Breeders' Spotlight: In Response to Evolving Landscape, Woods Edge Builds Reputation as a Breeder

Peter and Jenny O'Callaghan at Woods Edge Farm | Sara Gordon

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We know it as a tried-and-true consignment that has been making headlines at the Keeneland September Sale for over 20 years now. And we know its figurehead Peter O'Callaghan as one of the sharpest pinhookers in the game–flipping a $400,000 American Pharoah colt into a $2.2 million Keeneland September yearling in 2018 and before that, pinhooking a $180,000 War Front weanling into a $2.5 million yearling at the same sale back in 2013. But what's relatively new for us, when considering Woods Edge Farm, is finding the operation listed as the breeder of a growing number of accomplished racehorses.

In recent years as Woods Edge has turned its focus toward selling its own foals, more and more of their six and even seven-figure Keeneland September scores are coming from their own homebreds. The results are showing up on the racetrack too. Just this month, Woods Edge celebrated its first Grade I winner.

Du Jour (Temple City) had been knocking at the door of Grade I status for some time before his victory in the GI Frank E. Kilroe Mile S. He came on the scene with a win in the GII American Turf S. in 2021 and since then has been a competitive turfer first in New York and then back in California, but the Bob Baffert trainee finally earned his breakthrough victory in his 6-year-old debut in the Kilroe on March 3.

It was almost a Grade I double for the farm that day because in the next race at Santa Anita, Reincarnate (Good Magic) came up only a few lengths short in the GI Santa Anita H., finishing third behind fellow Baffert trainee Newgate (Into Mischief).

The winner of the 2023 GIII Sham S., Reincarnate was Woods Edge Farm's first Kentucky Derby starter. He didn't perform as hoped at Churchill Downs, but came back to win the Los Alamitos Derby later last summer.

O'Callaghan picked Reincarnate's dam Allanah (Scat Daddy) out of the back ring at Keeneland in 2018. She was in foal to Street Boss and he bought her for $105,000.

Reincarnate as a yearling ahead of the Keeneland September Sale | Thorostride

“She was a nice Scat Daddy mare, a big, strong gray mare and a good walker,” O'Callaghan recalled. “She was a stakes winner herself and she had a bit of family. She's the kind of mare we're looking for in Book 2–in our budget but has some credentials. $105,000 was about the top of what we would give that year.”

O'Callaghan sent Allanah back to first-crop sire Good Magic and the resulting foal was Reincarnate, who was a show-stopper from the start and sold for $775,000 at Keeneland September to the partnership of SF Bloodstock, Starlight Racing and Madaket Stables.

“He was a killer,” the Irishman said proudly. “Really just an absolute stunner, this big, beautiful gray horse. Every time you looked at him he was better. He looked like a horse who would win a Grade I, so I hope he can eventually get it done.”

While Reincarnate was a knockout for Woods Edge, Du Jour proved to be a bit of a head-scratcher.

O'Callaghan bought his dam Guiltless (Bernardini) at the 2015 Tattersalls December Mares Sale. He tried to flip the maiden mare in the U.S. the following spring, but ended up buying her back for $60,000.

“She was a Bernardini and she was from the family of Ghostzapper, but she was small,” he recalled. “If you're small at Tatts, you're definitely small for here.”

The horseman wasn't all the sorry about keeping the young mare and just two years later, she produced Du Jour. He was a big, strong-looking colt and O'Callaghan had high hopes for him, but an injury that had left a scar in a joint kept him off many buyers' lists come September.

“I remember coming back down from the ring after selling him for $19,000 thinking, 'How the hell did I just sell that horse for $19,000? What's going on here?' He had a clean sheet and he was a great-looking animal. But Carlos Morales and Joe Appelbaum bought him in the back ring and they were rewarded.”

Du Jour would go on to sell for $280,000 the following spring as a 2-year-old, but looking back now, O'Callaghan doesn't mind being on the unprofitable end of the deal. He's been on the other side of a good pinhook many a time and as a consignor, understands the importance of being practical when it comes to his clearance rate.

“It's important to peg it right,” he said. “You don't have to give 'em away, but you can't be looking for the last penny either. Set them where you think they'll sell and just go on with it. Let people bid for them. If you're in the selling game, I believe it's important to be known as a seller.”

O'Callaghan, a trusted source for many buyers at the Keeneland September Sale, has long been regarded for his eye for horseflesh and the record of his yearling program. Graduates include the likes of future Grade I-winning stallions Knicks Go, Drefong, Eskendereya and Street Boss.

The variation in focus from pinhooks to homebreds was slow at first, but it gained momentum after positive early results. The commercial operation is now up to foaling out 40 of their own mares this spring.

The reasoning behind the shift? O'Callaghan noticed the market's demand for quality increasing and knew the pinhooking game at the level he hopes to compete at would only become more challenging as the trend continues.

“We don't want to be too one dimensional,” he explained. “It's a quicker turnaround with the pinhooks and a slightly better cashflow situation, but it's just becoming a very high risk, expensive game to play with the way the market is going. I'm not trying to criticize the market. There's a lot of money out there and a lot of demand for quality, but the buyers want it all. When you have a lot of those expensive foals, some of them won't quite finish out like you maybe thought they would and then you'll always come up with a few veterinary issues so all of a sudden you're in trouble with a quarter-million dollar foal. Your back is to the wall.”

O'Callaghan is still busy buying weanlings every November, but the homebreds growing up back at the farm give him the flexibility to find the right additions for their program.

“We were giving yearling prices year on year for these foals and a couple would work, but then you'd have to eat a couple that really hurt you,” he said. “We were under too much pressure to have to fill the barns with bought foals. At least this way we have 20 or 30 homebreds at home and we can be a bit more selective on what we're buying and more disciplined on what we spend. We don't have to chase them as hard.”

One of the early success stories as O'Callaghan began making a pointed effort to develop his own broodmare band was the Speightstown mare Nefertiti, whom he bought in foal to Into Mischief for $125,000 in 2014. That resulting foal was Engage, who sold for $200,000 as a yearling and became a two-time graded stakes winner and earner of over $800,000.

But O'Callaghan found it difficult to work the breeding stock sales shopping for both mares and pinhook prospects, trying to catch mares in the back ring while also chasing down weanlings. Luckily he soon obtained a secret weapon of sorts in his wife Jenny.

Du Jour scores in the GI Frank E. Kilroe Mile S. | Benoit

A graduate of the Godolphin Flying Start program who also hails from Ireland, Jenny was working at WinStar Farm when the pair got to know each other. They were married in 2017 at Woods Edge.

Jenny began helping O'Callaghan at the November Sale each fall, focusing on finding mares that would fit their program. There were several years where she herself was pregnant, due right after the first of the year, so she planted a chair in the back ring at Keeneland and did her shopping from there.

“We called it the mare chair,” Jenny recalled with a laugh. “I would sit in the back ring and Peter would be back and forth chasing after foals going to the barn. I'd be in the mare chair and call him every time there was a nice mare in the back ring. Later on when I wasn't pregnant, we wanted to make it a priority. So I would go look at the mares and create a shortlist. That made it much tidier and we were able to stretch a little bit more because we had done our homework.”

The results from the team's new sales strategy are starting to show. In 2021 when Reincarnate brought 775,000, they had two more homebreds sell for half a million in September. A City of Light colt out of Miss Mo Kelly (Congrats) brought $500,000 and another colt by the same sire and out of Ghostslayer (Ghostzapper) sold for $1.05 million. Ghostslayer, a $110,000 Keeneland November buy for Woods Edge in 2018, also produced a $700,000 Arrogate colt in 2022.

Their numbers are growing too. In 2013, 9 of the 50 yearlings Woods Edge sold at Keeneland September were homebreds. Last year, there were 18 homebreds from 51 sold.  Also last year, Woods Edge purchased eight mares out of Keeneland November.

“We've been getting more aggressive the last two or three years,” Jenny noted. “We stay within our budget and we can compromise on most things, but we never compromise on looks. We always try and get the sire line, the race record, the family and the looks, but that's a million-dollar mare. We'll never sacrifice the looks, so sometimes we have to go all the way down to the maiden-winning fillies in the racehorse section.”

“I think everybody is migrating toward that,” O'Callaghan added in reference to making the physical aspect a priority. “All the people who used to flip mares and cover them, they've all learned that too. Unless the mares are good-looking, those guys really don't get much profit on them now. If they are good-looking, they get well-paid for them. I think the game has changed in that direction.”

O'Callaghan had plenty of experience developing his eye for a good physical long before Woods Edge opened its doors. Back home in Ireland, his parents Gay and Annette O'Callaghan own Yeomanstown Stud, home of the ultra-successful sire Dark Angel (Ire). When O'Callaghan was growing up, his father would travel to Keeneland every year to shop for mares and pinhooks. After finishing school and spending three seasons at Ballydoyle, O'Callaghan came to the U.S. upon his father's suggestion. He worked a season at Nick de Meric's and then came up to Lexington to learn from his father's longtime friend Gerry Dilger.

In 2001, O'Callaghan was set to come back home. But his father proposed that he stay an extra week or two to look around for a farm to lease. Gay joined him when he got to town for the November Sale and they went searching for properties with realtor Arnold Kirkpatrick.

“They were all quite nice, but it was difficult to find anything particularly outstanding,” O'Callaghan recalled. “Then Arnold said he was going to show us one more place, but that it was not for lease. So we drove to Woods Edge and did a handshake deal with him on the spot to buy the place. It was a stunning farm and a great location. Everything came with it; it was absolutely turnkey. So all of a sudden we were going from leasing a hundred acres to owning 350.”

Peter and Jenny with Ghostslayer's 2024 filly by Flightline | Sara Gordon

Woods Edge quickly grew from there. They purchased an annex to the property on Old Richmond Road a few years later and then added a 300-acre location next to Juddmonte Farm on Jacks Creek Pike.

With Woods Edge now foaling over 60 mares each year between their own broodmare band and client mares, the ample space of the farm's sprawling pastures provides an ideal setup to raise their foals on open, rested pasture space.

O'Callaghan jokes that the farm is “horse heaven” because any member of the equine species that resides on the property far outlives their life expectancy. When he purchased the original Woods Edge acreage, the farm came with two ponies. He was told not to worry about them because they were already quite old. One pony lived for another 15 years and the other, Misty, still resides on the farm today at the age of 34. The tiny old mare earns her keep as an excellent babysitter for the weanlings and a reliable source for snail-paced pony rides for the O'Callaghan clan.

The O'Callaghans have three boys ages five, four and two and they also have a daughter on the way.

Balancing a hectic schedule with three young kids and a business with several dozen employees is no easy task, but the O'Callaghans appreciate the family aspect of their chosen industry.

“I think we work really well together,” Jenny said. “We do all our matings together and we make major decisions together. Peter is the day-to-day and definitely the talent, but I learn from him every day. I think with this industry, you just have to live for it. It's all-consuming. We're on the farm every day and the kids love it. We hope that they can enjoy it as much as we do. When we go past Keeneland on the way to school they ask if we can go to the sales. They associate Buckles the Keeneland mascot with Santa.”

“Every year after we finish up the November Sale, we go to the farm and go through the homebreds,” she continued. “We're so proud of the stock that we have and just pinch ourselves because of the job that Peter and his team do every day. [Our farm] is just huge, open fields. All day, every day, the horses come up for a couple of hours in the morning just to be checked and handled and then they go straight back out again. They are big and strong and fluffy and everything a beautiful horse should be. We go through the stock and think, 'This is just the dream.' Not everything is perfect, but on the whole we're really pleased with where our program is going and what we're producing.”

There's plenty to look forward to as the year progresses. While Du Jour continues to make a name for himself in the turf division and Reincarnate searches for that Grade I victory, a pair of Woods Edge-bred sophomore fillies have bright futures ahead. Midshipman's Dance (Midshipman) won the Mockingbird S. early this year and was fifth in the GIII Honeybee S. while Our Pretty Woman (Medaglia d'Oro) is two for two for Courtlandt Farms and Steve Asmussen and is pointing for the GII Fair Grounds Oaks.

While their strategies may evolve, the foundation that Woods Edge was built on hasn't cracked. The philosophies that were set in place more than 20 years ago, when Woods Edge first hung its banner out at Keeneland, still hold firm today.

“I've always been very forthright and honest with all the clientele that buy off Wood Edge for the last 20 plus years,” said O'Callaghan. “It's important to feel that they know that they can trust what we're offering and trust what we tell them.”

“It's a small business, but it's also a relationship business,” he continued. “We've kind of stood the test of time, but it's only because we have good relationships with people. We are as straight as a gun barrel with anyone that asks us anything about any of the animals. We're not going to sell anyone a horse with an issue. We just won't. We want to come back the next year and be able to look whoever it is in the eye and know that we did right by them.”

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