By Chris McGrath
We've all seen those old thrillers where the sports car is twisting along a road cut into a coastal cliff, and suddenly one of the wheels is spinning over the sea far below. Well, that's pretty much how it feels when a commercial breeder decides to bring home a Book 1 yearling at $385,000. In both cases, you're putting an awful lot of trust in horsepower, admittedly in its sleekest form, getting you back on the road. Unlike Cary Grant in North By Northwest, however, you don't even have the excuse that someone has first poured a bottle of bourbon down your throat.
In the case of a Quality Road colt offered by Stonehaven Steadings at the 2020 September Sale, on behalf of co-breeder Bart Evans, the road was not just regained, but has opened up a spectacular new vista.
First the team got the de Meric family behind the wheel: Nick de Meric loved the horse, took 30%, thought he'd flourish in their program. Eight months later, after a :10 flat breeze, the September reject topped OBS April at $1.5 million, sold to Speedway Stables (with the ever-sage counsel of Marette Farrell).
Then, a month or so ago, even as the Stonehaven team was preparing their next September consignment, the Quality Road colt made his debut for Bob Baffert at Del Mar. He romped to the crop's highest Beyer to date, an automatic 'TDN Rising Star.'
It was a timely showcase for a farm owned by Jeff and Chiquita Reddoch, and run with the help of their daughter Leah and her husband Aidan O'Meara. The Reddochs had made a flying start at Stonehaven, previously part of Saxony Farm, as breeders of 2012 champion juvenile Shanghai Bobby (Harlan's Holiday). Now here was confirmation that Stonehaven could raise a horse not just to sell for big money, but to run for it too. That can only have encouraged a Talla Racing and West Point Thoroughbreds partnership when, just nine days later, they signed a very similar docket–at $1.55 million–for a Justify colt out of True Feelings (Latent Heat).
All parties could take heart, then, when, last week, Baffert bumped the star graduate of the farm's previous cycle straight into Grade I company for the American Pharoah S. For this colt, of course, is none other than Corniche: cleverly named for precisely those giddy coastal routes, with the elements of engineering and water respectively suggested by Quality Road and the 16-year-old dam Wasted Tears (Najran), who was bred, owned and trained by Evans to win half a dozen graded stakes.
“It's been a long process, since that cold February morning when you had a hold of his front legs pulling him out of his mamma,” reflects O'Meara. “When you've been through that whole process, raising them on the farm, it's always a bittersweet moment when you get back from the sale and see their paddocks standing empty. Yes, you know they've gone into good hands. But even bringing $1.5 million at a 2-year-old sale gives you no guarantee of success. So the way this horse has stood up to every question he's been asked–first going through our program, and then the de Merics', and then to breeze like he did, and now to come through as the kind of racehorse he's turning into–has just been phenomenal to see.”
The problem, last September, had been drawing Hip 10 in a sale so exposed to the unprecedented uncertainties of the pandemic. The partners had to choose: roll with the punches, or hold their ground and fight back?
“Obviously we're biased,” Leah O'Meara accepts. “But we thought we knew what we had. And, honestly, that ended up giving us an opportunity out of what was potentially a pretty bad situation. We're just so thankful that the de Merics had faith in the horse. They did a fantastic job with him, and then Marette and her clients appreciated him for what he was. We did everything we could, but after that there's been a whole group of people that has brought him to where he is now.”
“In some ways, it was a no-brainer,” Aidan O'Meara says. “But at the same time, it was tough to RNA one of your best yearlings, at that kind of money, when you couldn't know what was coming round the corner. So seeing the whole vibe surrounding the horse, when we went down to the sale [in Ocala], was a special moment. Anyone who'd ever bought a serious 2-year-old was vetting him. So of course you start to get excited, but nobody could ever have expected him to go to the point he did.”
For Corniche to vindicate both his price and his upbringing, either side of the auction, vividly compounded the momentum achieved by the farm at the September Sale-when in the top 10 consignors by average, and as high as third among those trading 10 or more yearlings. A gross of $5.6 million for 19 hips sold (of 20 offered) generated an average yield of $294,737.
Besides their big score, they also sold another Justify colt (out of the Bernardini mare Venetian Sonata) in Book 1 for $600,000, and fillies by City Of Light and Uncle Mo for $500,000 and $425,000. And then there was the next yearling out of Corniche's dam, a filly by Mendelssohn, a $750,000 buyout by Evans–a cherished partner since being introduced to the farm by manager Colby Marks.
“I said to Bart, 'You might want to think about buying this one, because you might not get another shot at a filly,'” recalls Jeff Reddoch. “Bart's a legendary horseman himself and has been so great to work with. This was a fantastic filly and we're so proud and happy that he bought her.”
But the headlines went to the colt that brought Justify his first seven-figure sale in the U.S., despite having lurked in Book 2.
“We had these two beautiful Justify colts and really it was a toss of a coin which would go in Book 1,” Aidan O'Meara recalls. “But book placement is a very important part of our decision-making process, and the two of them had dams that were very close alphabetically, T and V, so it was conceivable that we might have found ourselves in the first 20 hips with our two best colts.”
He continued, “So we were very happy to put him in Book 2. I suppose as a little bit the bigger and stronger of the two, he just really blossomed those last two and a half months. And he did show like a beast out there: just this magnificent powerhouse of a walk to him, everybody hanging onto the big beautiful presence. And just got better and better, you could see the class coming out more every day. You never know until you get out there, how they're going to react, especially colts being with a bunch of fillies. But he just thrived on the whole environment.”
One way or another, then, the stars have certainly aligned over Stonehaven this past month. And while the team is far too seasoned to be tempted into any complacency, it does feel like something of a turning point–even if those must be negotiated with care when driving along a corniche!
“It does feel like it's been a watershed month,” concedes Aidan O'Meara. “It's been fantastic, and obviously we're very proud of the crew here. We do try to do things in a particular way, so it feels like a great validation for our program.”
And that's just what is so interesting, whenever things come together for one of many operations all striving to achieve much the same ends. Because everyone, no matter how respectful of the opposition, must believe that they are placing a worthwhile emphasis on something that sets them apart.
Aidan O'Meara responds: “Well, I think the foundation we're working on here is the land, which has a tremendous history. Four champions were raised here before we ever came on the scene, and then we got lucky right out of the gate with Shanghai Bobby. And we're also trying to blend old school horsemanship with the best of what medicine and technology has to offer. At the end of the day, you're trying to raise a racehorse. With the way the sales environment is nowadays, I think people tend to get a little bit paranoid about what might show up on x-rays. Maybe they don't let young horses do what they need to do, living that rough-n-tumble life in the paddocks. We try to do that as much as we can. Okay, so sometimes there might be a little bit of price to pay on an x-ray or two. But that's one worth paying, in the long term, if you want the reputation of a farm that will give you the best possible opportunity of coming out the other end with a racehorse.”
That same priority, “run”, also governs broodmare recruitment.
“We like a filly that has shown stakes caliber on the racetrack,” Aidan O'Meara explains. “Sometimes it won't be super obvious. Like Venetian Sonata, she was a sneaky-good filly: didn't have black-type, but had been right on top of the placings in stakes races, with a huge female family backing her up.”
She was recruited for $170,000 at the 2013 Keeneland January Sale, just a few weeks after True Feelings, runner-up in the GIII Schuylerville S. in her youth, had entered the fold for $210,000 at the November Sale.
“We'll be forgiving enough on a broodmare sire if there's depth to the family, and if the mare had quality on the track herself,” Aidan O'Meara reasons. “And even be fairly forgiving on physique. There's a lot of good mares out there that don't have a particularly pretty front end on them, and we've a couple here that might scare you in the sales ring, but they have thrown fantastic-looking babies.”
Nobody, equally, will be more heedful than Aidan O'Meara of the sire part of the equation. For the Irishman spent 20 years as stallion manager at Hill 'n' Dale before transferring to his in-laws' operation in 2017.
“In some ways it's the biggest factor that comes into it, where the sire is in his career and what he can bring to the table,” he acknowledges. “We like to use higher-end sires to help the younger mares, but also, like everybody else, try to identify the up-and-coming stallions. We bred to Quality Road when he was still $35,000, and Corniche himself was bred off a $70,000 stud fee, and that has obviously skyrocketed since.”
That didn't stop the Lane's End sire being favored as the 2019 mate for Steelin' (Orientate), the dam of Shanghai Bobby. Following the tragic loss of the mare to colic this year, their daughter was deemed far too precious to keep her engagement at the September Sale.
“It was very hard for us all, losing Steelin',” Aidan O'Meara admits. “She was a sweetheart to be around, all class, and basically the foundation mare for the farm. But she's left a huge legacy for us through her daughters and thankfully Miz Kella, her first to have runners, is already a stakes producer.”
Of course, the loss or pensioning of mares in the initial Stonehaven cycle does create scope to upgrade a broodmare band that will be confined, in quantity, to a couple of dozen.
“With a small batch of mares, they've been very good at improving their producing record,” says Jeff Reddoch, applauding his team. “And that improves what you get from the offspring as well. We have nearly 20% stakes horses to runners in our racehorse program.”
Not every graduate will hit the bull's-eye, naturally, and the Stonehaven team goes to exemplary lengths to monitor those that do miss; and to secure their future care, whether on their own farm or via retraining.
“We really want to see the horses taken care of,” Chiquita reddoch insists. “So I always say a prayer when they're on the bid block, 'Please go to someone who'll take good care of them.' Because at the end of the day–at the end of anyone's lives–it's what we did on earth that's important. And these are animals, they do have feelings, and they can't fend for themselves.”
By the same token, Leah O'Meara is a director at TCA; and urging friends and associates to move the Stonehaven team up the Hagyard “Race To Give” chart. As she says: “We have to thank these horses, because they give us everything we have.”
So there's no mistaking this firm's grasp of the mutual dependence of our industry, from their repeated appreciations for their staff to their conviction that if you do the right thing by the horse, everything else falls into place.
Yet this kind of immersion was never remotely in mind for the Reddochs, during their days running an oilfield service business. But luckily their horse-mad daughter chose Midway University, Jeff and Chiquita Reddoch started visiting from Louisiana, and the Bluegrass enchantment gradually did its work.
“We bought a farm and started learning from the bottom up,” says Chiquita Reddoch. “I'm a registered nurse, my husband's an engineer, we really didn't know much about it. But it just kind of snowballed. We didn't plan anything. We worked hard, the way we always have in all our businesses, and put our best foot forward. And now we're just very thankful to have Leah and Aidan and Colby and the boys on the farm, because they're doing a great job and we're so proud and happy to be involved.”
Leah O'Meara can't quite believe how things have unfolded. She has seen so many ventures capsize in this most precarious of industries, and yet now they can dare to sense the possibility of a tangible legacy in the breed. Certainly the left-field pedigree of Wasted Tears has been vindicated afresh, as in her racing days; and Corniche looks eligible to extend her family's influence into future generations.
“I've always said it was about little growth, little growth,” Leah O'Meara says. “And just hoping to keep some progressive momentum. So it almost feels harder to tell my parents. 'Okay, we'll try to do all this again!' They've been part of this business since 2005. They've put a lot into it. So I'm just really thankful they've stuck around, and we've had an opportunity to give them a little payback.”
Jeff Reddoch gives a laugh. “Truth is,” he says, “we don't know how to quit!” But then, more seriously, he stresses the sheer breadth of the team effort, from farriers to feed suppliers to the people who buy their horses. Those, increasingly, can sign their dockets with a firmer hand. But the Reddochs raised Leah O'Meara to that vital compromise between accepting the unknowable workings of destiny, on the one hand, and doing everything within your own compass, on the other.
“We know how tough this business can be,” Leah O'Meara says. “And for these things to happen in such a short time, we know it's pie-in-the-sky. We do just feel incredibly thankful and blessed. We're firm believers that things happen for a reason. All we can do is try to show up every day, do our job, do our part. And just pray that the rest happens. All this is very fulfilling, but we won't be patting ourselves on the back. We just want to be consistent, to keep showing up.”