Ennis Widens Shop Window on Closing Day

John Ennis | Fasig-Tipton Photo


He was hardly the first horseman who couldn't afford to be wrong, and he won't be the last. And he knows that another day, with another horse, the high-wire might not have taken the weight of the gamble. But if John Ennis duly needed a share of luck to make it across, then everything that has happened since suggests that he did so principally through his own dexterity.

The trainer remembers trembling as he signed a $7,000 docket for a Yes It's True colt at the Fasig-Tipton October Sale in 2017.

“My heart was racing,” he recalls. “The first yearling I ever bought. Combined, me and my wife probably didn't have $3,500 in our account. 'God, how am I going to pay for this?' We were still only going out then, and Erin knew nothing about the horse industry when I met her. But she's always been super supportive. And we found a way. I was able to borrow maybe $1,000 off a friend, and we had no kids then, no real responsibilities. So we just worked, just did all the extra hours we could.”

Ennis, who arrived in Kentucky a decade ago after riding as an apprentice and amateur in his native Ireland and then Britain, was at that stage still freelancing: riding trackwork, pre-training, lay-ups. But in trying to assemble a small barn in his own name, this would prove the game-changing moment.

He got the colt rolling early, starting him at the Keeneland spring meet where he showed bright speed before flattening into fifth. By starting him next in the Kentucky Juvenile Stakes, Ennis looked naïve, a dreamer. But Weiland (a name he had carried into the catalog) won a grueling stretch duel in a photo.

“So eight or nine months after we bought him, he had won a $100,000 stakes in Derby week,” Ennis says. “There were probably 60,000 people there, and I was being interviewed on NBC. It was just overnight stuff, and I ended up being able to sell the horse. So I thought to myself, 'Maybe I can make this work.' And it just snowballed from there.”

By sheer “happenstance”, as he puts it, Ennis had discovered a niche in the market that played to his instinct for a precocious horse. And each new cycle has generated extra horsepower for the next. So much so, that Ennis has three candidates to divide between the two big juvenile races on the card that closes the Churchill meet on Saturday. All three have begun their careers with the same branding: an exceptionally alert, forward style and an abundance of speed.

Mollie Kate (Tapizar) showed so much dash in her maiden over the track that Ennis is considering taking on the colts in the GIII Bashford Manor S; while Shesgotattitude (Tiznow), who beat a subsequent Royal Ascot runner-up on debut at Keeneland before struggling in the slop next time, could stay with the fillies in the Debutante S. However their trainer deploys those two, Whatstheconnection (Connect) will contest the Bashford Manor after giving his sire a first success at Indiana Grand last month.

“I actually wasn't expecting Shesgotattitude to win first time out,” Ennis says. “She was a breeze short and I thought, 'Ah, look, if she finishes in the first three I'll be happy.' But she went and won, showing a lot of heart. Mollie Kate was very impressive winning in Derby week. I think you're going to see big things from this filly, especially going two turns. Towards the end of the year, I'd hope she can maybe be looking at something like the [GI] Alcibiades. She's that good. Both fillies breezed a half in 46-and-change at the Kentucky Thoroughbred Center [Sunday], that's a really good move on a deep track, so they're sitting on 'go' for Saturday.”

For all the pace shown by Whatstheconnection on debut, this $27,000 September RNA was another who actually exceeded expectations. “I felt he was still soft, mentally and physically, that the penny hadn't dropped yet,” Ennis recalls. “And probably it still hasn't. But the second came back and won by seven next time, and this horse has improved a hell of a lot. He's a big, imposing horse, stands about 16.2hh, 16.3hh, a great mover with a great mind. He'll make them run a bit.”

The big ladder between Weiland and horses of this caliber was a $9,500 Oxbow colt Ennis found at the 2019 September Sale, deep in the second week. By this point, he had begun to find partners; but while it naturally makes sense to spread the risk, his policy is always to retain at least a leg. Apart from anything else, that manifests to potential investors his own belief and commitment; and if his judgement happens to be vindicated, then he can upgrade his restocking. Sure enough, this colt–named County Final–won on debut, finished second in the Bashford Manor, and then made $475,000 to top the Horses-of-Racing-Age catalog at the Fasig-Tipton July Sale.

“So, yes, I was able to invest a good bit more this year,” Ennis acknowledges. “And I've a real nice group. We have about 16 or 17 in the barn now, and had some good success in the spring. Hopefully we can keep going, keep buying better individuals every year.”

His work has also been noticed by breeders reluctant to send their RNAs through some Florida factory for the 2-year-old sales. In instead trying to add value on the track, Ennis is not tied down to a specific date for a specific breeze show.

“Well, I get them going the same way and the precocity shines through,” Ennis reasons. “The plan has always been: 'Opening day' [at Keeneland]. But if one of them takes a step back, I can say, 'No problem, let's wait, let's recharge.' There's nothing wrong with a [2-year-old] sale, it's great for buyers and sellers. But you have to get the horse ready to go 10 flat on that one day, and that's not easy.”

Sure enough, neither of the fillies entered for stakes on Saturday ever went through the ring. “Shesgotattitude was a small yearling, and with her nice pedigree they didn't want to end up giving her away cheaply,” Ennis explained. “They asked me to get involved and so we organized a plan, and it's worked out great for everybody. If not this Saturday, then I'm sure she'll win a stake down the road. Mollie Kate, I loved from the moment I went and looked at her last October. She's pleasing enough to look at, when you stand beside her in the barn. But I remember then sitting up on her back the first time, and just being wowed by her.”

The program offers the same flexibility to the sales recruits. So even a filly like Bohemian Frost (Frosted), a $42,000 filly who showed blistering speed to thwart another Wesley Ward flyer on the opening day at Keeneland, can be afforded time to regroup after finishing third (a place ahead of Shesgotattitude) in the slop next time.

“We turned her out,” Ennis explains. “This is an extremely fast filly, I can't speak highly enough of her. She was just a bit quiet in herself going into the last race and I probably shouldn't have run her. But she's come back now and looks amazing. I think the grass is going to move her up and she'll go for the Colleen S. at Monmouth.”

Every day of the September Sale, he spends eight straight hours at the back ring. “You might look at 60, 70 horses and not see one you like,” he says. “Then all of a sudden three or four come through one after the other: boom, boom, boom. 'Okay, now that looks like a real 2-year-old.' They have to walk well, like they're going somewhere. And a bit of presence, that's big. But it's just an instant thing. I see them, and say either 'yes' or 'no' straightaway.”

Since he's simply looking for functionality, for a horse that can add value by running fast, less commercial stallions can actually open up the profit margins. So long as the physical specimen clicks, in its build and outlook, the sire will only be a factor in determining the necessary budget. Ennis likes a Klimt, for instance: feels they typically stand over a lot of ground, and are built to run. Last September he gave $10,000 for a Klimt filly out of a Bernardini mare.

Her half-brother by Temple City was then unraced, but has meanwhile rapidly developed into one of the most exciting grass sophomores in the land as Du Jour, winner of the GII American Turf S. Given that their dam is out of a half-sister to Ghostzapper and City Zip, the Klimt filly–named Royal County–is already sensationally well bought even before running third when switched to turf in a Churchill maiden a few days ago.

“I'd seen that Bob Baffert had paid $280,000 for the Temple City [as a 2-year-old],” Ennis recalls. “And Peter O'Callaghan from Woods Edge Farm said, 'John, you need to look at this filly.' I liked her, and I was lucky: I didn't think I'd get her for $10,000. She's a big, beautiful filly so if Du Jour can win a Grade I, then she'll be a valuable broodmare down the road.”

Whatever their provenance, Ennis draws on the same assets in his young charges. First and foremost, he's looking for a quick learner. “They obviously need the physical, to go with it,” he says. “But then it's basically routine, routine, routine. Like they would be in the army. They're herd animals, so I do the same thing day in, day out, and then look to just steadily increase it. Knowing when to do that, and when not, is key to keeping them mentally fresh.”

That's a flair imported to the Bluegrass by many an Irishman, albeit Ennis himself had no background in the game and only attended the Racing School at the Curragh because he had the right build and no better inspiration on leaving school. But he was mentored by some special horsemen, notably Christy Roche, and was emboldened to try his luck here by the example of Simon Callaghan, for whom he rode in Newmarket. And his new home has certainly lived up to its billing as a land of opportunity.

“I came over here with maybe $500 to my name,” Ennis says. “I wanted to do better for myself, take myself as high as I could. And it really has been the American dream. You just have to be prepared to work hard, and keep learning. Obviously you need a bit of luck, but you also have to make your own. So I'm never afraid to invest in myself.”

He's firmly rooted here now: indeed, he and Erin now have 2-year-old twins to feed, Jack and Eleanor. But Ennis does still retain one particular yearning to venture back over the water.

“I texted Wesley [Ward] after he won with Campanelle (Ire) (Kodiac {GB}) the other day,” he says. “Wesley's a good friend; a super, humble fella. And I said that I'd love to get over there to Royal Ascot myself someday. And he said, 'Keep doing what you're doing, and you'll be over here in a couple of years.' To hear that from him was huge, and just inspires me to keep trying. Maybe not next year, but down the road sometime. The dream is there.”

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