By Chris McGrath
Call it seizing the moment. Carl McEntee’s very first Saratoga consignment, just a couple of weeks after hanging out a shiny new Ballysax board at the July Sale in Lexington. A consignment, admittedly, comprising of a single Tiznow colt.
“Obviously everyone wants to take a yearling to Saratoga,” McEntee says. “And it’s very simple to say, ‘Let’s take this Tapit up there, or this War Front, this Pharoah.’ Great, if you have those horses. At that stage, in a fledgling company that’d been going six months, I didn’t have clientele with that kind of quality.
“There is, however, a specific horse that works for Saratoga. Maybe a tier below on pedigree, but with the physical attributes, and the mental fortitude not to be buzzed out by being shown monotonously, over and over again. And ‘Dennis’ was that kind of horse.”
Dennis, of course, being Dennis’ Moment–author of perhaps the most spectacular maiden success by any 2-year-old last year, by just under 20 lengths at Ellis Park in July. After following up in the GIII Iroquois S., he started as a hot favorite for the GI TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, only to kneel down leaving the gate and trail in last. With that mishap easily forgiven, however, he sets out to restore his Kentucky Derby credentials in the GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S. Saturday.
Whatever happens next, McEntee certainly made an unerring choice of flagbearer for Ballysax’s debut at an elite sale.
“He had real fluidity through his shoulder, was kind of walking downhill the whole time,” he recalls. “I thought the 2-year-old boys would love him up to about 300 [thousand] and that if we got really lucky, a couple of end users might come in above that.”
And that’s exactly what happened, Albaugh Family Racing ultimately taking the colt home for $400,000. But this was hardly beginner’s luck, McEntee being no kind of novice. He was raised in a family of horsemen, and his transatlantic resume had extended beyond 20 years by the time he left a position as director of sales at Darby Dan to start Ballysax.
With a self-deprecating grin, he presents the gamble as a kind of mid-life crisis. Forty on the horizon; a few days laid low by a bug; reviewing his contacts book, sketching out some numbers.
“Just that sort of glitch moment, where you’re peering down the barrel and thinking, ‘What’s it all for? What am I doing?'” McEntee says. “That sort of self-indulgent nonsense! But I have never been one to get too comfortable. I still look at myself as a 12-year-old kid thinking, ‘They’re never going to let me do this.’ You have to push yourself, always have to seek the next challenge, the next thing that makes you feel like you can’t do it. That’s what tends to drive me in life.”
He put the idea to friends and clients who’d been with him all the way: not just at Darby Dan, but at Northview, and before that at Ghost Ridge. They told him to go for it; that he could bank on them. Literally.
“And so these three gents bought 30% of my company before I went live,” McEntee says. “That gave me the start-up capital. It was kind of them, to have a little bit of faith in me. And we put just under 200 horses through the consignment that first year; then 260 last year, for clients old and new. For only our second year, I was really proud of that.”
But this air of improvisation actually belies the longest of gestations for Ballysax Bloodstock. McEntee remembers announcing to the other adolescent bid spotters at Tattersalls that he would someday sell horses in the name of his first family home, back in County Kildare.
“Obviously, you say things when you’re silly and 15,” he said. “And life tends to be nothing more than living out the changes to your plans. I wanted to be champion apprentice, then I wanted to be a jump jockey. But the Ballysax name always resonated with me.”
If riding aspirations were confined, as he grew to six feet, the horsemanship was certainly ingrained. McEntee’s father, once a champion apprentice in Ireland, had ended up training a small stable of jumpers–emulating his own father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
McEntee’s brother Philip is a trainer in Newmarket; and Philip’s daughter Grace is taking the clan into a sixth generation on the Turf as a leading apprentice there. But the two other brothers had pioneered a path to Kentucky, Mark as long-serving manager at Miacomet Farm near Georgetown; and Paul training locally too. They all absorbed old-school, hands-on horse lore from a father whose example, though he died in 1998, remains ever in mind.
“He always said that you should never ask a man to do a job you couldn’t do yourself, and better,” McEntee recalls. “I remember when I was five, he cut down a two-pronged pitchfork for me to clean the stall. I was too little to carry the muck sack, but the quicker I had it tied up, the farther I was able to walk to meet the string coming back; and then Dad would pick me up, put me on the horse and lead me back to the yard. It was his way of teaching me that the harder you work in life, the greater the reward.”
One Sunday morning, when still only 15, a Newmarket trainer paid McEntee £15 to school a horse over hurdles. His mount emerged from a horsebox pouring with sweat and “breathing fire.”
“But at that age, you think you can ride anything in the world,” he recalls. “Sure enough, it got within two strides and just bolted straight through the wing. I stayed on, but got a bad cut.
“We’d gone to mass in the morning, and Dad was there in his shirt and tie. He grabbed the horse. ‘Are you okay?’ ‘Yeah, I’m fine.’ ‘Your leg’s bleeding. Get off the horse.’ ‘Okay. But I don’t want to get in trouble with the trainer, Dad.’ ‘You won’t.’ And he jumped on this horse, literally wearing slip-on shoes, no helmet or anything. And he galloped him straight down, jumped three hurdles, three full-size hurdles, pulled up. And then he came over and gave the trainer a ruddy great talking-to, saying that he should never have put a child on a horse like that.
“My mother always said it was a fine line between bravery and stupidity, but there was basically nothing my father couldn’t do with a horse.”
That grounding sustains McEntee both now that he is a father himself–his three children know that the cardinal sin is sloth–and also in his own vocation. Recently he was on a farm where three grooms were trying to chase down a horse that had gotten loose with a shank; McEntee, keeping up his usual loquacious flow, had ushered him into a safe enclosure before even noticing what he was doing.
“It’s instinct,” he says with a shrug. “I’ll do something just because that’s how I was raised to do it. Some of the most important gifts you’re given as a child, without realizing it, are things you will know to do just because they’re right. Whether it’s manners, or decent behavior, or knowing to open a gate so a horse walks in there and doesn’t trip over a rope.”
Other teachers contributed to his education, of course. There was an early stint here in the United States, with his brother at Miacomet and then down in Florida for the farm’s owners Bill and Jill Harrigan. A season with Dr. Riddle of Rood & Riddle. Back in England, senior positions with trainers as notably astute as Willie Musson and Mick Ryan.
He was not yet 30 when hired by Tarry Bratton to help establish Ghost Ridge in Pennsylvania, and can duly take credit for the arrival of the state legend Jump Start (A.P. Indy) from South America–in the process lending all the impetus implied in his name to McEntee’s own career.
“I’d never purchased a stallion before, and we paid $1.2 million for 75%,” he recalls. “And that’s how I got into sales: it turned out that my owner couldn’t afford the entire horse, so I had to sell shares. And, believe it or not, the first ones I sold were to a gentleman who’s now a silent partner in my company. We met at Timonium in October: just got chatting, had a coffee, and when I left the sale ground, he handed me a check for four shares in Jump Start.”
When Bratton’s project did not last the course, McEntee bought out Jump Start for his new patrons at Northview. Little wonder, if he feels such affection for one of the most prolific regional sires of recent times.
“I was told you couldn’t stand a horse there for $10,000, and that we’d never breed more than 60 mares,” he recalls. “Which annoyed me no end! I tried to bring a little bit of Kentucky to Pennsylvania: stallion shows, dinner dances, free seasons. The first year we bred 144 mares, and then kept him above 125 for the next three. What a phenomenal horse. He had this regal air about him. He played a big role in our lives. To be frank, if it wasn’t for him, I don’t think any of this would have happened.”
As it was, McEntee was spotted by Darby Dan and worked there for four years until lining up his men for the Ballysax plunge. The horses are prepped at Forever Spring Farm at Danville, owned by Ballysax partner Dr. David Williams (another is Hank Nothhaft) and managed by an old friend in Matt Jackson.
Once again, then, McEntee has landed running–and not simply by producing Dennis’ Moment from his first draft. Because the clients for whom he sold that colt, in his view, have the smarts and energy to prove an equivalent springboard to the one he found in Jump Start.
McEntee met Geoff and Brandi Nixon, the young Texas couple who bred Dennis’ Moment, through their farm manager Elise Handler. She had picked out a young mare named Transplendid (Elusive Quality) as one of their first investments, at Keeneland November in 2015–for just $50,000, in foal to Verrazano. (Transplendid had needed 11 starts in maiden company to register her solitary success.) At the same auction the following year, when still with Darby Dan, McEntee supervised the sale of Transplendid’s Verrazano colt for $185,000. And her next foal was Dennis’ Moment.
But he is no flash in the pan. Another mare added to the Nixons’ nascent operation was One True Kiss (Warrior’s Reward), in foal to Speightstown when acquired for $250,000 at Keeneland November in 2018. A few weeks later her half-brother Shancelot (Shanghai Bobby) launched his explosive sprinting career with a maiden success at Gulfstream.
Next, McEntee gave $92,000 for Soot Z (Empire Maker) at Fasig-Tipton February. They knew she had a 2-year-old daughter by Constitution; they couldn’t know she would turn out to be GII Sorrento S. winner Amalfi Sunrise.
Both Soot Z (with an Into Mischief cover) and Transplendid (with one by More Than Ready) were cashed in at Fasig-Tipton’s November Sale, selling through Ballysax for $800,000 and $1.4 million respectively. That was an auspiciously dispassionate business decision by the Nixons, barely a year after they had acquired Grantley Acres Farm in Kentucky.
“With the new farm, and a bunch of new mares, and with relatively low investment needed for these two, the churn is okay,” McEntee reasons. “You buy a mare for $92,000 and flip her in nine months for $800,000, that’s a great return. As for Transplendid, if Dennis goes on and wins the Derby, that’s phenomenal: I’d be delighted for the people that bought the mare. But in this industry, there are so many ifs and buts and what-ifs.
“You can sell that mare for $1.4 million, or you can pay the insurance and hope to sell three yearlings in a row for a half-a-million apiece. Which is hard to do. She was on a late cover. What happens if she misses the next year? All of a sudden, your next foal goes to the market in 2023; and if Dennis happened not to train on, she has a Grade III winner four years ago.”
As it is, the wheels have been oiled–with well-bred mares meanwhile recruited not just at the Kentucky breeding stock sales but also at Tattersalls–and the Grantley Acres brand has gained overnight stature.
“This is a gentleman that’s really trying to push the industry forward,” enthuses McEntee. “A young guy, 34; bringing in his buddies, his fraternity brothers; people that have all done well, and they’re investing too. These are the kind of people this industry desperately needs.”
One of Nixon’s pals, for instance, had taken a share in One True Kiss–whose Speightstown filly, acquired in utero, sold for $325,000 the same night as Soot Z and Transplendid. “So that’s instant: you’ve got your money back, you’ve paid for the next cover,” McEntee says. “So here’s another guy that’s had a great first-time experience in the industry and wants to reinvest.”
Immediately before the big sale, of course, the team had their perspectives lengthened in deflating fashion by the misfortune of Dennis’ Moment at the Breeders’ Cup. They had all flown out to California, buzzing.
“And then the horse falls on his head coming out of the gate, and the bubble just burst,” McEntee says ruefully. “Obviously, we were gutted. Those five seconds seemed like 95% of your entire lifespan. But at least people could give him a pass on that. He was still second choice in the Derby betting 48 hours later. And to everyone’s credit, the next day we all got dressed up again and had a wonderful time at the races. Geoff loves this sport, and these are the experiences I want him to have.”
McEntee himself, of course, meets these guys halfway. He’s close enough in age, and remains captivated by the Thoroughbred; while already having decades of experience in the business. Certainly he’s no idle dreamer. While contemplating the Ballysax adventure, he found data suggesting that nine in ten start-ups will fail; and that only 4% turn a profit in the first two years.
“But within that time I’ve already returned 50% of my partners’ initial investment,” he says proudly. “It’s okay to make a profit! This is a business, after all. And, trust me, my clients have had an absolute ball.
“Of course, I couldn’t think Dennis would go on and do what he did. It’s a crapshoot, this game, and mostly luck. But he was a very good physical and I did think he’d be a racehorse. He has an ability to continuously push himself. You saw that on his first [win], as he kept going farther and farther clear. That made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
“Expensive horses usually sell themselves. However, at some point, you have to sell expensive horses that go on to be racehorses. Because nothing legitimizes a consignment quite like that. So for Dennis to come out of ours, in the first year, has been pretty special.”