The biggest news the day before the start of Fasig-Tipton's Saratoga yearling sale was the appearance of Dubai's ruler Sheikh Mohammed. In recent times, he's been the New York auction's most powerful shopping force, so sale company officials and consignors were happy to see him touring the barns and inspecting young horses Aug. 5.
But many other shoppers also were busy and that provided even more encouragement that bidding would be spirited during the sale's two sessions. Searching for horses to purchase Aug. 6 and 7 were David Ingordo of Lane's End Bloodstock, Mandy Pope of Whisper Hill Farm, Jack Wolf of Starlight Racing, Coolmore Stud buyer Demi O'Byrne, and Terry Finley of West Point Thoroughbreds. Also active in the hunt was Bruce Hill, who headed a group from Charlotte Weber's Live Oak Stud, and pinhookers Niall Brennan and Eddie Woods.
"I've probably looked at 80% of the horses and I have a larger number of horses that I'm going to step two with and having vetted than the last couple of years," said Canada-based trainer Mark Casse.
Kentucky bloodstock agent Peter Bradley also was impressed with the yearlings in the sale.
"Fasig-Tipton always puts together a good group of horse here and I think this might be one of the better ones I've seen in the last three years," he reported.
There are 189 yearlings in the Saratoga auction's catalog. Even though the foal crop is declining, the total is up 18% from 2011, when 160 were scheduled to be offered. The sale is known for offering well-bred, physically impressive stock and is the earliest test of the top of the yearling market.
"We're very enthusiastic and optimistic about the prospects for the upcoming sale," said Fasig-Tipton president Boyd Browning. "We think we've got as good a group of horses on the ground as we've ever had. Pre-sale interest has been very strong we've received a lot of positive feedback.
"The world-wide economy isn't great," he continued, "but people have a little higher level of confidence today than they have had in the past three years. It feels good. I know that's not a very scientific approach, but it does feel good. There's some interest, there's some enthusiasm, and there's some bounce in people's steps this year whether they are buyers or whether they are sellers."
The Thoroughbred auction industry and the yearling market in particular rebounded in 2011 after four consecutive years of decline. In 2012, so far, the positive trends have continued. Meanwhile, at nearby Saratoga Race Course, purses are up significantly because of revenue from a video lottery terminal that opened last year at Aqueduct Racetrack. Browning believes the richer rewards for horse owners will give Saratoga sale shoppers even more of an incentive to buy.
"You go to the racetrack and you see maiden races with purses of $90,000," he said. "It gives people a much greater reason economically to be involved in the business right now. The New York-bred program is so strong, but Kentucky-bred, Florida-bred, California-bred, and all types of horses also can benefit from the increased purses."
The Saratoga sale ranked high in a recent analysis of North American auctions conducted by The Blood-Horse MarketWatch newsletter. Among sales with average prices of $10,000 or higher, the Saratoga auction was first in the percentage of graded stakes winners (4%) that were sold, first in the average racing earnings ($58,280) of horses that were sold, first in the percentage of horses earning $50,000 or more (38.44%) that were sold, and second in the percentage of stakes winners (7.08%) that were sold.
"I think the true reflection of a particular market is how many graded stakes winners come out of it and lots of them come out of this sale," said consignor Brian Graves of Gainesway. "It's all about quality; that's what drives the market, I'm optimistic. I've got to believe it's going to be a good sale."
Each session of the Saratoga auction is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. As of Aug. 5, 15 yearlings had been scratched based on information published on Fasig-Tipton's website (www.fasigtipton.com).