The strapping bay colt which made up trainer Bill Helmbrecht's one-horse consignment at Keeneland's April 2-year-olds in training sale was anything but your typical auction prospect.
For the last several weeks, Wilburn, a son of Bernardini, has been ahead of most of his brethren in terms of his pre-sale preparation, working weekly from the gate at Turfway Park and even breezing an unusual 3 furlongs during last Thursday's under-tack show.
After standing out for the off-beat path that brought him to the sales ring, the colt proceeded to further distinguish himself once inside Keene land's sales pavilion.
John Moynihan, agent for Stonestreet Stables owner Jess Jackson, landed the colt named Wilburn on a final bid of $625,000 to pace a resilient edition of Keeneland's juvenile auction which — like its sale topper — lived up to its billing by posting gains in both gross receipts and median.
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While his connections were prepared to race Wilburn, his fluid running style and impressive physical presence drew enough attention that they decided to see if he would be equally well received in the marketplace.
After working 3 furlongs in 334⁄5 seconds last week instead of the usual eighth or quarter of a mile one generally sees during the breeze-ups, the large-bodied colt only gained in pre-sale hype.
"Everyone who touches this horse will tell you this is a really nice horse," said Mike Helmbrecht, brother of Bill and president of Woodbridge Bloodstock which bred Wilburn. "All the work my brother did with him was amazing. Where most 2-year-olds at this stage you have to put them away and then start over, they can do anything they want with this colt. He's ready to roll."
Out of the graded stakes winning mare Moonlight Sonata, Wilburn is a half-brother to graded-stakes winner Beethoven.
"He worked beautifully, but what they've done with him is kind of amazing," said Moynihan, who added he was unsure if the colt would go the barn of trainer Steve Asmussen. "He was working every week, he's been working half miles out of the gate. I think-we may stop on him for a bit but ... we'll get him ready for the early summer and fall."
The Thoroughbred marketplace has been reeling since the economic crash of 2008, but this year's 2-year-old auctions have yielded gains that have many hoping the worst of the correction is over.
Keeneland's April one-day sale was no different, as the overall gross of $12,013,000 generated by 71 horses sold was a 1.76 percent increase over last year and the median improved from $117,500 in 2009 to $135,000.
The average of $169,197 was down 5.4 percent from a year ago but the rate of horses not sold improved to 36.61 percent from 43.59 last season.
"I think people are getting more comfortable. I mean, 2008 was such a shock to everybody and I think 2009 was the Tsunami that followed the earthquake," said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales. "I think the fear factor has dropped a little bit and people realize that business has to be done and this is where our business is. But we're not out of the woods yet."
In addition to the usual domestic players, there was broad participation from foreign buyers, including the French-based group named Prime Equestrian which purchased 10 horses for a high of $2,107,000.
Those seeking bargains, however, still found top end horses difficult to buy.
"There is still confidence that the good fillies are going to be good value, that the quality is going to be worth it," said bloodstock agent Steve Jackson after an A.P. Indy filly was bought back for $380,000. "It's not a fire sale. But to me it's good for the industry because its says you can't just wander in here and buy one of the top horses in the sale for not enough money."