08/08/2007 12:00AM

Total, average both decline

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Nestor Varela knew what he was talking about when he predicted that Hip No. 142, a Mr. Greeley colt that sold Tuesday night at Fasig-Tipton's Saratoga select yearling sale, would bring about $2 million. Varela, 32, was in a position to know. He was both the colt's groom at Gainesway Farm and a shareholder in the group of Gainesway staff that sold him. So when Barry Irwin of the Team Valor syndicate paid Gainesway $2.2 million for the Mr. Greeley colt, Varela was proud but not entirely surprised.

"When this horse came to my barn, I thought he'd be awesome," Varela said. "I thought, 'This is the right horse to prep. I think he'll be the top seller at Saratoga.'"

Gainesway's Mr. Greeley colt did indeed top the two-day auction, to the great benefit of the Gainesway ownership group. Gainesway president Antony Beck and managers Brian Graves, Neil Howard, and Michael Hernon privately purchased a half-interest in the colt about five months ago from breeders Liberation Farm and Chris and Cathy Elia. They later bought out the breeders and syndicated the colt among other Gainesway employees for a total price that neither Graves nor Varela would disclose. Varela's 1 percent stake earned him a $22,000 return.

But the chestnut colt's heady price didn't prevent the sale from posting declines across the board at a market consignors generally described as fair. The sale-topper was one of two seven-figure horses sold this year. The other was a $1.05 million Unbridled's Song-Riboletta colt that Taylor Made, agent for Aaron and Marie Jones, sold to Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum on Monday night. Last year, five horses brought $1 million or more.

The 2007 sessions sold 142 yearlings for $41,082,000, down 2 percent from last season's total of $42,085,000 for 130 horses. Average price fell 11 percent, from $323,731 last year to $289,310, and median dropped 7 percent, from $245,000 to $227,500.

"The market was a little bit spotty," buying agent Barry Berkelhammer said. "Maybe we're in an adjustment period."

Sellers anticipated the adjustment. The buyback rate climbed from last year's unusually low 19 percent to a moderate 25 percent. Among yearlings failing to reach their sellers' reserves were a Storm Cat-Sweet Alabama colt and an A.P. Indy-Cologny filly whose sellers bought them back at $800,000 and $750,000, respectively.

"Basically, Mr. Hughes wanted $800,000 for the horse," said Mark Taylor, whose Taylor Made agency consigned the Storm Cat colt on behalf of Spendthrift Farm owner B. Wayne Hughes. "We told everyone what the reserve would be all week, and it kind of creates a vacuum at the top of the market. Everybody that will pay $800,000 thinks he's going to bring more because Darley and/or Coolmore will be on him. So if they don't play, there's nobody left to pick up the pieces. In years past, you might have Bob and Beverly Lewis or Thoroughbred Corp. That dynamic at the top of the market has changed, and there are only a select few there."

The bidding over Gainesway's Mr. Greeley colt revealed some unexpected players above $2 million. When the bidding for Hip No. 142 passed $1 million and the real fighting started, it was down to two partnerships. Irwin, who operates the Team Valor public syndicate, has only occasionally purchased yearlings at auction for this kind of price. The last time was at this auction in 2004, when he bought sale-topping $1.85 million Fairbanks from Gainesway's agency. His immediate rival and ultimate underbidder was agent Buzz Chace, representing Terry Finley, founder of the West Point Thoroughbreds public syndicate; Lakland farm owner Lewis Lakin, who recently has teamed up with Finley; and longtime Thoroughbred owner and breeder Marianne Hesse and her son Larry. The Hesses were already interested in the colt when they ran into Chace, Lakin, and Finley minutes before Hip No. 142 entered the auction ring. Invited to join in, they slipped into the row of seats with Chace's clients.

As the price escalated, Chace bowed out three times, only to come back and try again. He shook off his bidspotter at $2 million, then, after a long pause, jumped back in at $2.1 million at Finley's behest. But on Irwin's $2.2 million bid, Chace closed his clients' wallet.

"He was a very good physical, and Mr. Greeley doesn't hurt, because he's a very nice sire," Chace said. "But he'd have to win the Breeders' Cup to be worth it. He has potential. Everybody was ready to go on him, and we went as far as we could and maybe a little farther than we should. I'm in good shape: I've still got money to spend!"

Irwin said afterward: "It was much more nerve-wracking than a horse race. In a horse race, you pretty much know when the damn thing is going to be over."

Irwin said the sale-topper, the first foal out of the King of Kings mare Win My Heart, will ship to Kellyn Gorder at Fares Farm in Kentucky to be broken and then on to Barry Eisaman in Florida for early training. He'll likely run in California, Irwin said.

For the moment, though, the chestnut colt with the wide white blaze returned to the care of Varela at Barn 6 West. Varela, who had been too nervous to walk the colt to the auction ring, was calm now that the deal was done.

"When my boss, Brian Graves, asked me if I wanted to go in, I wanted this opportunity," said Varela, who is from Queretaro, Mexico. As he watched the bidding from behind the auctioneer's stand and saw $100,000 increases fly in for the colt he prepped, Varela's nerves faded and his confidence grew.

"It's not the money," he said. "I groomed this horse, that's what's important to me. The money is the money, but for me, I was proud of my work. This is what I do."

Varela said someday he'd like to become a buyer's agent, but after seven years at Gainesway he still feels he's learning a lot. He plans to stay. Asked what he'll do with his share of that $2.2 million, he looked surprised at the question.

"Probably the same thing again," he said. "Get a horse."