The top of the 2-year-olds in training market will get its first major test when Fasig-Tipton conducts its select sale on Tuesday at Calder Race Course. The South Florida-based auction traditionally attracts a big cast of international buyers and produces some of the highest prices. Irish bloodstock agent Demi O'Byrne and John Ferguson, who represents Sheikh Mohammed, were among lookers on Sunday during the final under tack show for the auction.
"We're encouraged," said Fasig-Tipton president Walt Robertson. "It's all about the horses, and we feel like we've got good horses this year. The physicals match up with the pedigrees; several horses are going to do real well."
Last year, the gross revenue climbed to the third-highest total in the auction's history; the average price rose to its second-highest level; and the median price established a sale record. However, the buy-back rate was alarmingly high, soaring to 45.3%.
Most consignors seemed confident that their very best horses would still bring lucrative prices this year even though the American economy is shaky and the threat of war with Iraq looms. But they were worried about the fate of the rest of their stock, saying the sale has become so elite that it has scared away many middle market buyers.
"I see a lot of top-end buyers here, but I don't see a lot of middle-market buyers," said Becky Thomas of Sequel Bloodstock. "So far, there's not many people for the horses that bring $100,000 or less."
Said trainer Wally Dollase: "I think I have a good shot at getting some middle-priced horses. It looks like that the number of people here is down -- at least from when I was here two years ago. But the sale has a real good catalogue. There are some really nice horses here."
Consignor Terry Oliver was happy with the size of the crowd, saying it was significantly larger than the group of buyers that turned out earlier this month for the Ocala Breeders' Sales Company's Calder auction.
"At that sale, we showed our most popular horses 30 or 40 times," he said. "Here, two days before this sale, we've already shown our best horses 60 to 65 times. Everyone still seems to be very keen about the top end of the market. We'll just have to see how the middle market performs."
Another consignor, Dean De Renzo, offered the following predictions:
"I don't think it's going to be a feast or famine sale. I think it is going to be an even sale. I'm not sure the horses are going to bring the crazy, top numbers. I believe people are thinking about buying horses for what they are worth, so to speak. I expect the RNA rate to be down and the median to be up. I think people are looking and saying, 'You know, maybe I spent $2 million for three horses (last year), why don't I spend $2 million for seven horses (this year)? I think they are getting more and more educated, doing a lot more homework, and seeing that not every great horse costs a million dollars."
Terence Collier, Fasig-Tipton's marketing director, said there were slightly more Japanese buyers at the sale this year -- seven or eight groups compared to five or six in 2002. However, Naohiro Goda of the Regent Company, said Japanese attendance would have been higher if horsemen had not been so concerned about the threat of war with Iraq. He said at least three groups cancelled their trips to Florida for that reason. Because of what happened when air travel was halted following Sept. 11, they were worried about getting stuck in this country for a long period of time. Japan's struggling economy will limit the spending of the ones who did show up, according to Goda.
As the sale approached, several horses were generating a positive buzz around the Calder barns. They included:
A Theatrical -- Heart of America colt, consigned by Arthur I. Appleton's Bridlewood Farm. Last year, Bridlewood bought the colt back for $145,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale. "We thought he was worth twice that," said George Isaacs, Bridlewood's general manager. Terry Oliver, who is an admirer of the colt, describes him as "the whole package. He is bred for the distance and the grass, but he has a good turn of foot." The colt is more compact physically than the typical long-legged Theatrical offspring. He worked an eighth of a mile in :10 2/5 during the first under tack show on Feb. 16.
A Wild Again -- Music Zone colt, consigned by Hartley-De Renzo. Randy Hartley liked this colt so much that he disobeyed the orders of his partner, Dean De Renzo, to spend no more than $50,000 per horse at last year's Keeneland September sale. Hartley paid $120,000 and thought he got a bargain. The colt has strong hindquarters and a deep, powerful-looking chest. He also has a calm temperament and a professional attitude in his approach to training. He worked an eighth in 10 1/5 during the first under tack show.
A Forestry -- Starry Ice colt named Forest Danger, consigned by Hoby and Layna Kight, agents. The Kights purchased the colt for a $150,000 last September at Keeneland. He has a lot of scope and size, and according to Hoby Kight, looks like a two-turn horse. Kight said he knew he had made a good deal when another consignor, Becky Thomas, tried to by a half-interest in the colt right after the he sold. Kight declined, and he also turned down another offer on the colt the next day. "He's the best horse I've ever touched," Kight said. The colt worked a quarter in :21 2/5 during the first under tack show.