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Annual auction raises hopes of producing another Derby horse

Aug 7, 2001 4:53 AM

Picking winners at the track is as tough as it gets. Picking them out in a sales ring before they have ever run is a detailed science. Not only did last year’s auction set a record for average sale price ($305,847), but a Fasig-Tipton Saratoga graduate (Monarchos) won the Kentucky Derby.

As a matter-of-fact, John Ward has managed not one, but two years in a row, to locate the winner of “the run for the roses” at sales while acting as purchasing agent. He procured 2000 Derby winner FUSAICHI PEGASUS for owner Fusao Sekiguchi for more than $4 million as a yearling, then got a bargain-basement 2001 Derby winner for $170,000 in Monarchos at a 2-year-olds in training sale.

The three-day sale, which runs today (Tuesday) through Thursday, attracts buyers from around the world, although foreign buyers have played a reduced role over the past decade. Among the yearlings likely to generate special interest this year is a colt from the25th and final crop of Mr. Prospector, as well as six yearlings from what will surely be one of the last crops of Seattle Slew.

Trading and selling horses, of course, is a very old tradition. A walk along the shed-rows west of the pavilion, away from the noise and light, hints more of medieval Europe than 21st century America.

Since most buyers already know which ones they want, as well as how much they are willing to spend, the bidding on most yearlings takes only a few minutes. Afterward, all horses (both sold and unsold) are returned to their stalls, where they await transport to farms around the United States or, in some cases, to Europe, Japan or the Middle East.

Since selling horses is a business first, the degree of a sale’s success is measured mainly by how many horses are sold and for how much. The last five or six years have been good ones for the thoroughbred trade, as sales throughout the country have approached or exceeded record levels. Fasig-Tipton Saratoga has been no exception.

But what happens to these yearlings once the sales are over? How much of a correlation is there between good looks and a fashionable pedigree, and actual performance on the track?

Very little, according to a recent Thoroughbred Times study of the most expensive yearlings sold at the Saratoga sales over the years. As a group, sales toppers since 1960 have earned back just 4 percent of their purchase price on the track, the study found. The last individual sales topper to earn more as a racehorse than he cost as a yearling was Globemaster, a purchase at the 1959 Saratoga sales.

A look at the horses sold at an individual sale (chosen at random) yields similar results. The 1996 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sales sold 169 horses for an average of $161,600 each, or about $27.3 million overall. Only 10 of these 169 horses (6 percent) became stakes winners, and just three ”” Classic Cat, Uanme and Star of Broadway ”” won graded-stakes races. Only 13 percent earned back their purchase price.

None of these figures will discourage buyers from attending this year’s Fasig-Tipton sales. For one thing, few buyers spend any more money than they can afford to lose. Second, with today’s emphasis on breeding, a mediocre racehorse with a fashionable pedigree can still be worth a lot of money at stud.

And then there is always the chance of buying a horse that goes on to win the Kentucky Derby. It’s happened before at Saratoga. And no doubt it will probably happen again.