For Melnyk and McMartin, the session-topper's $1.1 million price tag was surprisingly fair.

Bidding on the regal Storm Cat filly rose quickly, then stalled at $1 million. The initial six-figure bid belonged to trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who - uncharacteristically for a man who bids subtly, often by secret prearranged signals known only to his bid-spotter - actually stood up in the pavilion aisleway to make his raises. He stood a few feet behind the filly's selling agent, Bill Farish of Lane's End farm, who was offering the filly on behalf of her breeder, a group affiliated with Coolmore Stud.

Lukas's $1 million bid hung unchallenged for a long moment. But just as auctioneer Walt Robertson raised his gavel and said, "Last call!" McMartin got the order from Melnyk and made the $1.1 million bid from behind the pavilion. Robertson and announcer Terence Collier swiveled their heads toward Lukas. But Lukas, after a long, hard look at the filly, put his hands in his pockets, shook his head, and turned away.

McMartin and trainer Todd Pletcher, a former Lukas assistant, were pleasantly surprised.

"She was an obvious filly," said Pletcher, whose 12-horse string of Melnyk runners includes Jim Dandy winner Strong Hope.

"We thought she'd bring more," said McMartin.

"The full brother hasn't done much yet, and that may have been part of it," McMartin added, referring to One Nice Cat, who has only placed in Ireland so far. That colt is one of three full siblings of racing age, and the only one to start.

"That may have turned some people away from her," he said. "But she's a very athletic-looking filly, and I think Eugene and his farm manager, Phil Hronec, liked the breeding on her. Phil used to manage John Franks's farm and was very involved with this filly's family, and he liked her."

There was plenty to like in the opening session, especially if you were a consignor with a horse to sell in the $400,000 to $750,000 range. Sixteen horses sold in that price range, and to a healthy array of buyers that included both American and European interests. Chief among them was the night's top-selling colt, a $750,000 son of Unbridled's Song and La Gueriere that the Dromoland/Hartwell pinhooking team sold to a racing partnership headed by WinStar Farm principal Kenny Troutt.

Dromoland/Hartwell partners Robbie Lyons, Mike Ryan, and Gerry Dilger made a neat profit on the colt. They bought the half-brother to Grade 2 winner Lasting Approval for $380,000 last year at Keeneland's November sale.

Other big sellers Tuesday night included a $700,000 Fusaichi Pegasus-Our Dear Ruth filly that ClassicStar (Taylor Made Sales, agent) sold to Padua Stables; a $650,000 A. P. Indy-Lady Lochinvar colt that Eaton Sales, agent, sold to Buzz Chace, agent; a $575,000 Touch Gold-Miss Insync filly that Bluewater Sales, agent, sold to Bob Baffert, agent; and a $550,000 Grand Slam-Lilac's Star colt that Derry Meeting Farm, agent, sold to Jeanne Vance.

Still, the prices were well below what they might have been in previous years, when top buyers hammered each other into paying several million dollars for a single yearling. Even Melnyk stopped buying after his $1.1 million purchase. Apparently, this year conservatism is in fashion.

As WinStar president Doug Cauthen put it: "The whole thing is to show control and restraint and to try to make good business decisions. Just because the market says a horse is worth $1.1 million doesn't mean we have to go that far."