Ocala Stud's Big Hopes for Another Kantharos

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The Big Beast | Adam Coglianese

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Big horse, big name, big impact.

“When he ran, you know, he was almost larger than the screen,” says David O'Farrell, remembering his eagerness to bring The Big Beast (Yes It's True) to Ocala Stud. Sure, it remains very early days. The stallion only recently had his first runner. But that was a winner at Churchill, keeping up the momentum from his dynamic debut at the 2-year-old sales this spring-headlined, from a $6,000 cover, by an $850,000 filly at OBS March. And while first impressions can't always last, the fact is that The Big Beast is only the latest talent harnessed to the unique model, and unique experience, of the O'Farrell family.

Last year, they launched Uncaptured (Lion Heart), whose opening salvo of three black-type winners was bettered only by Cross Traffic (Unbridled's Song). In 2017, another son of Lion Heart, Kantharos, had opened for business in Kentucky after a flying start here in Florida. The lore that went into putting these stallions on the map extends beyond six decades, since O'Farrell's grandfather brought Rough'n Tumble down from Maryland to transform the Sunshine State's contribution to the bloodstock industry.

Few today would dream of trying to emulate the O'Farrells, now that so many specialist consignors buy yearlings specifically to pinhook as 2-year-olds. But having spent so long perfecting their own system, and developing the facilities and the broodmares to sustain it, Ocala Stud remains consistently able to make a stallion's reputation by the precarious means of breeding for 2-year-old sales.

“These pinhookers, they're sharp horsemen, some of the best in the game,” O'Farrell says. “They're hand-selecting their athletes, where we get what the good Lord gives us! We're going on mating decisions and hoping for the best. So it's increasingly difficult for an operation like ours, relying on homebreds by our own, regional stallions.

“So we're fortunate to be able to be relevant and compete. And it's very rewarding when you lead over a homebred in a market that has become so highly competitive. You walk by Eddie's, you walk by Niall, you walk by Nick [i.e the consignments of Messrs. Woods, Brennan and De Meric]. And you see they've got Tapits and Malibu Moons and War Fronts. And we've got our Adios Charlies, our Big Beasts, our Prospectives.

“So you know you're up against it. But we feel confident in our stallions. We breed our best mares to our young stallions. Most of our 2-year-olds are have been foaled, raised, broken, and trained at Ocala Stud. And we feel like we can control the whole upbringing of that horse, and sell a finished product that's ready to go on.”

There is, to be fair, a chicken-and-egg element. The model is only sustainable precisely because the farm's track record means that confidence can be shared by the market. You only have to look at the signatories to that $850,000 docket: David Ingordo, for Lane's End Bloodstock on behalf of West Point and partners.

“She was just an exceptional individual, perfect from day one,” O'Farrell says. “We knew all along that she could be a very good filly. But you can never expect a result like that. It's a mare you could have confidence in, a mare that's produced runners. But it's not a blue-blooded pedigree, it's regional breeding and a $6,000 stud fee.”

Juvenile sales, of course, are liable to produce the odd flash in the pan. But The Big Beast has followed through at every level of the market. During the same OBS March session, a colt sold for $450,000 after a :9.60 breeze; while other youngsters made $230,000 and $205,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Midatlantic and OBS April auctions, respectively.

“The Beast,” says O'Farrell, shaking his head happily. “He's perfect. He's a horse we've been high on from the outset, and let's hope the momentum continues. He's such a fun horse, given his name, his size, his talent. Yes It's True had been very successful in Florida, so he was a horse we were really drawn to. We feel very fortunate that the Lieblongs gave us an opportunity.”

Having hit the ball out of the park as early as March, The Big Beast was able to profit from an overnight spike in demand, with 109 mares through his door so far, after covering 57 last year.

It was a similar story last year with Uncaptured, who bucked the usual nervous trend of that tricky fourth season with a staggering 173 mares.

“That's very rare,” O'Farrell notes. “As popular as he was in his first two years, he was even more so in his third and fourth. And I'll tell you, just talking with colleagues that also stand stallions, in Kentucky or here, it's become increasingly difficult to get mares even in the second book. You're on the bubble already. So for a horse like Uncaptured to have such confidence from breeders, that just speaks volumes in today's world.”

Traffic continued unabated this time round: in fact, Uncaptured's book was full virtually by Christmas. But a rising tide floats all boats, and the trickle-down helped the whole roster. To take just one example, Adios Charlie.

“He's kind of the blue-collar, value play,” says O'Farrell enthusiastically. “The best bargain around, really. His problem was that he had to be retired after the Sunshine Millions Classic in January. Timing is everything with stallions, and January is a horrible time to retire: you're too late to get started, and it's too long to the next season.

“But we liked the horse. So Dad calls Stan Hough and says, 'Look, set him up here. We know we're going to get a late start. But we'll breed a dozen good mares to him, and what he lacks in quantity, we'll give him in quality.'”

From barely a couple of dozen named foals, Adios Charlie mustered a $675,000 filly at OBS March. And she won her first two starts impressively. Unfortunately, she was in Japan by then. Moreover the stallion's follow-up hit, a $420,000 colt at the April Sale, also disappeared from the radar. He did not make his debut until he was four, albeit he subsequently made up for lost time as Patternrecognition, winner of the GI Cigar Mile last December.

“He had fives stakes winners last year,” O'Farrell says. “If you're trying to breed a racehorse, earn money, he's a working-man's stallion. Average earnings index as good as there is. He's a really solid, promising stallion. But he had to do it the hard way. And those are the ones you have a lot of respect for.”

The breed-to-breeze program is obviously ideally suited to the kind of stallions that have trademarked 'Florida speed.' But while The Big Beast was a standout prospect, as a GI King's Bishop S. winner out of a Deputy Minister mare, the O'Farrells know that they sometimes have to think outside the box. Hence, for instance, the arrival of a two-turn type in Girvin (Tale Of Ekati) to complement the inevitable core of speed in the broodmare band.

“But remember Girvin won first time out,” O'Farrell stresses. “Going six furlongs, [one minute] 10-and-change, up on the pace. So he had speed, and he was precocious. And he's out of a Malibu Moon mare, whose first foal Cocked And Loaded (Colonel John) won on debut, going 4 1/2 furlongs at Keeneland.

“Yes, he's a classy horse that wanted a Classic distance. But if you look at his pedigree, and really read between the lines, he's a horse I'm confident could do well in the 2-year-old market. I think anywhere, whether it's Florida, Kentucky, New York, you have to have speed. You just hope the speed carries.”

It's not as though the farm has ever only dealt in a single dimension. Ocala Stud stood the sires of consecutive post-time favorites for the Kentucky Derby–Concerto with Bellamy Road in 2005 and then Sweetsouthernsaint with Sweetnorthernsaint. O'Farrell, who shares day-to-day management of the farm with his brother Joe, credits their father Michael for imaginative recruitment to the roster.

“Montbrook was by Buckaroo,” he remarks. “Buckaroo never had another son worth a nickel. Notebook was by Well Decorated. Trippi, by End Sweep. Even when we stood Kantharos, Lion Heart had been hauled off to Turkey. In Florida, the reality tends to be we either get a superior racehorse that's a little light on pedigree, or a really well-bred one that's light on performance. But it's an inexact science, and a lot of emphasis should be put on the bottom side.”

And the realities of the market are such that the Florida stallion who breaks the chains of prejudice can end up, like Kantharos, walking away altogether–in the footsteps of Mr. Prospector, among others.

O'Farrell's ultimate goal is to have a top-class stallion stay in Florida. But he remains realistic. “One of our owners asked whether it was bittersweet that Kantharos left,” he recalls. “And I said, 'Not really–I hope we do the same thing for you.' If they do well enough to move to Kentucky, that means they've been successful, and breeders have profited from supporting them. So I look at it as a positive. We've gladly assumed the role of stepping-stone. While we like to have equity in our stallions, it's the owners that grant us the opportunity to get their horses' careers started and I understand the economics.

“Take Stonestreet, they've been wonderful to us. Florida breeders had an opportunity to breed to Kantharos for a number of years. And when he went to Kentucky, for three times the money, the folks that bred to him his last couple years here will have benefited when they had weanlings or yearlings to sell.”

Moreover as Kantharos went through the revolving door, Stonestreet sent Rachel Alexandra's son Jess's Dream (Curlin) through the other way. They knew that whatever a young stallion's potential, here is a firm that will make sure he reaches it.

After all, the O'Farrell family came here the same year Needles put Florida on the Thoroughbred map in the Kentucky Derby. From the first Florida crop they delivered by Rough'n Tumble, moreover, emerged the nation's top juvenile filly of 1959, My Dear Girl, subsequently dam of In Reality, who tussled repeatedly with Rough'n Tumble's son Dr Fager.

“A lot of the reason why we're here today is Rough'n Tumble,” O'Farrell reflects. “He was kind of the foundation for Florida breeding, kick-started the whole thing. But then there was also my grandfather, who was a big time promoter, and held the first commercial 2-year-old sale at Hialeah Park in 1957. He erected tents and sold 16 head, I think, for an average of $5,200. And the horses were bred like billy goats.

“In those days, horses sold on pedigree. And we didn't have pedigree that could make us a living. We had to prove our pedigrees. He felt like he could put the effort and time and expense into them and prove that some horses could outrun their pedigree. It was kind of a gimmick, at the time, but we have sold our entire crop of 2-year-olds ever since. He was a pioneer, and it's amazing how that whole game has changed.”

One of the turning points was Chapel Royal, a homebred son of Montbrook who made $1.2 million before proving one of the top juveniles of his generation. Equally, there had been challenges along the way–but these we'll leave to O'Farrell's father, who talks us through the farm's remarkable history in the second half of this feature, which we'll run next week.

One way or another, the legacy of achievement is also one of confidence; of faith in a tried-and-trusted program.

“It's just what we do,” O'Farrell says with a shrug. “We try not to deviate too much. We stick to what we do best. You know, there's some horses I'm sure we could capitalize on, as yearlings, that don't turn out to be the 2-year-olds that you'd hoped. But then there's others we could cull that, once you put tack on them, they turn out to be the runners.

“So you can overthink it. We just stick to our game plan. Buyers know that when they come to our consignment, they have an opportunity to buy the very best horse we have to offer; the opportunity to buy the worst; and everything in between.

“It's a unique operation, and a well-oiled machine now. We've been doing it a long time. It would be almost unthinkable, in today's world, to set up a comparable program, numbers-wise. Because it's a huge investment. If you're selling homebred 2-year-olds, you've got a yearling, you've got a foal, and you've got to breed the mare back. It's a lot of output and three years before you can get any return.

“Two-year-old sales used to be primarily for Florida-breds, for cheaper pedigrees; nowadays it's very high stakes. These sales have probably matured more than any other segment in the industry in the last 10 years. But it's been good to us, and we stand by our product.”

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