08/04/2008 11:00PM

Strong start in tight times


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Barry Irwin, head of the public racing syndicate Team Valor International, found himself in a familiar position Monday night at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select yearling auction. He stood, smiling blissfully, with a dozen camera lenses and tape recorders pointing at his face. In his right hand was the buyer's receipt for Hip No. 80, a Storm Cat half-sister to Grade 1 winner Lil's Lad. The session-topping price of $1,500,000 was written across the top, and Irwin's signature was scrawled across the bottom.

As the purveyor of shares in racehorses, Irwin is one of a buying fraternity that usually is highly cost-conscious: expensive yearlings offer less profit margin to syndicators who sell interests in them. But Irwin has bucked the conservative trend. In fact, he has picked up a seven-figure sale-topper twice already at the Saratoga auction.

Irwin bought the 2007 sale-topper, a $2.2 million Mr. Greeley colt now named Kinsella, and the 2004 sale-topper, $1.85 million Fairbanks.

This year, the object of his desire was the Hill 'n' Dale agency's strapping bay daughter of Storm Cat, one of the last offspring by that sire, now that Storm Cat's retirement from breeding was announced earlier this year, and the only one offered at Monday night's opening session. Lil's Lad wasn't the only stakes winner in her immediate family; she also is a full sister to Group 3 winner Cherokee and stakes winner Art Museum.

"I really wanted to go to $1.2 million or $1.3 million," Irwin said into the bristle of microphones after buying the Storm Cat filly, "but the way I looked at it was, where are you going to get another horse like this?"

Apparently, Irwin wasn't the only buyer who stood amidst the glossy yearlings and figured, "What the heck, might as well take the plunge."

The session defied fears over the nation's stumbling economy, though its gross declined 9 percent on a smaller catalog. The session, the first of two, sold 60 yearlings for $18,160,000, down from the $19,867,000 for 76 yearlings sold at last year's opener. But the smaller catalog helped boost the average price, which jumped 16 percent, from $261,408 to $302,667. And perhaps the best indication of the market's strength was the median. That figure gained 13 percent, rising to $235,000 from $207,500.

The evening's buy-back figures increased from 22 percent last year to 29 percent this season. But Fasig-Tipton officials were pleased overall with the opening-night performance, given worldwide economic concerns and the growing cost of raising horses because of skyrocketing hay and fuel costs and hefty stud fees for fashionable stallions.

Fasig-Tipton sellers got their first whiff that traditional middle-market spenders, in the $50,000 to $250,000 range, might be chilled by the economy at last month's Kentucky July yearling sale. That larger, more middle-class auction sold 305 horses with losses of 23 percent in gross, 10 percent in average, and 6 percent in median.

Sellers predicted Saratoga's more upper-crust buyers would be better insulated from the roiling economy, but few would have predicted double-digit gains.

There were just two seven-figure horses Monday, suggesting that the ceiling has lowered since the days when buyers would cheerfully bid above $3 million for a top yearling pick. The first was Hip No. 31, a $1.2 million colt by A.P. Indy out of Pyramid Lake that Will Farish bought from Hunter Valley Farm's consignment.

Farish stands A.P. Indy at his Lane's End Farm in Versailles, Ky., and his bid was a huge windfall for Hunter Valley. The operation is just 3 years old and is owned by Fergus Galvin, Adrian Regan, Tony Hegarty, and John Wade. Bred by Canadian-based Dream With Me Stable, the A.P. Indy colt last went through the auction ring as a weanling, when he was an expensive $500,000 buy-back. The $1.2 million sale vindicated that gamble by Dream With Me owner Jean-Pierre DuBois, who sat a couple of rows behind Farish with agent Frederic Sauque during the bidding.

"He was as nice-looking an A.P. Indy as we've seen in a while," said Farish, who raced the colt's half-sister, Grade 3-placed Pyramid Love, with Steve Mooney. "I was impressed with him, and I thought he was good value."

With fewer bidders willing to go beyond the $1 million mark, Barry Irwin found himself in an excellent position to buy a horse who he confessed he thought he would have "no shot" to buy.

"I bought a couple earlier, and I wish the timing had been a little better, because if I'd bought this one, I might not have bought those," he said. "It's kind of stretching my bankroll here."

Back in the barn area, many sellers were frustrated by the market's selectivity.

"I think this sale, when the numbers shake out, is going to end up being okay," said Mark Taylor of Taylor Made Farm. "I think the spots where we bought horses back tonight were due in large part to veterinary issues, and despite all the research and technology and anecdotal evidence that shows that these horses run through all these little bitty problems, the vet community has the mind-set that, if something's not perfect, you better put the whoa-back on your clients. Nobody's willing to stick their neck out unless you have perfection."

But the mood in general was one of relief that the upper market, at least, hasn't put on the whoa-back yet.

"The ones that vetted good sold very fairly," Taylor said. Among them was the Taylor Made agency's $700,000 A.P. Indy-Platinum Tiara colt, the consignment's best sale of the session. That was one of five purchases by John Ferguson, agent for Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, who led all buyers by spending $3.1 million. His most expensive purchase was a $900,000 Distorted Humor-Stupendous Miss colt that Denali Stud, agent, consigned.

The second session was scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday.