Of all the grand horses who have carried the Paulson silks over the years, few tugged on the family's heartstrings the way champion race mare Azeri did.
In 2002, she became just the sixth female in history to earn the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year. And by the time injury forced her into retirement two years later, she had become North America's all-time leading money-earning distaffer.
Never miss a local story.
On Monday during the opening session of the Keeneland September yearling sale, Azeri's connections found they couldn't part with her legacy.
Vallenzeri, the first foal out of the three-time champion older mare, became the highest priced buyback in public auction history after bringing a whopping final bid of $7.7 million.
The previous high for a horse that failed to meet its reserve came in the 1985 Keeneland July yearling sale when Ajdal was an RNA at $7.5 million.
Consigned by Hill 'n' Dale Sales Agency on behalf of the Allen Paulson Living Trust, which campaigned Azeri, the chestnut colt by A.P. Indy was a unique offering as the product of a mating between two former Horse of the Year winners.
Vallenzeri had the pavilion riveted as the bidding climbed by $200,000 and $300,000 increments into rarefied territory. But soon after the gavel fell and the RNA became apparent, Michael Paulson, who heads his late father's trust, left a stunned pavilion in his wake.
"We're pretty certain because he's such an exceptional yearling that we're going to find an owner and a new home for him," Paulson later said by phone. "But this gives us an opportunity to, you know, work out something hopefully where we can get a percentage of him because I think he's going to be the next super racehorse."
Neither Paulson nor Hill 'n' Dale owner John Sikura would reveal what the reserve was. Had Vallenzeri sold, he would have been the sixth-highest-priced horse in September sale history.
"That's astonishing," Dogwood Stable owner Cot Campbell said of the record RNA. "In 40 years I've never seen anything like that."
Born appropriately enough on Valentine's Day, Vallenzeri bears more than just a passing resemblance to his famous chestnut mother, who counts the 2002 Breeders' Cup Distaff among her 11 career Grade I triumphs.
"He has a lot of her temperament and he walks just like her," Paulson said.
Vallenzeri might have been the most sought-after horse of the day, but the honor of session topper went to a gorgeous A.P. Indy filly that sold for $3.1 million to John Ferguson on behalf of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum.
The filly is out of the graded stakes winning Elusive Quality mare Chimichurri and was consigned by Gaines way on behalf of Jess Jackson's Stone street Thoroughbred Holdings.
"Mr. Jackson deserves to be congratulated because he's bred some lovely horses and this is a highlight," Ferguson said. "We're excited to have her. I thought she was a strong enough individual with that pedigree that she was obviously going to be one of the top fillies in the sale.
"It's so hard to breed fillies that look like that, when you do and you have an outstanding sire and a great mare you deserve to get paid for them."
Unlike a year ago when 11 seven-figure horses went through the ring during the opening session, only five horses reached that mark on Monday.
The lack of fireworks at the top contributed to declines as the gross of $56,047,000 was down 16.8 percent from last year, and the average fell 7.7 percent from $394,123 in 2007 to $363,942 on Monday. The median of $300,000 was equal to that of a year ago.
"The world is a different place. So, based on the economic climate at the moment, I thought today was very favorable and very solid," said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales. "I think this is where the market is at the moment."
Vallenzeri wasn't the only horse who had trouble finding a new home on Monday. A total of 63 horses failed to meet their reserve, resulting in a buyback rate of 29 percent, up 20.8 percent from last year.
"If someone is thinking of buying a racehorse this would be a good year to do it because I think there will be value to be had throughout the course of the year," Ferguson said. "But it's still hard to buy a good horse."