There's a little bit more suspense than usual heading into the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select yearling sale, which begins its two-night run Tuesday in New York.
First, there is uncertainty about the Thoroughbred marketplace in general. Business at the juvenile auctions experienced a slowdown earlier this year and, during the first major yearling auction of the season - the Fasig-Tipton July sale - there were setbacks in the key statistics.
Second, there are changes in the Saratoga select marketplace specifically. After downturns in 2004, the sale has significantly fewer horses catalogued this year, and the length of the auction has been cut from three nights to two.
"I'm holding my breath right now, really," said consignor Wayne Sweezey of Darby Dan Farm. "I don't know what to expect. A lot of people have come through here, and they are the right kind of buyers. I'm hoping because of the small book that we'll have more buyers than there are horses, and we'll have an opportunity to make a little more money. If those of us who are selling horses at Saratoga have a good sale this year, I think we'll see an upsurge in the quantity next year simply because we can't go to Keeneland and sell 5,000 horses. It's too much work, and it's too hard to market that many horses at one time."
As of Monday morning, 12 yearlings had been scratched out of the original 153 listed in the Saratoga catalogue, a total that was down 27.8% from last year's figure of 212.
"It's hard to say what will happen with them cutting back on the numbers; I don't know what market is going to do," said buyer Cot Campbell of Dogwood Stable. "I've seen nice horses; they look kind of like they always do. I don't think I can say, 'Oh, they are much better this year than last year,' but they absolutely are not worse. I would have preferred having three nights here and less horses in Kentucky (at Keeneland), but that's the way it is."
Fasig-Tipton officials were optimistic.
"We've got really good physicals and I think we've got some good, deep pedigrees for the fillies that go along with the good individuals," said Fasig-Tipton president Walt Robertson. "I can say this and mean it: This year there are very few horses that I'm disappointed in. I'm happy to have nearly every horse we've got. There's no reason in this world that it shouldn't be a good horse sale."
Added Boyd Browning, Fasig-Tipton's executive vice president and chief operating officer: "We've received favorable comments from people who have looked at our horses thus far, and I think we have all the major players in town. Generally, we feel very positive."
According to Browning, Fasig-Tipton officials don't feel a lot of added pressure because of last year's below par performance and the reduction in the number of horses catalogued.
"Every major sale you have is pivotal, truthfully," he said. "The public is going to be pretty tough on you if you have a less than acceptable sale, so you feel pressure every time you have a sale."
Fasig-Tipton officials also aren't concerned that Saratoga's select auction will suffer the same fate as the Keeneland July select yearling sale, which has not been conducted for several years. Keeneland executives had trouble recruiting horses for the July auction because of the growing popularity of the company's September sale, which gives yearlings more time to mature and attracts a wide variety of buyers – from the wealthy Maktoum family of Dubai to trainers at small racetracks.
"This thing is going to go straight forward," Robertson said. "We are going to be selling horses – and good horses – at Saratoga for a long time. But we can sure can improve on last year."
Here's what some other people had to say prior to the Saratoga auction.
Bayne Welker, Mill Ridge Sales: "Every other sale has an abundance of numbers, and everybody is griping about too many horses. Here, you've got a great combination: You've got a race meet going on; you have a sale going on. It's a perfect blend of atmospheres. Because of the race meet, I'm hoping there are going to be enough people and that the small number of horses will be a benefit to us (the consignors)."
Meg Levy, Bluewater Sales: "I actually feel pretty good because I like all four of our horses. We try to be very specific and bring very, very good physical horses here that will stand up to the scrutiny. I felt like this year we wanted to be a little bit pickier because of the factors that have affected this sale forever. It's a fantastic sale, and a fantastic place to be, but it's not cheap to bring your horses up here."
David Greathouse, Four Star Sales: "I think everybody is watching with anticipation. The players are here, but I think it will be the same situation as always, the good ones will bring more than the law allows. The market has sort of established itself. For what they consider to be good athletes and good horses, buyers will give you a lot of money. If they don't think they are, you're either going to race them or take what they'll give you for them. I just hope there's enough end users here."
Michael Hernon, Gainesway Farm: "I think the market here will be good. Saratoga lends itself to being a good place to sell yearlings simply by its timing, its tradition, and its track record of producing top horses. We've got trainers and owners ensconced here for the meet, so it's accessible. It's a nice relaxed environment to look at horses. Gainesway had a terrific sale here last year right through our consignment. We hand-pick these horses, and I think you have to because at Saratoga there are a lot of repeat inspections. This is a terrific place to showcase a good yearling, and I think we need this sale on the calendar. In the big picture, this could a be a pivotal year for the sale because the numbers are down and it's been consolidated into two nights, but I still think Saratoga has a future."
Stuart Morris, Highclere: "I feel like I've got a very nice group of horses, and if my consigment is representative of the catalogue, there won't be much of a decline at all this year. I know there are fewer horses, but I would suspect there are probably longer short lists than there have been in the past. The horses that I'm standing around looking at that are around my consignment are nice. It's hard to find a horse that you think doesn't belong up here. The (Fasig-Tipton) guys did a good job putting the catalogue together."
Mark Taylor, Taylor Made Sales Agency: "I have said all year that I thought that Fasig-Tipton July would be flat or down, and that I thought this sale would be really good. And my theory behind that was that I've always thought there is a ceiling on the number of horses that the market can bear in that July sale unless the dynamic changes for some reason. Up here, what you've got is a smaller catalogue. So many people are drawn to town by the race meet and there's so much action going on here, that I think that demand is actually going to meet or exceed supply. Also, they've got very good-looking horses up here and they (Fasig-Tipton officials) screen very well for this sale. And that's such a big part of the market. The horses also have got to have a little bit of pedigree to be accepted. With that combination, if you've got the people in town with the money, it's a recipe for success."