By Steve Sherack
While champion Nyquist (Uncle Mo) awaits a showdown with fellow unbeaten Mohaymen (Tapit) in the upcoming GI Florida Derby, bloodstock agent Dennis O’Neill–the older brother of leading trainer Doug O’Neill–continues to scout the 2-year-old in training sales for future prospects. Last year’s GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner was selected by O’Neill on behalf of owner J. Paul Reddam for $400,000 at the 2015 Fasig-Tipton Florida Select 2-Year-Olds in Training Sale.
O’Neill has enjoyed plenty of success throughout the years at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Complex, too, headed by dual Classic winner and 2012 champion 3-year-old I’ll Have Another (Flower Alley) ($35,000 OBSAPR); two-time GI Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile hero Goldencents (Into Mischief) ($62,000 OBSJUN); and last term’s GI Darley Alcibiades S. heroine Gomo (Uncle Mo) ($75,000 OBSMAR).
With the first of three breeze shows ahead of next week’s OBS March 2-Year-Olds in Training Sale in the books, TDN’s Senior Editor Steve Sherack (@SteveSherackTDN) caught up with O’Neill for a Q&A session.
Q: Take us through your process while shopping the 2-year-old sales. How do you arrive at your shortlist?
DO: I’m probably a little different than most in that the majority of my emphasis at the shows is on the breeze itself. I’ll go through the breezes really well and watch each one three or four times and we’ll shortlist from there. I’ll actually take a look at maybe 20-30% of them. I’ll knock that list way down, and then we’ll start vetting.
I think I looked at 40 horses at Miami [for the Fasig-Tipton Florida 2-Year-Old Sale]. We vetted 11 and bid on six. Five failed the vet. I generally don’t look that closely at the catalogue for the pedigrees. A lot of it for me is looks, and the breeze is definitely by far probably 90% of what I buy. I actually just found out the other day that Nyquist’s Dosage Index is 7.00. I know that’s very high, but that never would’ve played into anything that I do at the sales.
Q: With a reputation for shopping value, are there certain defects or flaws that you can live with that others may pass on?
DO: Absolutely. After doing this for 30 years, I think it helps me a lot that every horse that I buy I also get to see every day at Doug’s barn. A lot of agents buy horses and then they’re off to whoever they go to. My situation is a little different because everything I buy goes to Doug to train. So I’ve learned over time the things that we can live with and what we can’t.
Obviously, breathing issues we stay away from. Back at the knees, I won’t buy something like that… Toes out and toes in, I’ll buy those. I think a lot of it goes by experience and past history of what we’ve bought and been successful with. I will definitely buy some horses that a lot of people wouldn’t. Nyquist is the perfect example. He had two or three issues–vet wise-that I felt would never bother him and it definitely got a lot of people off him last year. Right now, knock on wood, none of that has affected him at all.
Q: You were able to bring home GI Kentucky Derby and GI Preakness S. winner I’ll Have Another for just $35,000 as an OBS April juvenile. Can you reflect on his breeze and what led you to him?
DO: I’ll Have Another was just a beautiful horse. A lot of what I look for could end up being by an unpopular sire. Nobody really wanted a Flower Alley at the time, but he was a beautiful horse. I thought he breezed absolutely fantastic. It wasn’t that fast, but the way he did it, including his gallop out, was just effortless. And he was very well-put together-average size, correct, and everything was there, and I thought for $50,000 or $60,000, I couldn’t see how we could go wrong on him.
For me, if they breeze good and they look good and I look down at the page and he’s by Tapit, I know I’m in trouble, but if they’re by Flower Alley or something like that, then I’m thinking, ‘O.K.’ Or if they’re by a freshman sire. I paid a bunch of money [$800,000] for a Tapizar [Hip 117] the other day [at Fasig-Tipton Florida] that we’re absolutely in love with. We nailed in on a couple of Uncle Mos last year. A lot of times nobody knows how good the first-year sires will really be and sometimes you can find value there. It’s just about trying to be ahead of the curve a little bit.
Q: The OBS March Sale was expanded in 2015 and has 613 juveniles catalogued for this year’s sale. What do you think of the catalogue?
DO: I went through it a couple of times already. It really looks like a great mixture of horses. [Jimmy] Crupi has a bunch of horses that he bought for a lot of money in there, so there are some decently bred horses, including quite a few Uncle Mos. There’s going to be some real quality and expensive horses at OBSMAR. And I’m sure there will be a lot of breezes that I really like by obscure sires, too. A lot of times those are the ones I’m looking for. It looks like a great group. I can’t wait. I’ll get down there over the weekend and will start looking at them then. Just looking at the catalogue, I’m really excited to see how they breeze.
Q: What are your thoughts on the synthetic OBS Safetrack surface? How does it influence your evaluation process?
DO: With it being synthetic, it sure seems like the horses are sounder off that track than some of these dirt tracks out there. The only thing that can fool you–I’ve been fooled a couple times where you could get a turf horse out of there and not know it. There’s something about that synthetic that maybe does lean toward turf horses and I’ve definitely gotten burned before. That’s where you have to be a little careful. Not that there’s anything wrong with getting a turf horse, but that’s not really our M.O. as far as what I’m trying to find down there. I’m looking for dirt horses that’ll go a distance of ground.
Q: Having the breeze show held over three days for this sale seems to be quite popular with buyers and consignors alike. Any preference?
DO: I think it’s fantastic. You can really get burned out when you start looking at 300-400 videos a day. So looking at 200 a day-actually, it will probably be around 175-180-that’s just fantastic. I could sit there for six or seven hours and go through all of the videos and make my short list each day. The way they’ve got it set up right now is really good, for both the March and April sales. I can’t say enough good things about OBS. They keep making changes every year to make it even better. It works out really well for me.
Q: There are several high-profile freshman sires represented in the OBSMAR catalogue. You seemed quite bullish on aforementioned Tapizar filly at F-T Florida. Who are some others that you’re high on from this class?
DO: There have been a couple. The three big ones for me at the yearling sales were Tapizar, Union Rags and The Factor. I really liked the [$975,000] Union Rags colt that Ciaran Dunne had in Miami [Hip 103]. He just went for a little too much for us, but we were in there swinging for as far as we could go. Those three are the ones that have really stood out to me.
Q: The first crop of Uncle Mo was obviously quite kind to you. What specifically led you to the young Coolmore stallion’s progeny?
DO: Looks. It’s funny because I always think Bob Baffert buys the same horse over and over, but I’m probably guilty of doing the same thing. They just have a look. They’re really athletic and really smart horses. They just have such good minds. The more athletic and leaner, longer ones–those seem like the runners. They hold up training-wise and they generally could go a distance of ground. He’s stamped a lot of them and the ones that do look like him are the runners. There’s quite a few of them entered at OBSMAR. I’m excited to see how they look.
Q: You will also be represented as a seller at OBS March. Tell us a little about your Uncle Mo colt, Hip 79, who you acquired for $130,000 as a FTKOCT yearling.
DO: I bought him for Danny Kramer, who lives down in San Diego. I was at the sale just kind of kicking tires, but called him and said, ‘There’s an Uncle Mo in here that’s absolutely gorgeous.’ We just fell in love with him. I really only wanted to spend $100,000, but we kept going. He hasn’t missed a beat since and I know Ciaran [Dunne] is really excited about him. Danny races, so unless someone wants to pay for him, it will definitely be no harm to put him in Doug’s barn, that’s for sure.
Q: It’s difficult to gauge just off the Florida sale, but how do you see the 2-year-old market playing out this spring?
DO: I was pretty surprised, Miami was really tough. We always put values on horses and try really hard to stick to them. Hip 5 [$1-million Uncle Mo colt] went pretty far over what we thought he’d go for, and we really didn’t want to pay what we did for the Tapizar, but we wanted to get her really badly and kept going.
I know the consignors have been saying this, but it sure looks like if you have a horse that vets well, looks well and breezes well, you’re going to do really well with them. I’m just hoping that I can find some that don’t have the pedigree to go along with everything else and will be affordable. That’s always my goal going into these OBS sales. Trying to find some really nice horses that may be under the radar, as far as pedigree goes.
Q: What is the biggest issue facing the 2-year-old sales right now? The gallop-outs have certainly sparked some controversy in recent years.
DO: I hate to be non-controversial, but I’m very happy with everything they do. I really don’t care if they gallop out or not. I know Ciaran [Dunne] went through a thing last year where he wasn’t letting any of his horses gallop out and I know I bought three or four horses off him and a couple of decent ones, too. It doesn’t matter to me. I want to see them run basically from the 1/16 pole to the wire. I’m really honing in on how they look, if they’re on the right lead and all that kind of stuff, and where their head is. I don’t think it’s asking too much to let these babies run 1/16 mile or so. I love the way they do things at these sales.
Q: With the Florida Derby less than a month away, how is Nyquist doing? What’s the experience been like watching him run the table so far?
DO: He couldn’t be doing any better. He’s grown up, gotten a little bit bigger and filled out. Mind-wise, he’s gotten a lot easier on himself, too. He’s a much more mature horse this year and has really mellowed out. I know there a lot of doubts about him getting a distance of ground, but from all the horses I’ve ever bought, he’s probably one of the ones I’ve been least concerned about getting distance between his mind and make-up and the way he’s built. I’m just not a big pedigree believer. Everybody keeps telling me that the bottom side isn’t going to carry him 1 1/4 miles. But I know what I see and I know how he trains. I can’t wait for Apr. 2. It’s going to be a great race and a lot of fun. Nobody knows how good Mohaymen is yet. Hopefully it turns out to be another Alydar and Affirmed. We’re excited and wouldn’t trade places.