07/11/2002 11:00PM

Yearlings born to draw big money

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The boutique yearling auction season begins Monday with the two-day Keeneland July select sale, featuring the return of Lane's End Farm, rare commodities in pedigree, and some intriguing first-crop sires.

Tiny, exclusive, and offering a concentrated pool of the best bloodlines, Keeneland July creates an atmosphere of stormy clashes among the Thoroughbred world's Olympian spenders. This year's auction has 177 lots, up from last year's record low of 132. How they fare will set the tone for the remainder of the season's richest select yearling auctions at Fasig-Tipton Saratoga (Aug. 6-8) and the first two days of Keeneland September (Sept. 9-10).

Last year's Keeneland July auction, led by a $4 million Saint Ballado colt, sold 89 yearlings for gross receipts of $63,212,000, setting a record average of $710,247. Sixteen million-plus lots and the small catalog buoyed that figure. The buyback rate - the percentage of horses that failed to reach their sellers' minimum bid requirements - jumped to 33 percent, a sign that there were fewer buyers playing below the top level.

But there's little indication that the groups responsible for bidding up those million-dollar yearlings - Godolphin, Coolmore, and The Thoroughbred Corp. - will slack off this year if they see something they like.

As always, there is plenty to like in a catalog that offers some of the world's most valuable pedigrees in a select format designed to present excellent conformation as well.

Upper-market bidders undoubtedly will welcome the return of Lane's End, purveyor of some of the most sought-after bloodlines. For the last two years, Will and Sarah Farish's Versailles, Ky., farm had opted to sell in the early, select portion of Keeneland's increasingly important September auction instead of at Keeneland July. But the strong July market last year and its pattern of rising averages helped lure Lane's End back with an 11-horse consignment.

The Lane's End group features Hip No. 94, a Belong to Me filly who is the first foal from Grade 1-winning millionaire Tomisue's Delight; Hip No. 75, a Gone West half-sister to Grade 2 winner Prime Directive; and Hip No. 89, an A.P. Indy filly out of champion grass mare Flawlessly's full sister Successfully.

In the category of rare commodities, this year's auction features yearlings from the next-to-last crop of Claiborne star Unbridled, who died last October. There are seven Unbridled lots in the catalog, including a full sister to champion juvenile Anees.

There are also a pair of fillies from the late Nureyev's penultimate crop, one a half-sister to Group 1 winner Saratoga Springs. The other is out of the winning Rahy mare Gran Dama, from the family of English champion Midway Lady.

Other established upper-market sires with solid representation include the ever-present Storm Cat, as well as the highly fashionable A. P. Indy, Seeking the Gold, Kingmambo, Danzig, Deputy Minister, and Thunder Gulch.

First-crop sires often prove tempting for select-sale buyers, and the Keeneland catalog features some freshman stallions that could inspire a few classic dreams. South African horse of the year Horse Chestnut, easy winner of the Grade 3 Broward Handicap before retiring with an injury, has Hip No. 119, a half-sister to 2002 Derby runner-up Invisible Ink; 1997 Derby winner Silver Charm has a colt out of a Seeking the Gold mare; and Belmont winner Victory Gallop has one colt, the first foal out of champion juvenile filly Countess Diana.

Those seeking speed can also take a look at this year's freshman sires, where a few candidates offer plenty of zip. The most obvious of these is 1999 champion sprinter Artax, represented by Hip No. 65, a daughter of the unraced Storm Cat mare Mimi Kat. Freshman sire Forestry, also known for his speed, has a slate of lots, including a colt out of Canadian champion juvenile and 3-year-old filly Deputy Jane West and a half-sister to Grade 2 winner Sovereign Kitty.

Among the big mares, there is an ample supply of champion producers. Among those are Countess Diana's dam, T.V. Countess, who has a Silver Deputy filly, and Artax's dam, Raging Apalachee, with an Exploit filly.

Not surprisingly, considering top buyers' classic intentions and European programs, there are some close connections to Triple Crown and European group performers in a number of the Keeneland July pedigrees. Among the most notable in that regard are Hip No. 10, a Deputy Minister half-sister to Belmont winner Editor's Note; Hip No. 11, a Deputy Minister filly out of a full sister to 2000 Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus; Hip No. 49, a Storm Cat colt out of French group winner Isle de France; Hip No. 56, a Seeking the Gold half-brother to French 1000 Guineas winner Ta Rib; Hip No. 59, a Swain colt out of Alabama winner Maplejinsky; and Hip No. 98, a Coronado's Quest half-brother to Belmont winner Victory Gallop.

The sale's international appeal is evident in such lots as Hip 105, a Storm Cat half-sister to 1997 turf champion Chief Bearhart; Hip No. 73, an Unbridled's Song half-brother to European champion Culture Vulture; Hip No. 4, a half-brother to Japanese champion juvenile Grass Wonder; and Hip No. 189, a half-brother to Irish champion Rossini and popular sire Elusive Quality.

Each session begins at 7:30 p.m. in the Keeneland sale pavilion.