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Azeri is rare bright spot at Keeneland

It was exactly what John Sikura believed Azeri was worthy of: the honor of being the most sought-after offering in an auction ring.

Still, after all the champion mare accomplished and all the years he had spent in her presence, the president of Hill 'n' Dale Sales felt the daughter of Jade Hunter deserved just a little bit more.

The Thoroughbred marketplace has become a less forgiving world due to the struggling economic climate, and Tuesday's opening session of the Keeneland November Breeding Stock sale illustrated that point once again.

Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year, finally sold for $2.25 million to Katsumi Yoshida's Northern Farm in Japan, 10 months after failing to meet her reserve despite bringing a final bid of $4.4 million at this year's Keeneland January sale.

The 11-year-old Azeri was the only horse to hit seven figures during a session that featured hefty declines from a year ago. Grade I winner Swift Temper was bought back by owner Mark Stanley for $2.05 million earlier in the day.

Though foreign participation was solid, the sale opened with staunch declines as the overall gross of $26,291,500 was down 45.2 percent from 2008.

The average of $208,663 and median of $160,000 were off by 35.3 and 13.5 percent, respectively, while 59 horses — 31.89 percent — failed to meet their reserves.

"The sale was as expected, considering last year in this session we had 11 million-dollar horses, and this year we had one, that's a chunk of the gross," said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales. "I think there have been a lack of horses in the top end and, in a recessionary market, that is expected."

Consigned by Hill 'n' Dale Sales on behalf of the Allen E. Paulson Living Trust, Azeri was one of the most accomplished female runners in recent history and is currently in foal to top sire Distorted Humor.

Her first foal, an A.P. Indy colt now named Take Control, sold for $1.9 million at this year's Keeneland April 2-year-olds in training sale after establishing a world-record mark for a buyback of $7.7 million at the 2008 Keeneland September yearling sale.

Despite having all the qualities the market would normally desire, buyer reluctance took its toll as Azeri opened with a bid of $300,000 and inched up by $100,000 and $50,000 increments before finally reaching the $2 million mark.

"You have mixed emotions when you spend years with an important and special mare," said Sikura, who has boarded Azeri for years and also consigned her first two foals. "You feel a sense of loss, but the other side is there was a trust that was liquidating its assets and she happened to be the most valuable of the remaining assets.

"The sales price is probably more a reflection of the marketplace than anything else," Sikura continued. "People are still very risk averse. There is definitely a different top line on what is value and it's probably a third of or half of what it was last year. It's reflective in a mare like this."

The soft market has however created greater opportunity for buyers to buy mares that previously may have been out of reach, and the Yoshida family capitalized on that with Azeri.

"We didn't expect we'd be able to buy this mare," said Shunsuke Yoshida, who signed the ticket on behalf of his father, Katsumi. "We just kept on bidding within our budget and she came to us. She will go to Japan."

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