By Bill Finley
The Irish Thoroughbred Breeders' Association's annual Wild Geese Award is given to someone from Ireland who has excelled outside of their native country while “flying the Irish flag with pride on a global stage.” In this year's winner, Gerry Dilger, the organization found someone who checked all the boxes.
Dilger, who operates Dromoland Farm in Lexington, was given the award on Saturday at the ITBA's National Breeding & Racing Awards ceremony.
“I was very honored to receive this award,” Dilger said. “It was greatly satisfying to be honored and to accept the award.”
Dilger typifies many of the people from Ireland who have gone to the U.S. and have made a mark on the racing and breeding industries in their adopted country. He went to the U.S. in 1978 “as a young kid looking for an opportunity” and has gone on to become one of the most respected people in the business and the co-breeder of a GI Kentucky Derby winner.
Dilger, who is from County Clare, graduated from the Irish National Stud course in 1977. From there he was among a small group of young aspiring horsemen from Ireland who were hired to work at a Lexington farm. It was a stepping stone to bigger and better things. He went on to become a farm manager, to lease his own farm, and to form a partnership with Mike Ryan buying and selling weanlings and yearlings. The team enjoyed a great deal of success, which allowed Dilger to open his own farm, Dromoland, in 1994.
Dilger's most notable accomplishments have come within the last four years or so. Along with partners Ted Campion and Pat Costello, he bought 2015 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist (Uncle Mo) for $180,000 as a weanling at Keeneland November in 2013 and raised him at Dromoland. They resold him for $230,000 at Keeneland September to a group that, ironically, included Ryan. Finally, Nyquist was bought for $400,000 at the 2015 Fasig-Tipton Florida Select 2-Year-Olds in Training by Reddam Racing.
Dilger's fingerprints were all over the 2017 Kentucky Derby winner, just even more so. He and Ryan breed horses under the name of Santa Rosa Partners and they are the breeders of Derby winner Always Dreaming (Bodemeister).
“Mike and I have a handful of mares and we always try to pick good young stallions that showed a lot of potential on the racetrack and look to be nice stallion prospects.” Dilger explained. “I really loved Bodemeister when he was running and thought he had great ability.”
Always Dreaming, whose dam is Above Perfection, was sold for $350,000 at Keeneland September in 2015. He is from Bodemeister's first crop.
Dilger also enjoyed a rare feat during the 2009 Saratoga meet. Along with Ryan, he bred Hot Dixie Chick (Dixie Union), the winner of that year's GI Spinaway S. A day later, he completed a double when Dublin (Afleet Alex) won the GI Hopeful. He bred that colt in partnership with Peter Blum.
Ryan says Dilger is as gifted a horsemen as he has ever come across.
“He's one of the best horsemen I have ever met,” Ryan said. “His specialty is looking at young stock, which is not easy because they change so much. He's always upbeat, always thinking positive. Even when the horse business was going through challenging times he was always cheerful and bright. You don't ever see him down. If you do, something must really be bothering him. I think that's part of the reason for his success, that he has a positive attitude and he loves what he's doing.”
Ryan also praised Dilger the person.
“He's a tremendous human being, just a great guy,” he said. “If you are in trouble he'd be the first man you'd call because he'd always be there for you. He's been a terrific friend to me for 40 plus years. All the years we've been together as partners we've never had an argument.”
As a way to represent Ireland and to help the breeding and racing industries there, Dilger has always opened his doors to young Irish people who want to learn about racing in America. He said he remembers what it was like to be young, ambitious, from a foreign country and looking for a break.
“A lot of people come over here from Ireland,” he said. “They get experience and come back home and do very well. I have been a mentor to a lot of young Irish people that have gone on to become trainers, farm managers, bloodstock agents. I think that's one of the reasons they gave me this award.”