By Jessica Martini
After watching the races just across the street from their home in Del Mar, Joe and Debby McCloskey decided to take the plunge into racehorse ownership with the purchase of a filly by Congrats at the 2014 Keeneland September sale. Now, nearly a decade later, Johannes (Nyquist)–the first foal out of that first filly–has become the couple's first stakes winner and the 3-year-old gave promise of more firsts to come in the near-future with an authoritative second stakes victory in the Pasadena S. at Santa Anita last Sunday.
Johannes began his racing career on the main track, but immediately found success on the turf where he broke his maiden by nine lengths at Santa Anita Dec. 31. He overcame a world of trouble to win the Mar. 5 Baffle S. before making his two-turn debut in the Pasadena.
“It was our very first stakes win,” Joe McCloskey, a retired businessman, said of the Baffle. “Obviously, it was fantastic and to be able to back it up with another stakes win, you talk about firsts. Cuyathy was our first horse, and this is her first foal, and now two stakes races back-to-back. There are a lot of firsts with that horse.”
Recalling his first foray into racing, McCloskey said, “We have a condo that is right across the street from Del Mar, so it was convenient to go over and watch the horses. Eventually we got hooked up with a couple of trainers and said, 'Let's give it a shot.'”
The California couple headed to Kentucky with a plan–sort of– and a dream.
“We were pretty naive back then,” McCloskey said with a chuckle. “We put a budget together of $100,000, with $50,000 for a horse. And we thought we would get one out at Keeneland and start there. We thought that was going to be plenty of money.
“So we went out to Keeneland and my wife Debby and I were wondering how we would know if it was the right horse, when will we know? So Debby put it out there and dreamt about and said, 'I know if there is a heart on the horse somehow, a heart comes into my mind, that will be our horse.' We get to our book–when you can get a horse for $50,000–and the first one comes up and the hair on the cowlick kind of looked like a heart, maybe this is it? So we bid on it, but we got outbid. Maybe there needs to be a better heart? Surprisingly when Cuyathy came by, our trainer said what do you think? And lo and behold, we look down at the chestnut and it was in the shape of the heart. And the hammer dropped at exactly $50,000. Our trainer thinks we are nuts at this point, but anyway that's how we got Cuyathy.”
The McCloskeys ended up taking another filly home from Keeneland that year, going to $8,000 to acquire a daughter of Curlin they named Reiki Baby.
Cuyathy went on to win three times in 20 starts, including a third-place effort in the 2018 Kalookan Queen S., and earn $107,923. Reiki Baby, who didn't make it to the races until she was four, was a first-out winner at Santa Anita in 2017 and twice second before being retired after four starts. Both mares, now 10, ultimately became the McCloskeys' broodmare band.
“People told us, if you think racing is tough, breeding is even worse, it's tougher,” McCloskey said. “So we looked at each other and said, 'Let's give it a shot.' We are a micro-breeders, those are the only two mares that we have. But they were our first two horses. Literally, Cuyathy was the first horse we bought and Reiki Baby was the second one.”
The breeding operation got off to a slow start when Reiki Baby's first foal, Lightheart (Blame) failed to make it to the races. But it has picked up steam thanks to Johannes, whose dam was producing her first foal by Nyquist at about the same time Reiki Baby was producing another colt by the GI Kentucky Derby winner.
“We bred both Reiki Baby and Cayathy to Nyquist,” McCloskey said. “People said we were nuts. I said, this whole game is nuts, let's just go all in, let's breed both to Nyquist and maybe one will catch.”
Johannes, along with Reiki Baby's second foal Reiquist, began his racing career back east with trainer Bill Morey, but both suffered some bad luck.
“Billy had both our horses at Churchill and in one day, I get a phone call he goes, 'Joe, Reiquist has a fracture, we have to ship him back to Rood and Riddle in Lexington. And Johannes has some chips. I said, 'You've got to be kidding–this is one phone call and my first two horses. Long story short, we brought Johannes over to Rood and Riddle, took out a few small chips and Dr. Bramlage saw a little issue on the other leg, so they took it out and we gave him time off to come back. And then Rood and Riddle repaired Reiquist's fracture and he's at Santa Anita. He just breezed three furlongs twice already and he's looking really good.”
Both horses are now in the Southern California barn of trainer Tim Yakteen, who McCloskey credits with a slow and steady approach to the races.
“Tim Yakteen is probably one of the best, most conservative trainers there are when it comes to getting your horse back in good shape,” McCloskey said. “People say you have to have patience in this business. In this business with Tim, you have to have glacial patience. But he knows his business.”
“He was just coming back off a layoff and he came in third, but he really challenged Fort Warren,” McCloskey said of that effort last October. “I was sitting in a box next to Bob Baffert and Bob came down and said you've got a nice horse there. So the dirt looked really good then.”
Johannes took a step back next time out, however, finishing a well-beaten fifth at Del Mar in November.
“We brought him over to Del Mar, but we shipped him in the day before the race and he got very nervous and he was washed out and he didn't perform well there,” McCloskey said. “At that point, we decided to see what would happen if we put him on the turf because his mother had success sprinting over both Tapeta and turf.”
Of that first try on the lawn that resulted in an emphatic maiden score, McCloskey said, “Boom. We put him on the turf and it was like, I guess he likes the turf. He won by nine lengths and he wasn't even asked.”
Making his next start in the 6 1/2-furlong Baffle S., Johannes was mired in traffic down the hill and had nowhere to go turning for home, where things only got worse for the dark bay colt as he was jostled about before ultimately slicing between foes and bounding away once in the clear in the final strides (video).
“I've never seen a horse get into that much traffic, have to steady that much, and then he sliced and diced picking his path,” McCloskey recalled. “I tell you, I would have taken all my money off the table halfway through the race. I thought there was no way this horse could do anything, but he popped out and still won by 1 1/2 lengths. I went up to Umberto [Rispoli] after the race and his head was still shaking. I said, 'You got in a little trouble?' and he said, 'This horse is a freak to be able to come through there.'”
After the drama of the Baffle, Johannes's win when stretched to one mile in the Pasadena S. was somewhat ho-hum. Settled at the back of the pack, the heavy favorite powered to the lead at midstretch and sauntered clear to an easy 3 1/2-length victory (video).
The pair of stakes victories have likely earned Johannes a spot in graded-stakes company, but connections are still weighing their options.
“Right now, we are pointed towards the [GII] American S. [at Churchill Downs] on Derby Day,” McCloskey said. “We know we want to keep him with 3-year-olds at this point. So that's the race that is on screen. But because it's Derby day and because of the way he got a little nervous just shipping in to Del Mar, we might look for some other options, so maybe instead of 75,000 people, we have 10,000. We will get a couple 3-year-old races in him and from there, if he continues to do what we think he can do, we will look at the 3-and-up races. Then, in the best of all worlds, of course, you look at the Breeders' Cup in November. Do we even have a shot at that? We hope so. It's one step at a time in this business for sure.”
The McCloskeys also have plenty to look forward to from their two-horse broodmare band. Reiki Baby has a 2-year-old colt by Mendelssohn and a yearling filly by Practical Joke. Cayathy has a 2-year-old filly named Sea Dancer (Mastery) who is in training with Morey at Keeneland, as well as a yearling filly by Gun Runner. She produced a filly by Knicks Go this year and will be bred back to Mandaloun.
“We are smart enough to know that you can't make a lot of money in this business unless you are super lucky,” McCloskey said. “But with that Gun Runner filly out of Cuyathy, it's giving us cause for pause to think maybe we sell that filly–because you can't keep them all–or do you maybe say, if Reiki Baby isn't doing what we want, do we keep that filly and still have two [broodmares]. But it's not like we are going to have five or six more. We are happy with two, we get to see them, and maybe we would have one more.”
McCloskey said he and his wife have no specific goals for their racing and breeding operation, but are content to enjoy the ride.
“I've seen a lot of smart people lose a lot of money in this business,” he said. “So we will just try to keep it balanced, to have fun and, as long as we are having fun and the horses are helping pay for some of the bills, we are happy. This is a crazy business. It's just a matter of making sure that you're enjoying it every day. And we are right now.”
While they are enjoying the business, they are also very focused on paying it forward.
“We balance everything we do back on the other side,” McCloskey stressed. “We are big supporters of a place here in California called Laughing Pony Rescue, which is in Rancho Santa Fe, and we save a lot of horses there. We donate to CARMA and New Vocations, some of those people have taken our horses. We think it's important that anybody who is in this business balances it out by helping the other side of the equation, the ones that are retired.”