01/10/2005 12:00AM

Wilko's dam sells for $1.1 million in foal

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Native Roots, the dam of BC Juvenile winner Wilko, goes for $1.1 million.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - It didn't take long for the Keeneland January auction to notch a seven-figure sale at Monday's opening session, and no one was surprised that Native Roots was the horse to do it.

The Irish-bred broodmare is well known as the dam of 2004 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Wilko, which accounted for her purchase price of $1.1 million. Will Farish, owner of Lane's End Farm, signed the ticket on his own behalf and walked out of the pavilion as the new owner of the session's probable top lot. With the sale still under way at 6:45 p.m., no other horse had come close to the $1 million mark.

Just a year ago, Native Roots would have appeared an unlikely million-dollar horse on the American market. A daughter of English stakes winner Indian Ridge and the Irish stakes-placed mare Phazania, Native Roots won once at 3 and earned a modest $12,610 in her racing career. Her most notable close relative is her stakes-placed half-sibling Hainan Dragon, second in an Italian stakes. All this would have made Native Roots look like a decent mare for the British or European market, but on Oct. 30, Wilko won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and suddenly bestowed his dam with massive international commercial appeal.

This was just the thing that Native Roots's owners, an anonymous three-man team that operates as Hatta Bloodstock International, had been gambling on when they bought Native Roots last summer.

Newmarket-based bloodstock agent Stephen Hillen, a former assistant to British trainer Paul Cole, had spotted Wilko and thought the colt would improve steadily. That, he felt, made Wilko's dam a good investment opportunity. He alerted his clients, and they tracked the mare down to Kentucky in July 2004. Hillen won't say how much Hatta paid (nor will he identify the Hatta investors), but he does acknowledge that the mare's selling price at Keeneland was a substantial home run.

"I will say I thought she was worth in sterling what we gave in dollars," Hillen said. Under current exchange rates from British pounds sterling to American dollars, that means the price Hatta paid was about half what Hillen thought the mare could be worth.

Wilko's potential wasn't the mare's only asset. At age 7, she was also young, and she was carrying a foal by the young Machiavellian horse Street Cry.

What happened next was the kind of things investors dream about.

"I thought Wilko would finish in the top three in the Breeders' Cup, but you have to put that kind of thought in the back of your mind," said Hillen, who watched in delight as the Awesome Again colt got home first.

Native Roots's new owners at first intended to send her to the Tattersalls mare sale in England, but she scratched out of that auction when she developed a hoof abscess. Hatta decided to send her to Keeneland January instead, which was a boon to the Stilz family's Crescent Hill Farm near Lexington. Crescent Hill covers about 200 acres and is a successful operation, but not one whose name often appears alongside million-dollar mares. In a market increasingly dominated by larger operations, Crescent Hill is a mainstay among smaller consignors.

But with Native Roots in their barn, they came to the Keeneland January sale with a genuine piece of gold.

"When they bought her, they sent her to us, and they were nice enough to let us sell her," Crescent Hill co-owner Billy Stilz said. "Our farm manager, Adrian Regan, knew Stephen Hillen from England. We just appreciate that they kept her with us."

"We're very happy, and the owners are excited," Hillen said. "Any time you get more than $1 million for a horse, you've got to be happy."

Farish, the buyer, also seemed happy, especially considering that her price was lower than he had expected.

"I thought she'd bring about $1.5 million," he said.

And why did he like her that much? It was obvious, wasn't it?

"Because she's the dam of Wilko," Farish said, simply. "She has lovely conformation, she's the dam of what could very well be a champion, and she's a young mare just getting started and in foal to a good horse."

Although he operates one of the world's most powerful sales agencies, Farish hadn't decided what he will do with the Street Cry foal.

"We don't like to sell the fillies," he said. "We'll see what the future holds and just hope we have a nice foal."

Although Native Roots was the only million-dollar lot at 6:45 p.m., two others had surpassed the half-million-dollar mark by that point. The first was a $600,000 yearling Fusaichi Pegasus-User Cat filly that Larry O'Byrne, agent, bought from the Taylor Made agency. The other was the $550,000 Distant Relative mare Blushing Bride, a Grade 3-placed runner now in foal to Danzig, who went to ClassicStar from Pope McLean's Crestwood Farm agency.

The auction continues through Jan. 15, with sessions beginning daily at 10 a.m.