09/05/2008 12:00AM

In this yearling market, buyers can be choosy

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Before last year's Keeneland September yearling sale, director of sales Geoffrey Russell issued a warning pertaining to the catalog's then-record number of 5,553 entries.

Even after years of solid selling at the September sale, he said, oversupply was threatening the Thoroughbred yearling market, and breeders should think carefully in coming years about what mares to breed and what yearlings to send to an increasingly selective marketplace.

Russell's warning looks especially prophetic on the eve of the 2008 Keeneland September auction, which begins Monday and runs through Sept. 23 (with select sessions Sept. 8-9 and a dark day on Sept. 12) at the Keeneland sale pavilion in Lexington.

The 2008 September catalog has broken a record again, with a total of 5,555 yearlings on offer. And this year, breeders have seen the market - and the general economy in the United States and other nations - contract just as the expense of raising horses has gone up due to increases in hay, straw, labor, and transport costs.

The results of major select auctions so far this year offer some reassurances to upper-level consignors. But regional and open sales, both here and abroad, have largely confirmed sellers' fears for the non-select market. The message for consignors going into the two-week September auction is mixed and cautionary: If you have superior goods, you will likely fare well. But if your horse is overlooked or perceived to be less than top-quality, this sale could be a rough ride.

"The economic climate has changed dramatically in a year, so I think it's fair to hold concerns," Russell said of the 2008 economic outlook for Thoroughbred yearlings. "But we will try our best to find as many buyers from all corners of the world for these horses."

International buyers were a key buffer at last year's September sale, and Keeneland officials are especially hopeful this year about bidders from South America and Eastern Europe, where the economies are relatively strong and racing is expanding. But many consignors are deeply concerned that the faltering American and European economies will force many middle-class players to cut back this year.

Fasig-Tipton's July yearling auction gave a taste of that with across-the-board declines. More recently, yearling sales in Canada, Washington state, England, and Germany also have slumped. The managing director of the Baden-Baden, Germany, sale, Carola Ortblieb, gave voice to U.S. consignors' concerns in offering this summary to the Racing Post: "We have to be happy under the circumstances. Most of the top lots sold well, but there were two big problems: first, the middle market is very weak, and, second, the domestic buyers were very reluctant."

If history and recent select sales are a guide, select session consignors, or those with stand-out yearlings generally, will be able to hit home runs. Quality is more likely to stand up to recession, and there are ample bidders around who will not have felt the recession yet.

Dubai's Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, for example, has not reined in his spending in an era when oil prices have been trading at record levels. Maktoum's perennial rivals at Coolmore Stud are also reliable bidders at Keeneland September, and other buyers capable of firing off high six-figure and seven-figure bids include Ahmed Zayat, Leonard Riggio's My MeadowView Stable, Jess Jackson, Starlight Stable, WinStar Farm's affiliate Maverick Racing, Team Valor, and a handful of high-flying yearling-to-juvenile resellers.

The upper tier of buyers also looks set to receive a new member in Nathan Tinkler. The Australian coal-mining magnate has made splashy purchases in Australia, Japan, and Deauville this year, and he will be watched with great interest on his first buying trip to Keeneland. Buying under the name of Patinack Farm, Tinkler will be attending his first yearling auction since announcing his intention to take a greater hands-on approach to his vast homebreeding empire in Australia, and since the departure of his top farm advisor, Roger Langley. Langley left last week to pursue other interests, Patinack announced.

In a 5,555-horse catalog, there will be plenty to hold buyers' attention at virtually any level, and bargain-hunting might be a little easier this year due to the softer economy. But the highest-quality select session horses are less likely to fall through any cracks, and there are numerous standouts there.

Hip No. 12 could kick things off strongly. That's a filly by Storm Cat's fashionable son Giant's Causeway out of champion Playful Act, for whom Maktoum bid a world-record broodmare price of $10.5 million last November. Just two hip numbers later comes another foal out of a juvenile champion and by a stallion with international appeal: Hip No. 14, also a filly, is by Mr. Greeley out of Poetically. Also selling Monday are such potential jewels as Hip No. 23, a Gone West colt out of Grade 1 winner Raging Fever; Hip No. 54, a full brother to Grade 1 winner and Kentucky Derby runner-up Bluegrass Cat; Hip No. 56, a full brother to sprint champion Speightstown; Hip No. 177, a Storm Cat daughter of champion Farda Amiga; and Hip No. 22, a Storm Cat half-sister to Afleet Alex.

The second select session holds similar quality pedigrees, including Hip No. 330, a Kingmambo half-sister to Hard Spun, and Hip No. 331, a Storm Cat half-brother to Point Given. Others selling Tuesday are Hip No. 379, an Empire Maker half-sister to Eight Belles; Hip No. 391, a Maria's Mon half-brother to champion Midnight Lute; Hip No. 455, a Giant's Causeway half-sister to Dreaming of Anna; and Hip No. 484, a half-brother to 2008 Derby victor Big Brown.

Some of these horses are by sires whose progeny are becoming rare as they age or have died, such as Storm Cat, pensioned this year, and Maria's Mon, who has died. Vindication, who died at age 8 this summer, also could see increased battling for his remaining yearlings. And the late Saint Liam, whose first and only crop sells this year, is likely to be a hot commodity on a pedigree page.

Other first-crop sires arriving with some buzz about them are Horse of the Year Ghostzapper; Dubawi, champion son of the late one-crop sire Dubai Millennium; champion and Epsom Derby winner North Light; and such champions as Afleet Alex, Kitten's Joy, and Leroidesanimaux.

The sale's first two sessions will be covered live on HRTV, which also will present a half-hour preview show at 8 p.m. Eastern on Sunday spotlighting some of the auction's potential stars. Keeneland also will have live streaming of the entire auction on its website at www.keeneland.com. Sessions begin daily at 10 a.m.