08/07/2008 12:00AM

Three million-dollar buys buoy market


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - He was just the kind of colt to start a battle royal at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select yearling sale, and he did exactly that.

Hip No. 158, a flashy dark bay Storm Cat colt with a star and three white socks, was out of a Mr. Prospector mare that was a Grade 3 winner. He was a half-brother to three other stakes winners: Grade 2 winner Daydreaming, Gradeo3 winner Accelerator, and Canadian stakes winner Harborage. Another of his half-sisters, She's a Winner, is the dam of the Gradeo1-winning millionaire Bluegrass Cat, like Hip No. 158 a son of Storm Cat.

On Tuesday night, Hip No. 158 inspired a bidding duel between longtime rivals Coolmore Stud and Darley, finally fetching a sale-topping $2 million price from Coolmore.

Hip No. 158's sale prompted nostalgia for the not-so-distant past, when a $2 million purchase would have been a mere scuffle between Coolmore and Darley. It was just two years ago at the Keeneland September yearling sale that Coolmore principal John Magnier and Darley owner Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum ran each other to $11.7 million for a Kingmambo colt; Sheikh Mohammed signed that ticket.

But times and prices are different now, even if the main cast of characters, and their desire for Storm Cat sons, is not. The Saratoga sale sold only three million-dollar horses this year, one more than at last year's auction, when a $2.2 million Mr. Greeley colt topped the sale. In 2006, by contrast, there were five million-dollar yearlings.

By the close of business Tuesday night, the 2008 Saratoga auction had held steady with last year's returns even in the face of a nationwide economic downturn. Cumulatively, the two-night auction sold 122 horses for $36,080,000, down 12 percent from last year's figure for 142 horses, but average was up 2 percent to $295,738, and the median remained the same at $227,500. These figures were despite a difficult session Tuesday night, which offset Monday's opening-night gains with downturns of 16 percent in session gross, 10 percent in average, and 4 percent in median. The two-day buy-back rate rose slightly, from 24 percent to 26 percent, but remained moderate.

"We came in here hopeful we could equal last year," Fasig-Tipton president Walt Robertson said. "With the economy and different things going on in the world, I didn't know if it was attainable, but I'm tickled to death that it was."

One of the night's big buyers was Robert LaPenta, whose 2008 Belmont Stakes winner Da' Tara was a cover horse on the sale catalog. LaPenta's night got off to a cheerful start when Fasig-Tipton publicly presented him with a magnum of Perrier Jouet Champagne before the auction in congratulations for Da' Tara's classic win. Also receiving Champagne were Starlight Stables partners Jack and Laurie Wolf and Donald and Barbara Lucarelli, as well as Tracy Farmer, all of whom had Grade 1 winners this year that they bought at Fasig-Tipton sales.

One recipient mused that the Champagne magnum was "like the free drinks at a casino," helpful in oiling the bidding machinery, and LaPenta, at least, spent freely. He bought four horses, three on Tuesday, for a total of $1.26omillion. Most expensive was Tuesday's third-highest-priced horse, a $750,000 Mr. Greeley-Arcadiana colt from the family of Cigar.

But it was Storm Cat, pensioned after the 2008 breeding season, who gave the sale two of its millionaire yearlings. The first, consigned by the Hill 'n' Dale agency, topped Monday night's session on a $1.5 million bid from Team Valor International, but it was Tuesday night's son of Get Lucky that was the sale's real "talking horse."

Ben Walden's Gracefield consigned the dark bay youngster on behalf of Walden, Philip Steinberg, and WinStar Farm. WinStar, the Kentucky farm owned by Bill Casner and Ken Troutt, tried to hang onto the colt by bidding up to $1.5 million.

"He reminded us some of [Irish and English champion] One Cool Cat and Bluegrass Cat, too," WinStar president Doug Cauthen said. "But we're in the business to sell, and we thought that was a very fair price, so we wish them all the luck."

Ferguson, standing in his customary bidding spot between a maple tree and a television monitor near the pavilion's back walking ring, appeared set to take the colt at $1.8 million, but when Coolmore agent Demi O'Byrne fired back at $2 million, there was a long pause as Ferguson huddled with his team. In the end, the Darley men simply turned away and disappeared into the crowd. Michael Vincent Magnier, son of Coolmore chief John Magnier, signed the ticket, adding another Storm Cat colt to the Irish-based stable.

Hip No. 158 was Coolmore's only purchase. Ferguson, meanwhile, bought only one yearling Tuesday, paying $225,000 for an Elusive Quality-Dixie Melody colt from Gainesway, agent.

If it wasn't as thrilling as some past battles between Coolmore and Darley, the skirmish over Hip No. 158 was proof positive that Magnier has no qualms doing business at Fasig-Tipton since its purchase in April by Synergy, a Dubai company with close ties to Maktoum.

Most consignors seemed satisfied with the sale results, though they remain concerned that other auctions this season patronized by less-wealthy customers will see downturns related to the nation's general economic slump.

"I think it was fairly resilient," Hidden Brook sales agent Jack Brothers said of the Saratoga market. "There weren't any curve balls. All the usual players were here, and there was a lot of activity in the barns. I don't know if the buyers are a little conservative and kind of tiptoeing, but really it was right where we expected it to be."