Yearlings offered at an auction like the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select sale are the cream of a Thoroughbred crop. But getting them here can be tricky business.
Everything has to work right because young horses can change dramatically as they grow, sometimes hitting an awkward stage right at sale time.
The trek toward Saratoga typically begins in March in Central Kentucky when Fasig-Tipton's inspection team begins making the rounds to the farms of breeders and consignors. Some sale prospects are more obvious than others at this stage.
"Some horses, from the day they're born, you know they could be a Saratoga horse," said Matt Lyons, general manager of Woodford Thoroughbreds.
Bill Graves, Fasig-Tipton's vice president of recruiting and selections, agreed and said the top horses "stick out" even when they are being inspected early in the year.
"The good horse will have the same angles you'll see here and the same fluid movement," Graves said. "Once they go into a fitness program, they usually improve."
For the most part, these early prospects have decidedly American pedigree with female families rich in successful East Coast runners.
"Trainers running at Belmont and Saratoga can relate to these pedigrees because many of them raced the horses they see," said Kerry Cauthen of Four Star Sales. "David Greathouse has been especially effective in this market because he knows the trainers, knows what they want, and can tell them exactly want they want to know."
Greathouse and Cauthen are co-founders of Four Star Sales along with Dan Kenny and Johnny T.L. Jones Jr.
Headley Bell with Mill Ridge Sales said he sees placing horses in the right sale as a collaborative effort with the Fasig-Tipton inspection team.
"They provide a lot of guidance," Bell said. "They know their markets and where to place a horse so it stands out.
"You do have to be horsemen enough to see how one is going to change. It is no different than a trainer with a young horse; you watch them every day and make adjustments to keep them moving in the right direction. You have to be very specific about what you put in here."
Even the highest expectations, however, can be thwarted by Mother Nature. Eaton Sales brought half the horses to Saratoga this year as it did in 2012.
"For whatever reason we had fewer horses in our group of clients that filled the requirements you have to have up here," said Eaton's Reiley McDonald. "You really have to get it right at Saratoga. If you don't, you end up in trouble."
Horses don't just grow their way out of the Saratoga sale; sometimes they grow their way in. The rewards can be rich when an improving horse with the right pedigree walks onto the Saratoga auction stage.
Cauthen remembered a colt by Johannesburg–Saratoga Honey, by Boundary, named Jupiter Pluvius that had been pointed to the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July select sale. As he developed through the spring, the colt kept looking better and better.
By late May, Cauthen said the team at Four Star Sales decided to roll the dice at Saratoga. The colt's second dam, Saratoga Honey, was a modest winner, but she was also the half sister to two stakes winners and a grade II-placed runner.
"Wherever we place a horse, we want to be as sure as possible that he's going make everyone's short list," Cauthen said. "Most of what we sell is valued between $100,000 and $300,000, and we felt he was north of $100,000."
Jupiter Pluvius was bought by Coolmore's bloodstock agent Demi O'Byrne for $475,000 and went on to place in a group III stakes in Ireland.
In a sale like Saratoga, Cauthen said a horse doesn't stand much of a chance without a clean veterinary exam. Buyers here have little tolerance for deciding whether a borderline issue is forgivable. It is easier to just walk away.
"Buyers here want solid, rangy horses without any issues," Cauthen said. "They want simpler decisions to make."
Graves said Fasig-Tipton first and foremost wants athletes in all its sales.
"For Saratoga, though, I think people do expect a little more pedigree and a little more sire power," he said.