09/04/2003 11:00PM

Yearling watchword: Selective

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - With the epic Keeneland September yearling sale set to open Monday, Keeneland officials and many consignors have reason to be optimistic - but also realistic - in their expectations.

The auction runs from Sept. 8 to Sept. 20, with a dark day on Sept. 12, and is Keeneland's only major yearling sale this year. The company canceled its 2003 July select sale, partly because of a diminished foal crop caused by mare reproductive loss syndrome two years ago.

The September catalog, the world's largest for yearlings, includes 4,294 horses to be sold in 12 sessions. That number is sure to shrink as horses are lost through normal avenues of attrition, including injury and private sale. As of Friday, there was already a notable scratch: Hip No. 524, a full sister to 2000 Horse of the Year Point Given offered by Mill Ridge, agent, was withdrawn after she injured herself.

However, her loss may be somewhat buffered by the rest of the catalog's quality. Many horses who would have sold in July have landed in the September market, making the first few days of the fall auction unusually rich in regal pedigrees.

Economic circumstances have middle-market sellers feeling optimistic while their upper-market colleagues are a little more nervous than usual.

"Selective" has been the watchword at yearling sales for the past decade. Even lavish spenders have been quick to reject horses they felt were less than perfect. That said, in 1999 and 2001, buyers were willing to pay big prices when they found the so-called "perfect" horses.

So far this year, buyers have still been selective, but their spending caps are lower in what Keeneland's director of sales, Geoffrey Russell, has called "an era of affordability." Those lower caps have pushed some buyers to look more actively at middle-market horses, a boon to many sellers but not to the ones who produce expensively bred yearlings.

Equally worrisome to the latter group is the decreasing number of buyers at the top of the market. From the late 1990's through 2001, two major groups - the Coolmore-Michael Tabor team and Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum - squared off in the bidding ring and produced extraordinary multimillion-dollar sales. The lush pedigrees in September's catalog might draw them back in, but so far this year, neither outfit has been as active as in the past.

Satish Sanan, another famous spender in the market's boom years, has also pulled back, bidding on a shorter list of horses than in the past. Bob and Beverly Lewis, top-market stalwarts, announced this summer that they wouldn't buy any yearlings at all all this year.

That puts the crunch on sellers with yearlings whom these buyers typically prefer: well bred, handsome youngsters, often produced from costly stud fees.

But the era of affordability has an advantage for less expensively produced animals that show quality and athleticism. Sellers who have these kinds of horses may come out of September in the best shape of all.

Sessions at the September yearling sale will begin each day at 10 a.m. in Keeneland's sale pavilion.