Dr. Jim Hill had a good feeling about the dark brown colt put up for sale at the Fasig-Tipton sale in Lexington 39 years ago.
As a veterinarian, he’d worked with the colt’s father and was impressed by his lineage. When his wife, Sally Hill, was seeking out investments for their children, he told her he wanted to put the money into what he knew best: a thoroughbred racehorse.
“He told me that night, he’ll be a winner,” Sally Hill recalled her husband said when describing the colt. “He said he’ll be the biggest bargain in history.”
And was he ever right. The colt named Seattle Slew went on to win the Triple Crown and sire a lineage of top thoroughbreds that continue to win top stakes races today.
Seattle Slew’s line is prolific enough that Hill had no trouble finding some of his relatives in the catalogue of horses at Fasig-Tipton’s annual yearling sales at Saratoga on Monday. Some of them were among the 50-plus horses sold during the first evening of sales.
“It just goes on and on,” Hill said of the lineage.
The sales are a place where people with deep pockets come to find new horses to add to their stables. The lowest-priced horse to sell during the first two hours of the auction was a bay colt that moved for $45,000 to start the sales.
Most other horses cost in excess of six figures. The average sale was hovering around $285,000 before the action was over Monday.
That figure was below the $313,400 average during the first day of sales in 2013. Then a filly sired by Tapit landed an eye-popping winning bid of $1.15 million from Bloodstock agents Alex Solis and Jason Litt.
In total, 64 horses sold Monday. That exceeded the first-day total sold in 2013 by 14 horses.
As always, the rapid-fire auction drew a packed crowd. Fasig-Tipton auctioneer Tom Biederman said the sales this year attracted so many horses, a temporary tent was erected because of a lack of stalls.
The sales are a benchmark for an industry in New York that has struggled since the worst of the recession touched down. Biederman said the quality of horse at the sales this year suggests the state has turned the corner and is once again producing quality thoroughbreds in numbers.
“The foal crop is creeping back up, but in a better manner,” he said. “In New York, they’re breeding a better caliber of horses. The money in New York is good. They’ve done a good job at keeping the sport competitive and because of that. They’re breeding more quality horses than ever before.”
The Saratoga sales are watched closely by successful trainers. Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas was on hand to watch buyers Robert Baker and William Mack spend $400,000 on a colt sired by Tiznow, a former Breeders Cup winner.
“They have a great record of having stakes winners,” he said of the sales. “The percentage is great.”
In another row at the Humphrey S. Finney Pavilion, billionaire B. Wayne Hughes sat with Ned Toffey, general manager of Spendthrift Farm. With a subtle motion to the auctioneer, they purchased a filly for $300,000.
“Who doesn’t love Saratoga?” Toffey said afterward. “Some of the best horses in America are here.”
The action moves quickly at Fasig-Tipton, with each auction lasting mere minutes. Only a well-trained eye can identify the bidders, who try to obscure their movements from everyone except the auctioneers.
A dull buzz resonated around the crowd packed in the arena, the cacophony of the auction drowning out everything aside from an occasional high-pitched whinny from the showcase horse. Celebrity chef Bobby Flay walked inconspicuously through the crowd and took a seat in the front of the pavilion to browse some of the new thoroughbreds coming onto the scene.
“These horses are very special,” said Flay, who serves as a member of the New York Racing Association’s Board of Directors. “You could be looking at the next Kentucky Derby winner here.”