She had a paparazzi-like following waiting for her when she finally emerged from Barn 6, and when she stepped into the sales ring, a previously sleepy pavilion was suddenly rippling with energy and anticipation.
Everything about Azeri's time at Keeneland on Monday suggested the champion racemare was again about to become part of something memorable. For better or worse, few are going to forget what transpired on her behalf.
A sense of déjà vu was left hanging over the Keeneland grounds when Azeri, one of only six fillies to be named Horse of the Year, failed to meet her reserve after bringing a final bid of $4.4 million during the opening session of the January Horses of All Ages sale.
As grand as her reputation was on the racetrack, Azeri and her kin are gaining a bit of notoriety in the auction arena.
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During the 2008 Keeneland September yearling sale, Azeri's first foal — an A.P. Indy colt named Vallenzeri — established a world record when he failed to sell despite bringing a bid of $7.7 million.
With that lofty buy-back still fresh in people's memories, some raised an eyebrow when Azeri was entered in the January sale on behalf of the Allen E. Paulson Living Trust.
Michael Paulson, manager of his father's trust, said he adjusted his reserve in response to the softening market. But once again, no would-be suitor could throw down a bid large enough to take the 2002 Horse of the Year away from her sentimental owner.
"I can say (the reserve) was extremely close. I thought she was sold when I saw $4.2 million," Paulson said. "Unfortunately, we've been the victims twice now of the global financial meltdown. It's bittersweet. I was hoping to sell, but the good thing is we still have her.
"We're going to talk to a few people and see if we can get a deal here shortly but if not we'll take her home."
Paulson acknowledged the fallout from Vallenzeri's failure to sell may have prompted some to question his intentions with regard to Azeri. Still, he maintained that had the market been in better shape, she would have changed hands.
"Obviously, I adjusted the reserve to reflect the market but I was going to let her go for extremely good value," he said.
Consigned by Hill 'n' Dale Sales — which also consigned Vallenzeri — Azeri is currently in foal to 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper.
With a captive pavilion looking on, the 11-year-old daughter of Jade Hunter opened with a bid of $500,000 and crept up in $100,000 increments.
"As always, whether people like it or not, the man who owns the horse has the right to accept or reject a bid," said John Sikura of Hill 'n' Dale, who said he was involved in the bidding up until about the $4 million mark. "Sometimes it's proven folly and sometimes it's proven wise. I think a mare of that quality would have made double that last year and she was worth what she brought in the ring even though (Paulson) didn't sell her."
Azeri's failure to change hands underscored the downturn that continues to plague the Thoroughbred marketplace.
The opening session of the January sale featured hefty across-the-board declines. The gross of $11,945,900 was down by 44 percent from 2008.
Seventy-three horses failed to meet their reserve, and no other horses reached the seven-figure mark. Multiple Grade I winner Island Fashion and Almonsoon, a half sister to Grade I winner Geri, each brought the day's highest price of $950,000 when they sold to Katsumi Yoshida and Southern Equine Stables, respectively.
"I think in today's market it's a fair price," said Pope McLean of Crestwood Farm, which bred and consigned Island Fashion. "She's an extremely nice mare and they made a good purchase. It's kind of mixed emotions because we've had her the whole time and she was such a hard-knocking, genuine mare. It's sad to see her go."
Despite the continued downturn in the market, Paulson said the plan was still to sell Vallenzeri in Keeneland's April 2-year-olds in training sale through consignor Eddie Woods.
"Obviously when you have the quality of Thoroughbreds we have, we're kind of setting the stage for the upper end of the market," Paulson said.
The January sale continues at 10 a.m. Tuesday.