Buyers at the top of the juvenile market may turn out in droves for an auction. They may fill the grandstand to watch under tack shows, and send a small army of veterinarians and agents to look at the horses. But they are just as picky as ever, maybe even more so. That was the harsh reality faced by consignors during the Fasig-Tipton Florida select sale at Calder on Feb. 27.
After becoming the biggest-grossing juvenile auction of all time in 2000, this year's sale suffered across-the-board statistical setbacks. Rising for the fifth straight year, the buy-back rate reached the highest level for the auction in memory.
This year's results were a brutal jolt to sellers, who were pumped up by the Ocala Breeders' Sales Company's Feb. 6 select auction at Calder, where most decreases were minor and more horses found new homes than they did in 2000. Consignors' spirits were raised even further when a large contingent of international shoppers showed up to sift through a Fasig-Tipton catalogue that was widely considered the strongest of any juvenile sale this year.
The only problem: Buyers were choosier than a royal family selecting the bride of a future king. With few exceptions, they wanted horses that worked fast, had outstanding conformation, and were able to pass every veterinary exam with flying colors. They paid huge premiums for the handful of individuals they desired the most and virtually ignored the rest. Some, like last year's biggest spender, Eugene Melnyk, did not make a single purchase.
"We worked it as hard as we've ever worked any sale," Melnyk said from his home in Barbados after the auction. "We ended up with a very short list, and none of our choices vetted out. I am being very, very cautious this year. I think a lot of 2-year-olds are getting fried by being asked to work a quarter in :10 1/5 this early in the year."
No wonder, then, so many consignors ended up frustrated.
"It was very much of a roller-coaster day for us -- up and down, up and down," said Becky Thomas of Sequel Bloodstock. "I felt like all the right people were here for the market to have a lot of strength, but we just didn't see it. It felt flat, very flat."
The Sequel consignment included a Gulch-Listen Now colt that breezed a quarter-mile in :21 1/5, believed to be the fastest time for that distance in Fasig-Tipton Calder history. However, Thomas ended up buying back the flashy chestnut for $425,000.
"I could not believe it," Thomas said. "I did not think this could happen in a million years. He had a splint, and he wasn't walking 100% sound. But he had been X-rayed by Dr. (Jerry) Johnson; we had disclosed it to everyone, and I felt like we were in good shape with the colt. But the big guys we thought we had on him were dead. I was devastated. I didn't really get to enjoy the (Afternoon Deelites) filly we sold for $850,000 because I was so disappointed."
Other consignors used phrases like "hit or miss" and "feast or famine" to describe a market where the growing polarization between high and low prices has been a common theme in recent years.
"As usual, the top is hot, and the bottom is not," Shari Eisaman said. "I believe we should all be used to it by now. This is just the way it's going to be."
The dramatic highs and lows of 2001 produced the following changes in the sale's leading economic indicators:
- The number sold fell 12.8%, from 156 last year to 136 this year.
- The gross revenue dropped 16.3%, from $33,690,000 to $28,186,000.
- The average price slipped 4%, from $215,962 to $207,250.
- The median price declined 8.3%, from $163,500 to $150,000.
- The highest individual price for a horse fell from $1,950,000 to $1 million, and the number sold for seven figures dropped from four to one.
- The buy-back rate increased from 40.9% to 42.6%.
In addition, the number sold for $200,000 or more slipped from 70 to 54 and the number sold for $100,000 or more declined from 108 to 102.
"There are some very nice, useful horses here, but I don't know that you had the real brilliant horse that caught everybody's eye like Yonaguska did last year," said Kentucky bloodstock agent John Moynihan.
Fasig-Tipton officials tried to put a positive spin on the results, pointing out the average and median were the sale's second-highest ever, even though their declines ended seven consecutive years of growth. Walt Robertson, the company's president, also suggested any expectations of significant increases probably had been unrealistic given the slowdown in the American economy and setbacks at most recent breeding stock auctions.
"You're never happy when you're not up," Robertson said. "But everything in the world -- the stock market, the broodmare market -- told us that we would be damn lucky to hold on to what we had gotten here last year. I don't think it was too prudent to hope for big gains."
One of the sale's most encouraging developments was the increased participation of Japanese buyers. They spent at least $6,650,000 for no fewer than 27 horses. In comparison, they paid $5,055,000 for 21 horses in 2000. Their expenditures accounted for 23.6% of the gross this year compared to 15% last year. Terence Collier, Fasig-Tipton's director of marketing, called this year's Japanese contingent the largest ever.
"Without the Japanese, this sale would be in big-time trouble," said consignor Ken Ellenberg. "We're lucky they're here. If they weren't, we would all just be standing around looking at each other."
"The Japanese helped this market tremendously," Robertson said. "They bought a lot of horses, and they ran second a lot of times. Everybody had hoped they would be reckless, but they weren't. The yen is still not as strong as it was five or six years ago. But since the dollar has gained strength, we have not seen this kind of Japanese participation until today."
Naohiro Goda of the Tokyo-based Regent Co. said there were several factors involved in the surge of Japanese participation. Fasig-Tipton Calder graduates have done well recently in Japan. They include Nobo True, winner of this year's February Stakes (Jpn-I), and Kurofune, considered to be one of Japan's most promising 3-year-olds. In addition, Goda said, the Japanese have been impressed with Fasig-Tipton's efforts to recruit them as buyers. Pacific Rim horsemen also were hoping to find some bargains because of the downturn in the American economy, but "this is a very strong market," Goda said. "We expected it to be weaker."
The most expensive horse purchased by a Japanese buyer was Sequel Bloodstock's $850,000 Afternoon Deelites filly, named Linda Seek. Northern Farm's Katsumi Yoshida bought her on behalf of Makoto Kaneko, a computer software businessman from Tokyo. Kaneko races Kurofune, a $430,000 graduate of last year's Fasig-Tipton Calder auction who finished third in the 2000 Radio Tampa Hai Sansai Stakes (Jpn-III).Continued. . . .