04/15/2003 12:00AM

Three-way bidding war

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Keeneland's one-day select 2-year-old sale shot off some early fireworks Tuesday, courtesy of master showman James McIngvale. McIngvale, better known in some quarters as Mattress Mac after his furniture stores, bought Hip No. 58, a $950,000 Menifee colt out of Pacific City after a lively bidding war that also included underbidder John Oxley and trainer D. Wayne Lukas. The $950,000 was the highest price as of 6:30 p.m. Eastern with selling still underway.

McIngvale's representative during the lengthy bidding for Hip No. 58 was agent J. B. McKathan. McKathan called the colt from Menifee's first crop "awesome."

Seller Murray Smith, who bought the colt last year at Fasig-Tipton July for just $42,000, said much the same about her star colt. After bestowing a thank-you kiss on McKathan, she said the colt "just got better and better" after arriving at Keeneland.

"But how do you expect something like that?" she asked rhetorically, referring to the price. "You just dream about it."

The purchase didn't come all that easily for McKathan, who was chased upward on every bid. When someone quickly bumped his $800,000 up to $825,000, McKathan - bidding from behind the press box - narrowed his eyes and scanned the far end of the pavilion.

"Who is that?" he asked, searching out his rival. There were two: Oxley and Lukas, who was seated next to Bob and Beverly Lewis's usual representative, John Moynihan.

The bidding continued rapidly until finally, Lukas - taking instructions from Moynihan, who was on the phone - declined to bid $1 million on top of McKathan's $950,000 bid.

"A lot of smart people were on this horse," McKathan said later. "Oxley, Lukas - these guys have all won Derbies. That's the dream of this kind of horse. He's a big, stretchy, two-turn kind of horse."

McKathan spends much of his time at horse auctions and probably saw this colt as a yearling, but he says he doesn't remember him as a standout then. By picking the horse up as a juvenile, McKathan paid more for his client, but he also knew more about what he was getting.

"The best way to explain buying horses is that it's like playing seven-card stud," he said. "Every card costs more. By the time you get to these 2-year-olds, its like you're sitting there with three aces out of five cards, and you've got two more to turn over. You just want one more ace."

McKathan confessed to a few butterflies during the bidding, saying, "Hey, it's a lot of money."

But, he added, "This is the kind of horse that can justify the price this time next year."

Lewises buy $875,000 colt

The second-highest price early in the sale was the $875,000 that Bob and Beverly Lewis paid for Hip No. 168, an Unbridled's Song colt out of Belonging (Exclusive Native). The steel-gray colt from Becky Thomas's Sequel Bloodstock consignment is a half-brother to Grade 3 winner and successful sire Belong to Me and had been the sale's "talking horse" for several weeks. When he entered the ring, Lewis's representatives, Moynihan and Lukas, were waiting.

So was trainer Bruce Headley, who arranged with a bid-spotter to open the bidding at $500,000. The bid-spotter obliged, and there followed a long, strange silence as the rest of the pavilion considered the price. The lack of an immediate answering bid was unexpected, and even Headley looked around in surprise. Next to him, professional bodybuilder Brad Martin was on the phone with Marsha Naify, the woman who had authorized the $500,000 opening gambit and now looked, improbably, set to make a steal. It couldn't last, of course, and it didn't. Moynihan and Lukas finally countered, and bidding was on in earnest. In the end, the Lewises' men won. Before the gavel fell at $875,000, Headley said to Martin and Naify, "One more, just one more gets him." Naify offered to go to $1 million if Headley bought into the colt, but Headley, claiming empty pockets, declined, and the Lewises got the colt.

Sequel Bloodstock got a handy home run: Thomas signed for the colt last year at Keeneland's October sale for a mere $150,000.

Fulton takes a gamble

Earlier in the session, Sunland Park owner Stanley Fulton took a plunge on Hip No. 8, an $850,000 El Prado colt out of Grade 1 winner La Gueriere. The colt is a half-brother to Grade 2 winner Lasting Approval, and Fulton fell in love with him on his catalog page alone.

"I really did," Fulton said. "Then I saw the tape of his under-tack preview on the Internet, and I thought, 'This horse really looks like something.' "

Fulton discovered when he vetted the colt that he had a hairline shadow on a left hind sesamoid. That caused a debate among Fulton's veterinarians, but Fulton was unfazed.

"One of the vets says it's not bothering him and looks like it's old, and the other vet says it might get worse without surgery," said Fulton, who added that at the moment he was leaning against surgery and would turn the colt out for at least 60 days before putting him in training.

Kirkwood Stables consigned the colt as agent for a partnership that bought the colt for $67,000 last year at Diane Perkins's Wimborne Farm dispersal.

"Maybe I just did a stupid thing," Fulton shrugged. "But I loved him."