An Angel's Blessing on Windylea Ambitions

Kip and Phil O'Neill | courtesy Windylea Farms

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The docket was signed, in the name of Windylea Farm, and handed back to the Keeneland rep. Kip O'Neill and his father looked at each other, their expressions registering mutual bafflement. “What are we missing here?”

Unaccountably, their bid of $3,000 had not been answered. They had set a budget of $30,000 or so, and even that gave them limited confidence they could bring this young Hard Spun mare back to Hoosick Falls, New York. Yet the vendors, having been obliged to write off a Kitten's Joy covering fee after she lost her pregnancy, had evidently sent her into the ring with no reserve.”And, as it turned out, we weren't missing anything,” says O'Neill now, some 15 months later. “She did just fall through the cracks.”

That was the final session of the 2019 January Sale. Whispering Angel, just turned seven, had already delivered two foals after flashing plenty of talent in a career spanning only ten weeks for Todd Pletcher, winning two of three starts for Bobby Flay. Her second foal, a Karakontie (Jpn) filly, actually followed her into the ring but failed to meet her reserve; while the first, a colt by Lookin At Lucky, had been picked up by Whitman Sales and Judy Karlin for $18,000 at the September Sale.

He proved a good pinhook, realizing $105,000 at O.B.S. March last year. O'Neill, having meanwhile had Whispering Angel covered by Army Mule, monitored her son's progress. He joined Brad Cox and, though disappearing from the worktab in the summer, began to show increasing promise on his resumption. In October, he clocked a bullet 46.8 at Keeneland, fastest of 75 half-mile breezes that day. That was enough for the O'Neills to book Whispering Angel to Lookin At Lucky for the 2020 season.

She kept that appointment at Ashford last Friday. Within 24 hours, her son had won the GII Louisiana Derby.

Whatever he does from here, Wells Bayou's emergence among the leading sophomores of 2020 already qualifies his dam as a wonderful boost to Windylea. She was, after all, just one of eight mares acquired at that same sale, testament to a recent determination by the O'Neill family to elevate their farm to the next level. None cost more than $55,000–yet all had youth on their side; all were by copper-bottomed sires, such as Scat Daddy and Ghostzapper; and all offered genuine quality close up in the pedigree.

A $27,000 maiden mare by Uncle Mo, for instance, was out of a half-sister to the dam of tragic GI Kentucky Derby runner-up Eight Belles (Unbridled's Song); and her grand-dam is a Mr Prospector half-sister to Belong To Me (Danzig). As for Whispering Angel herself, she is out of a Theatrical (Ire) half-sister to the dam of dual Classic winner Big Brown (Boundary).

Finds like this can only be made by the most diligent prospecting; besides, perhaps, a willingness to absorb the odd quibble with a transfusion of quality into your broodmare band. In the case of Whispering Angel, for instance, O'Neill suspects that the failure of her latest pregnancy will have caused many to strike a line through her page.

Mares and foals at Windylea

“When there are so many others being offered, I think that a possible early propensity of that kind will tend to lose a mare a lot of flavor in the U.S. market,” he says. “But a farm our size is maybe more willing to take a shot, if she has everything else going for her.

“We really liked the look of her. Physically she's a very well put together young mare, with a very nice disposition. We've always liked Hard Spun, and her daughter by Karakontie (Jpn) was also at the sale, so we could see what type of foal she was able to produce. So yes, we were very surprised.”

Like every professional horseman, O'Neill acknowledges the role of luck. But the success of Wells Bayou actually vindicates a key plank of their strategy.

“Very often we'll be looking for mares that have been decently bred in their first couple of years,” he explains. “That way they may have something to support them, by the time our own foals reach either the track or the sales ring. So she did fit into our formula, and I guess just all the dots connected to make this one successful.”

Whispering Angel, bred by Patinack Farm and originally a $140,000 weanling purchase by James Delahooke, had been culled at the 2016 Keeneland November Sale for $50,000 to Knowles Bloodstock, carrying Wells Bayou in utero. Both the mare (with her Karakontie cover) and her short yearling were then sold to Willow Pond at the 2018 January Sale, for $35,000 and $50,000 respectively–investments that did not pay off as they deserved. Within a year, as we've seen, both had been sold for an aggregate $21,000.

Among horsemen, however, the one that got away is always someone else's home run.

“We obviously have a lot of downside protection on the mare now, which probably wasn't there until Wells Bayou placed in the [GIII] Southwest S.,” O'Neill says. “Once he did that, and now that he's won the Louisiana Derby, this mare's established. I understand her Karakontie filly is in training, and she has meanwhile had a beautiful Army Mule filly, with really good size and good bone.”
Windylea was founded in 1978 at Bennington, Vermont, by O'Neill's father Philip, a pharmacist who had built up a small stable at the nearby Green Mountain racetrack and, subsequent to its closure, at Finger Lakes.

“Dad would take me to Green Mountain as a young lad in the 70s,” recalls O'Neill. “They ran races mostly at five-eighths, though the oval was 13/16ths. And they didn't allow under-18s on the front side, so I could only watch races from the clockers' stand. As I understand it, Saratoga did not race Sundays back then and Green Mountain, being only an hour away, would fill up with thousands of people looking for action over the border. Anyhow Dad bought this small farm, put up a couple of barns, and used a couple of mares he'd raced early on to start a little breeding operation.”

From that acorn has grown an oak now spreading its branches ever wider. The New York division was purchased three years ago, with 30 stalls and 75 acres of pasture; and soon afterwards the O'Neills added a property in Naples, Florida, for retraining and rehoming. At the same time, as mentioned, they were undertaking an upgrade in their racing and breeding stock. Having patiently developed a viable model at a lower level, they now felt ready to test the same principles at a higher level: still outsourcing the foaling and breeding, and still trying to strike a balance between sales ring and their green-and-gold racing silks.

“I think my dad's passion probably leans a little more heavily to the breeding side of the business, and mine a little more towards the racing,” says O'Neill. “Though Whispering Angel may just be swaying me a little bit! But while it all starts with enjoyment, that is going to wane if you don't get some kind of revenues coming in too. We've just over 100 horses in our portfolio: about one-third mares, one-third racing stock, and one-third younger horses preparing either for the sales ring or the track. What we're trying to do now would be very similar to any other type of business model. We'll retire the lower 20 percent of our broodmares every year, find them good homes, and try to replace them with better quality.

BENNINGTON, VERMONT: Silk Road Covered Bridge. (Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“And from a racing standpoint, we're looking to compete at a higher level too. So where our focus up to 2018 had primarily been on Finger Lakes, and down at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Arizona, now our efforts are expanded to include the top level circuits in New York, Florida, Louisiana and Kentucky.”

At present about 80 percent of their mares foal New York-breds, and Windylea intends to continue support of the state program; and to maintain a longstanding relationship with trainer Jon Buckley, a Finger Lakes mainstay since 1977. (“A very good caretaker of a horse,” enthuses O'Neill. “And very conservative in his approach with young horses until he can realize their true strengths.”) But some mares are now being sent to farms in Florida, while racetrack opportunities are soon likely to be embraced in Louisiana and Texas.

Auspiciously, O'Neill grasps something that eludes so many who operate at the level to which Windylea aspires: namely, that nothing should be more commercial than a mare who produces runners. “As we improve our mare inventory, we're trying to breed mostly commercial-but we're not looking just for good-looking early babies that will do well in the ring,” he says. “If you're still breeding a mare that has white paper through the first and second dams, that's probably not one you're ever going to something commercial with. Of course, she may still throw a nice, healthy foal that you can race, so we might just breed her very conservatively.”

Those that don't make the grade, however, are treated in exemplary fashion. A few are retired to the Vermont farm, but the dedicated division in Florida is a lesson in taking responsibility.
“Any horse we retire, we're always looking to do the right thing by them,” O'Neill says. “Up here in the Northeast we've had some go on to barrel racing, and some into the hunter world, but we thought it was time to invest in a small facility of our own, in a part of the country more conducive to finding a home for these types.”

That same, intimate connection, moreover, is where O'Neill hopes Windylea can set itself apart as it strives to match deeper competition.

“Ninety percent of what we all do in this business is basically the same,” he acknowledges. “What we may have, versus others, is that we are very hands-on. Where we know our strengths end, we do outsource to other experienced professionals. But we have a very good feeding program, and very good staff, very well educated from a care standpoint. They've been with us a long time.

As we've learned the business, so have they.

“And we're very transparent with them as to our vision, as to where we want to be heading. We may never get to that top echelon, but our goal is to get everything in place to try-while at the same time recognizing where we came from; and respecting that, and enjoying racing at the lower levels as well. We won an $8,000 claimer at Tampa last Friday and, you know, I was probably almost as deeply excited by that as by the Louisiana Derby, because I knew what it meant to the farm in a more immediate sense.”

That said, O'Neill accepts that their $3,000 mare could become a symbol of hope for many others striving to beat the odds. At the best of times, this is a tough business; and these, as we all know, are not the best of times. Certainly O'Neill won't be getting ahead of himself, with the prospect of a sibling to Wells Bayou. Much will have to go right, before he can start dreaming of a filly eligible to become a foundation mare; or maybe a colt to outshine every other New York yearling offered for sale in 2022.

“At this point, I wouldn't change what we always hope for,” O'Neill says. “And that's just for a healthy, correct foal. You know, the world's going through some turmoil at the moment. Depending how all this shakes out, who knows, the sales ring may not be the place you want to be in a year or two. But so long as you have young mares that are producing, that will allow you to keep upgrading.”

So feet are being kept firmly on the ground, up in the wooded hills between the Vermont and New York farms. At the same time-with an octogenarian father who has nurtured first a passion, and now a family business-O'Neill does not need telling to enjoy the ride.

“Certainly Saturday was a very fulfilling day,” he says. “I know what it means to my dad, and to our farm operation, to have a young mare with a horse like this as her first foal. With everything else going on in the world, I was just really happy they ran the Louisiana Derby on Saturday. And remember Wells Bayou is not even a true 3-year-old yet, as an April foal.

“We need to keep everything in perspective, and stay reasonable about what our expectations can be. But you have to enjoy things like this, when they happen, because we can never forecast the future. So I think this is something all of us, who are long-time horse-lovers and investors in the game, can appreciate and hope for.”

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