Few people in the sport of Thoroughbred racing who can prompt people to hang on his every word the way Bob Baffert can.
Fittingly enough, in the moments after buying a $1.9 million chestnut colt named Vallenzeri on Monday night, the outspoken trainer summed up what many in the Keeneland sales pavilion must have been thinking.
"This horse, he finally found a home," Baffert said.
Indeed, a saga that began last September had finally reached its conclusion.
Vallenzeri, the first foal out of 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri, topped the opening session of the Keeneland April 2-year-olds in training sale when he was sold to Baffert, who bought him on behalf of Virginia businessman Kaleem Shah for $1.9 million.
Nearly seven months earlier, Vallenzeri — whose sire is 1992 Horse of the Year A.P. Indy — sparked headlines of a different kind when he failed to meet his reserve at the 2008 Keeneland September yearling auction, despite bringing a final bid of $7.7 million.
The infamy of being the highest buyback in Thoroughbred auction history dissipated a bit when Baffert won a protracted battle over bloodstock agent Steve Young to claim the well-built chestnut colt.
The steep change in price — a drop of $5.8 million — was attributed partly to the softer economy but also to possible skepticism about a reserve this time around.
"To pay $1.9 million is still a lot of money, but for the market, I thought we got a pretty good deal on him," Baffert said. "We were prepared in case of something crazy (with the reserve) but ... the market tells you what they're worth, and tonight the market said $1.9 million, so I'm really excited right now.
"You have a champion out of a champion. He has a fluid way of moving, and it kind of takes the guesswork out of it. With that kind of pedigree, you take a chance."
Previously owned by the Allen E. Paulson Living Trust, Vallenzeri showed off his effortless strides when he worked an eighth of a mile in :10.20 during the under-tack show last Thursday.
"I watched him in the back (walking ring) ... and he was all class," said Baffert, a three-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer.
Before the sale, Bloodhorse.com reported that a California judge recently ruled that Michael Paulson, son of the late Allen Paulson and the one who approved of the previously high reserve, should be removed as the trustee of his father's living trust.
Despite the legal entanglements and past history in the ring, consignor Eddie Woods thought the final price was more indicative of the market than any buyer hesitation.
"All that previous stuff went away earlier this week, and here we have a horse now that worked well, looks beautiful and has developed into a really nice horse," Woods said.
Considering that the juvenile marketplace has been down about 30 percent, Keeneland's opening session was about as steady as one can expect.
The overall gross of $6,885,000 was down 3.4 percent compared to last year's opening session, but the average sales price rose 5.9 percent from $209,618 in 2008 to $222,097 on Monday. The median, though, fell from $165,000 in 2008 to $120,000 last night. Twenty-six horses failed to meet their reserves.
The sale continues Tuesday at 7 p.m.