03/03/2004 1:00AM

Two-year-olds stay on record pace


POMONA, Calif. - A world-record trend in the select 2-year-old market continued at the March 2 Barretts auction in California on Tuesday, lifting the auction to markedly higher numbers overall.

This time it was a $2 million Awesome Again filly who broke the barrier, edging out the previous 2-year-old filly record of $1.9 million for Atlantic Ocean at this sale in 2002. John Ferguson, representing Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum, bought the filly.

Buyers' enthusiasm and a smaller, more select catalog combined to lift the Barretts returns substantially over last year. The 2004 auction sold 79 lots for gross receipts of $13,728,000, up 12 percent from last year, when 86 sold. The average price shot up 22 percent, from $142,126 to $173,772. The median soared an astonishing 67 percent from $60,000 last year to $100,000 in 2004. Not surprisingly, the buy-back rate fell accordingly as sellers approved the market. Last year, 49 percent of the 167 horses on offer went unsold, a bitter pill for East Coast sellers who had invested in cross-country flights to get their horses to California. This year, the rate fell to 38 percent, with 49 of the 128 horses offered failing to reach their reserves.

The Jerry Bailey Sales Agency consigned the record Awesome Again filly, who is a half-sister to impressive 3-year-old runner Madcap Escapade. Trained by Frankie Brothers, Madcap Escapade has won both her starts this year, by a combined margin of more than 21 lengths, and she conveniently boosted her half-sibling's value by winning the Old Hat Stakes on Feb. 14. Bailey and partners bought the Awesome Again filly, a daughter of the stakes-winning Saratoga Six mare Sassy Pants, for just $75,000 at the Keeneland September sale.

The $2 million star was one of a pair of seven-figure horses at the Barretts auction this year. The other was 4-year-old Grade 2 winner Cat Fighter, who sold to John Sikura and new buyers Richard and Audrey Haisfield for $1.35 million. Cat Fighter, who will remain in training this year, was part of a 52-horse dispersal of the late Ahmed Salman's Thoroughbred Corp. racing-age bloodstock that preceded the regular auction. The Thoroughbred Corp. horses included Atlantic Ocean, who sold this time for $700,000, also to the Haisfields, who were represented by Dapple Bloodstock principal Mike Akers.

The Thoroughbred Corp. dispersal grossed $6,453,200 for 52 horses, yielding an average price of $124,000 and a $43,500 median. Kristin Mulhall acted as agent for the dispersal.

The select juvenile market has been busily rewriting the record books since 1999, when a pair of colts at Barretts March and Keeneland April hit the $2 million mark for the first time. That standard rose to $2.7 million at Barretts last year when Diamond Fury went through the ring. And that record was shattered a little over a week ago at the Fasig-Tipton Calder sale, first by a $3.1 million Stephen Got Even colt and then by a $4.5 million Fusaichi Pegasus colt.

"Good horses are selling better than ever," Jerry McMahon, president of Barretts, said Tuesday night. "The Thoroughbred Corp. horses helped us an awful lot. They attracted a lot more buyers, and with our numbers being fairly low in comparison with other sales, it helped us to hold our own again."

Barretts attracted important new participants this year, and their presence proved that the select 2-year-old marketplace can no longer be ignored by buyers looking for high-caliber runners.

Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum had never been a 2-year-old buyer before, but he came in like a lion, buying the $3.1 million Stephen Got Even colt at Calder. His single $2 million purchase was enough to make him the top buyer at Barretts, a sale he had never sent Ferguson to in the past.

"The new player on the block is John Ferguson, and he's kind of taken over the block," another buyer observed.

"The track record of the 2-year-old sales is there for all to see," Ferguson said. "It's proven that if you buy from consignors who give some idea of their horses' ability without doing too much with them, you know, you can do quite well."

Bailey had done just that, sending his star filly out for a speedy 10.20-second breeze at one of the under-tack previews and galloping her at the other.

Ferguson is just one agent who noted the 2-year-old pinhookers' increasingly professional sale-prepping, which is geared toward showing off a horse's speed without pushing them too hard too early - thus leaving potential in the tank for the top market buyers, who are looking for classic runners.

"This is a reflection of how well the 2-year-old sales horses have performed in the last few years," said John Ward, who was out scouting Kentucky Derby prospects for his regular client John Oxley. "The consignors have gotten better at selecting and presenting horses, and people are paying a premium."

Ward highlighted another factor that is contributing to the select juvenile market's upward trend: short supply at recent yearling sales, thanks in part to mare reproductive loss syndrome in 2001 and 2002. Syndrome-related abortions tightened the supply at subsequent yearling sales, and that has put some agents like Ward on the 2-year-old trail to fill their orders.

"We came up short on animals after the yearling sales," said Ward, who buys 15 horses a year for Oxley. "So we're more active here, but so is everybody else. It's very profitable for the pinhookers."