The Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select yearling sale is a fickle beast.
Predicting how buyers will embrace a relatively small group of handsome, well-bred yearlings is dicier than predicting the winner of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) in January. With the benefit of hindsight, however, several signs indicated this year's edition would be strong.
One signal was the depth of everyone's "short list." Leading up to the sale, usually short lists can be pared and a couple of horses earn the titles of "buzz horses."
In 2011 the buzz horses lived up to the pre-sale hype when Mill Ridge sold a Bernardini half brother to Horse of the Year Havre de Grace for $1.2 million and Taylor Made Sales Ageny, agent, sold a Medaglia d'Oro half brother to 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver for the same amount. In 2013 Lady Zuzu went through the ring saddled with high expectations and carried them gracefully to a sale-topping price of $1.225 million.
This year no one was taking horses off his or her list. Sure, you could have guessed a yearling by Gainesway's star sire Tapit would be at or near the top, but which one? As it turned out two Tapit colts sold for more than a million dollars, including the $2 million sale-topper out of Galileo's grade III stakes-winning daughter Dress Rehearsal. Among the top 10 sellers, five were by Tapit.
Two other indicators of the depth of selection can be seen in the number of horses that sold for $500,000 or more (24 this year compared with 17 a year ago) and a buy-back rate that slid four percentage points lower to 15.2%.
Another predictor was less obvious but in some respects more powerful. Among the sellers were several consignors and owners that had returned to the Saratoga after long absences. They included Bernard McCormack, the former farm manager for the once-powerful Windfields Farm in Ontario, who offered two horses through his Cara Bloodstock agency.
McCormack said he had not been to Saratoga for the select yearling sale in 18 years. Both horses McCormack sold were owned by Jay and Christine Hayden, breeders of Canadian classic winner Breaking Lucky, who captured the July 28 Prince of Wales Stakes. The Haydens were selling horses for the first time at Saratoga.
Also returning to Saratoga was Virginia's historic Audley Farm, which had not sold horses in Saratoga for about 20 years.
McCormack and Audley returned to Saratoga because they had the right horse for the market. McCormack sold a filly by Speightstown for $425,000 and a colt from the last crop of Unbridled's Song for $220,000. Audley Farm sold two homebred colts by first-crop sires Bodemeister and Union Rags for a total of $395,000. Audley's equine manager Jamie McDiarmid told Blood-Horse he wanted to be "first out of the block" with the first-crop yearlings and not have them get lost in a larger sale.
"Saratoga is special, and if you have a horse that's worth bringing here, it's very good," McDiarmid said.
Bring the right horse to the right sale and magic happens.
"The quality of horses we had were reflective of the confidence owners had that they were bringing the right horse to Saratoga," said Boyd Browning Jr., president and CEO of Fasig-Tipton.
Besides consignors and owners having a better sense of the market, Fasig-Tipton's selection team did an admirable job policing the process. For the horses on the fence, Browning said it is difficult to tell a client their horse may not be the best fit. But when the horse was right, Browning said his team recruited hard to assure sellers how lucrative the Saratoga market can be.
"It is rewarding at the end of a sale to see both buyers and sellers feel like they got value for their horses," Browning said following the sale.
Having sold Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2013 also provided electricity, particularly on opening night. The area around the back walking ring of the Humphrey S. Finney Pavilion was so packed that it was difficult for consignors to walk between the barns and the pavilion. Inside the pavilion, people were standing three-deep in aisle ways that wrap like a horseshoe around the auction stage and behind the seating reserved for buyers. The spectators stayed until the last hip sold.
"There is a more positive pulse to our industry than we've seen in several years," observed Browning. "It is refreshing, encouraging; it is energizing."