By Chris McGrath
His final semester, University of Florida. An announcement on the PA, into the classroom. “Mike O'Farrell, please call home immediately.”
His father has had a heart attack. He's not expected to make it. Mom says: “You need to get to Miami.”
O'Farrell rushes to the hospital, is shown into the room. Dad with tubes in his nose and arms. Looks up, sees his son, and says: “You tell those sons-of-bitches that if they're looking for money, to look someplace else.”
That was the first O'Farrell knew of the farm being in trouble. And the beginning of the precarious salvage operation that underpinned the consolidation of Ocala Stud from pioneer to benchmark; from risk-taking trailblazer, to the gold standard in the Florida bloodstock industry.
Last week, O'Farrell's son David told TDN how the family's breed-to-breeze program, unique on this scale, evolved into the tried-and-trusted launchpad for a series of top-class stallions. Saint Ballado (Halo) started here off $2,500 seasons; by the time of his death in Kentucky, he was up to $150,000. Latest to play up his Florida winnings in the Bluegrass is Kantharos (Lion Heart), leaving behind several potential successors on a roster of 13. Back in 1971, however, the whole project came within an ace of extinction.
O'Farrell listened aghast as his father Joe explained how the vultures were circling.
The farm had been established 16 years previously by a group of wealthy men whose paths, from various parts of the country, had crossed in the winter sun at Hialeah. One of them knew Joe and his brother through their agricultural and automobile business in Maryland. He had heard about a 650-acre farm for sale in upstate Florida, and asked Joe to look it over. Middle of nowhere, no interstate. Within 24 hours, Joe had rung his wife. “Nancy, start packin'. We're moving to Florida.” Just like that. And they were installed within a fortnight.
Joe was a showman, a salesman. Unable to afford the pedigrees to sell yearlings, he hit on the idea of auctioning 2-year-olds as ready-made runners, broken and galloped. From this seed, of course, a multi-million dollar market has since been nurtured by specialist pinhookers. But even then, as an apparent gimmick, Joe's sales gained sufficient traction to bed down Ocala Stud through its first decade or so. Meanwhile the farm raised 1961 Kentucky Derby winner Carry Back, and bred and sold 1965 co-Horse of the Year Roman Brother.
“My father, being young and full of energy, wanted to grow the business,” O'Farrell explains. “Get better stallions, better mares, more mares. But one or two of the shareholders died, one or two weren't in great health. So they decided to sell to these two fellas from Wall Street. Florida had been getting a lot of press, since Needles won the Derby. But they borrowed a lot of money to buy the farm. And it turned out these fellas had an insurance policy on my father, that if he died, would bail them out! That's why he told me they could look someplace else for money. Because he wasn't dying.”
As it was, with Joe off to recuperate in Panama, his son was sent out onto the burning deck. Days after returning to Ocala, O'Farrell took a call from the bank.
“Mike, we want you to have all the horses owned by farm in the barns tomorrow morning at 9:00. They're gonna ship out.”
Next morning a dozen horsevans lined up in the lane. Most of the horses were sold locally, the best went up to Keeneland in November.
There was still the stallion, Gun Flint. George Steinbrenner had retained 75 percent, the O'Farrells owned the rest. Now Steinbrenner called, too.
“Mike, I want you to ship that horse to Bonnie Heath Farm.”
“But Mr. Steinbrenner, we're doing business, we're doing fine, we're taking care of the horse.”
“Mike, unless you own over 50 percent of something, you have no control. I want him moved to Bonnie Heath.”
But one man stayed aboard the listing ship, and handed round some buckets: Herbert Allen. (One of his big investments had been the contraceptive pill and, well, the baby boom was over…) He sent them a son of Never Bend named Distinctive, and let them pay over three years. Same thing, when he decided to disperse his mares. A couple of those promptly turned out stakes winners.
“So that's really how we got going again,” O'Farrell recalls. “That, and my father's salesmanship. And I was working. I was young, scared, broke. And two weeks after that November Sale in Kentucky, I got married. Dead broke. But I was working. And we had some boarding business. And so–with the help of Herbert Allen, and this and that, and the grace of God–we made it.”
But it was tight. Staff were laid off. The farm, by then over 1,000 acres, was sold. Fortunately the buyer, Roy Kennedy, proved another friend in deed: he financed the O'Farrells to retrieve the 185-acre core, incorporating the training track, the stallion barn, the stabling, the office. Gradually, year by year, they steadied the ship, patched the sails.
“I learned a lot of life's lessons in a short period of time,” O'Farrell says. “I saw how people treated my father when he was up, and how people treated him when he was down. It was a very traumatic experience. But an invaluable lesson to me. Looking back on it, it was actually one of the best things that ever happened to our family. The good Lord was kind enough to give us a horse every now and then. And I learned from my father. A lot of good, some bad. But even the bad is good. Because that's how you learn.”
By the time his father died, O'Farrell had been making his own reputation for 11 years, a tall, lean young man, full of honest endeavour. People were glad to carry on doing business here. People like Izzy Cohen, the supermarket magnate. He bought horses from the O'Farrells every year, notably the top-class juvenile Mighty Appealing, who then returned for his own stud career.
“We've been fortunate enough that whenever things really got tough, we always seemed to come up with a nice horse,” O'Farrell says. “Whether it be a stallion, a broodmare, a racehorse, whatever. Or a good client. Things just clicked.”
And, to be fair, the family has throughout achieved a synergy with the whole Florida industry. They came here more or less as Needles won the Derby, when there were just four small farms in the neighbourhood. And they brought with them from Maryland the state's first great patriarch, Rough'n Tumble.
“Wasn't like he wasn't a good horse, he won the Santa Anita Derby, but he didn't have any breeding,” O'Farrell recalls. “He started out in Maryland for $300, I think. But in his first crop down here he had My Dear Girl, who wound up champion 2-year-old filly. And then he had Dr. Fager, one of the best of all time. When we first came, the other farms all had one or two stallions. But at the end of the day, we had Rough'n Tumble–and they didn't.”
Dr. Fager stayed in town, with Tartan Farms, but the other great stallion to put Florida on the Thoroughbred map, Mr. Prospector, set a lasting trend in his “promotion” to Kentucky.
“Saint Ballado wound up No. 1 stallion, having started down here in the fourth or fifth league,” O'Farrell remarks. “People get upset about it, but it's just economics. There's a bigger pool of mares in Kentucky, and more people that can afford higher fees. That's just the way it is, and that's fine. I mean, Northern Dancer didn't start out in Kentucky. So it's everywhere. They gravitate. If you do well, you're going to Kentucky.”
Over the years, however, O'Farrell has shown a consistent knack for spotting a stallion to outpunch his weight in the regional market. “A lot of it is gut feeling,” he says with a shrug. “We get offered horses every year. You can't take them all. One guy called me three times about standing his horse. And he was a hell of a racehorse, no doubt about it, he could run. He couldn't believe that in Ocala, Florida, we were going to turn his horse down. But he had no pedigree at all. I mean, absolutely none, and my gut says he's not going to be successful with no bottom side.
“Every horse we take on, it's always because I think they can get runners. People say you can make money with this horse in three years. And I say: 'I don't care about generating money in three years. If they're not going to have runners five years from now, I don't want them.'
“We breed them, raise them, train them–and only then sell them. So they've got to have some ability. When we sell a 2-year-old, chances are we've still got a yearling, a weanling, a mare in foal. A bad stallion will break people quicker than anything in the business. Dayjur: top bloodlines, all the talent in the world, bred to the best. Couldn't miss. A horse like that crushes you. So the only way we'll take them is if we actually believe they can get runners.”
His faith in the bottom half of a pedigree has enabled O'Farrell to launch a series of successful stallions by unfashionable sires. Remember even Kantharos was by a sire who had just been banished to Turkey.
“We actually had Saint Ballado here as a yearling,” O'Farrell reflects. “Full brother to two champions [Glorious Song and Devil's Bag] and they'd bought him for [$90,000]. Because of his conformation. He was straight in the pasterns, he toed out. And he was immature, light. But we had 150 or so in training, and he was the one horse that year, that if you saw him galloping, you'd say, 'Who's that?' Because he was smooth as silk. He had a lot of talent, and he had blood.”
After the horse broke down in the Haskell, Clint Goodrich called. He wasn't getting anywhere in Kentucky. The tax laws had changed, the business was down. The owners had started out looking for $750,000. Goodrich thought they might take $400,000 now.
“Clint, I tell you what,” O'Farrell replied. “My mother just died. I got no money. But if you let me stand him here in Florida, I'll get you your $400,000. Only it's going to take me three years to do it.”
“Well, how you gonna do that?”
“I'm going to stand that son-of-a-bitch for $2,500. Obviously his conformation's not great. But with the way he's bred, and his ability on the track, at that fee people will have to breed to him. And if he gets runners, with his pedigree, he'll be worth a fortune.”
The farm veterinarian was one of the first to buy a season, and promptly bred Captain Bodgit, flying runner-up in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
Then there was Florida's four-time champion sire Montbrook, whose Ocala-bred dam was claimed back into the fold for just $7,000 and bred to Buckaroo.
“He was so powerful,” O'Farrell recalls, patting the office bureau. “Ass as broad as this desk. And fast. Damned near set a track record, first time out. He could run the first half in 43-and-change, and they just couldn't catch him. Unfortunately by then Izzy Cohen was in bad health, so I bought him out. Payable over three years–just like I'd learned from my father, way back. And he hit. So from a $7,000 claim, we generated $3 million dollars, maybe more.”
The key, for O'Farrell's clients, is that he has never been just an opportunist; never just exploiting fast-buck market prejudices. Because of its unique business model, Ocala Stud can only “make” stallions if they “make” runners.
“People that bred to our horses over the years have made money, because they were priced right,” O'Farrell explains. “They had value. And I was always the kid. In 1971, I mean, hell, I was young. I was 24 years old. So I was thrown into the breach at an early age. But I always had energy. I was enthusiastic. And if people believe, they will breed. Horses have past performances, and so do we. People say: 'If they've taken that horse, we're in.' That's how it happens. But it didn't start last week, or last year, or the year before. It started 50, 60 years ago.”