On the hurricane rating scale of 1 to 5, the opening session of the Keeneland September yearling auction was a Category 3. It packed a strong financial punch on Sept. 13 in Central Kentucky, driving the market past 2003's hot numbers. But the key business figures didn't grow quite as fast as they did a year ago. According to Keeneland's figures, the gross revenue increased 4.3% from a year ago, and the average price edged up 1.9%. The median price soared an impressive 16.7%. Meanwhile, the buyback rate fell from 29.7% last year to 22.4% this year, when 49 of the 219 horses offered failed to find new homes during the first of the auction's two scheduled select sessions. In comparison, during 2003's opening session, the gross and average shot up 20.1% and 41.1%, respectively, while the median grew 32.4%. "I thought it was an exceedingly solid sale," said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales. "The consignors went in with a realistic mindset and set reserves that reflected the market very well. Having the median increase by nearly 17% is very positive. With the big increases last year, we didn't this session to be up that much." Additional details of the financial trends were as follows: The number sold rose 2.4%, from 166 last year to 170 this year. The gross revenue advanced from $60,555,000 to $63,185,000. The average grew from $364,789 to $371,676. The median increased from $225,000 to $262,500. The number of horses sold for individual prices of $1 million or more dropped from 10 to eight while the highest price slipped from $3.6 million to the $3.1 million brought by an A.P. Indy ridgling. John Ferguson, the bloodstock manager for Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai, was the session's biggest spender, paying $14,435,000 for 19 horses while accompanied by his boss. They had to fight off bloodstock agent Buzz Chace and his client, Oregon lumberman Aaron U. Jones, to get the session-topping A.P. Indy ridgling. A handsome bay, the session topper is out of the 7-year-old Seeking the Gold mare Sahara Gold, who captured the 2000 Stonerside Beaumont Stakes (gr. II) at Keeneland. His second dam is 1995 Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) winner Desert Stormer (by Storm Cat). William S. Farish's Lane's End sold the ridgling for his breeder, Robert and Janice McNair's Stonerside Stable. The McNairs, who are Texans, own a farm near Paris, Ky. "He's a horse that appears to have everything," Ferguson said. "He's by a great sire, and his mare was a top-class runner who is out of a Breeders' Cup winner. He has one of the best physicals in the sale, and he's been bred by one of the best farms in Kentucky. Being a ridgling didn't hurt A.P. Indy, and we don't believe it will hurt this fellow either." Part of Sheikh Mohammed's interest in the ridgling was as a stallion prospect for the Kentucky-based Jonabell division of the Dubai horseman's international Darley breeding operation. John Adger, the racing and bloodstock manager for Stonerside, was pleased with the ridgling's price. "I'm not going to say what the reserve was, but it was much lower than what he brought," Adger said. "He's always been a smooth, athletic individual from the time he was a foal." Through Ferguson, Sheikh Mohammed also purchased the session's highest-priced filly, spending $1.7 million for a daughter of Storm Cat--Warm Mood from the Lane's End consignment. Barnett Enterprises, an entity associated with Coolmore Stud, bred the filly. "The market feels pretty strong to me," Ferguson said. "Good yearlings are certainly making their full value, which is what everyone in the industry likes to see. There have been some nice horses here, and Sheikh Mohammed has enjoyed picking out the ones he feels will suit his program." The last horse in the sale ring--a leggy, racy-looking Unbridled's Song colt was the session's second-most-expensive offering, bringing $2.8 million from Irish agent Demi O'Byrne, who was acting on the behalf of Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith. "He had a lovely quality and was a great mover," said O'Byrne. "I thought he was maybe one of the best horses in the sale." A striking bay, the colt is out of the 16-year-old unraced Shelter Half mare Cruising Haven. He is a half-brother to grade II winners Belterra (by Unbridled Song's sire, Unbridled) and Royal Haven (by Hail Emperor). Twin Creeks Farm, Gaines-Gentry Thoroughbreds, and Rancho San Miguel bred the colt, which was consigned by Paramount Sales as agent. The Keeneland September auction was scheduled to continue through Sept. 27.