10/14/2001 11:00PM

Yearling sale called 'a disaster'

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Keeneland's first October Yearling Sale got off to a rocky start Monday in front of a small crowd of conservative buyers. The two-day auction's opening session produced a $140,000 top price for an A.P. Indy colt, one of only two six-figure lots to sell, and first-day buybacks were 43 percent.

The session sold 160 yearlings for gross revenue of $2,110,500, yielding an average price of $13,191 and a median of $5,000.

The session-topper, a son of the Roberto mare Our Dear Sue, went to Kirkwood Stables from Paramount Sales. A chestnut colt, he is a half-brother to the Grade 1-placed filly Don't Read My Lips.

But high-priced horses were a rarity, and a wide range of buyers and consignors privately termed the sale "a disaster." Keeneland's director of sales, Geoffrey Russell, had a more measured response but acknowledged that the small group of buyers and the buyback rate disappointed him.

"They are averaging about what horses average on the Thursday of the second week of the September sale," Russell said. "There are not enough buyers out there willing to buy horses at that level. I think that's a trend that, dare I say, will continue for perhaps the next five years. The market has always gone in cycles, and we're starting on a downward coast."

Consignors agreed that there were too few buyers on the grounds, but Russell also attributed some of the slide to "commercial overproduction." Buyers also cited overproduction, pointing to what they feel is a lack of high quality in the catalog.

"If people can see that the better horses were rewarded here, then maybe they'll enter better-conformed horses next year," buyer Becky Thomas said after signing for the second six-figure lot, a $105,000 Quiet American-Balancing Act (Spectacular Bid) colt. "I do not believe the quantity of low prices today is anything but indicative of what those horses are."

Sellers who valued their stock higher than the buyers on the grounds had little option but to buy at least some of that stock back.

"We bought back a couple of pretty nice horses that we thought definitely were worth the reserves we put on them," said Pope McLean of Crestwood Farm, which bought back three of five lots - a $17,000 Service Stripe colt, a $28,000 Crafty Prospector colt, and a $22,000 Storm Boot filly - at the session.

"I think part of this is the overall economy, and with the World Trade Center disaster and all of that, I think people are apprehensive," McLean added. "I know people tightened up their spending after Sept. 11, and I think some buyers might have wanted to come to this sale but just don't want to travel."

But McLean sees a potential bright spot. "The purses are so strong now, we fell like, heck, we'll take them to the track and race them," he said. "Racing is still solid, and that's what we're breeding them for, anyway, to race. So we're not afraid of that."

The sale was to continue through Tuesday.