Phil D'Amato Q&A: 'You Don't Have To Spend A Lot To Find A Going Global'

Phil D'Amato | Fasig-Tipton


   One of the finest turf trainers in America, Phil D'Amato has done exceptionally well with his European imports in recent years, highlighted by Grade I winner Going Global and more recently American Oaks scorer Rhea Moon. 

   In this week's Q&A with Brian Sheerin, D'Amato explained how, with the help of Niall Dalton, Craig Rounsefell and BBA Ireland's Michael Donohoe, he has built one of the most competitive stables in America.  

   Read about his approach to finding 'diamonds in the rough' on a budget, his training methods and much more. 

Brian Sheerin: You do extremely well with your imports from Britain and Ireland. What is it that you look for in form horses when you go about recruiting them from Europe?

Phil D'Amato: There are a number of factors. First and foremost, you need a horse that you think will handle a firm turf course and you can gauge that by the tracks that they have been running at in Europe and how they are handling that. If you don't have a good gauge on how they would handle the American turf, then you can check how the pedigree has done in the States and if that suggests they are prone to do better on firm ground. Number two, they definitely need a turn of foot. All turf races over here, from the quarter pole home, you need to show a good turn of foot. I definitely like to see that over horses who are more staying types in Europe. Horses who go to the lead in Europe and try to make all, those horses don't tend to do well in America, you need something with acceleration. Those are the big things for us. Conformation is another. I don't think conformation plays as big a part in Europe, especially with the amount of homebreds that race and the forgiving training surfaces, but in the States, conformation plays a much bigger role as our courses are not as forgiving. You need a horse with good conformation over here, one that's going to hit the ground square, so that it will be able to stay sound for you. 

You've built up a top-class recruitment team with Michael Donohoe and Niall Dalton coming up with a lot of the goods. 

You have to give them a lot of credit. I've also had a lot of good luck with Craig Rounsefell-all of those gentlemen know what to look for. They are trying to find the diamond in the rough and prove that you don't have to spend a lot of money to find a Going Global (Ire) (Mehmas {Ire}).They have good connections with the trainers and know who the sellers are. There are a lot of sellers in Britain and Ireland, as that's how a lot of these guys make their money given the prize-money over there, and not everyone can train for a Sheikh or somebody who is very wealthy. They need to trade so, in that respect, Niall, Michael and Craig know the people who will lead them the right way. They continue to buy horses from those people. 

And is it purely form horses that you buy from Europe or have you ever dipped your toe into breeze-up or even yearling markets?

We have bought a breeze-up horse or two but it's mostly horses who have run. I prefer to see a horse who has run at least twice and I am not a big fan of the horses who have run just once. To me, it seems like the horses who have run at least twice or more, they come over here to America and they seem to be hardier horses. You have a better handle on them and they tend to cope with the training better as well. They are better than the one-off horse who's run third or fourth. I just like horses who have been able to show their form a couple of times but, the flip side of that means that, getting to see a bit more often means that you have to pay that bit more. It has its pluses and minuses. 

I'd love to know what expectations you had for Going Global when you bought her after she won a Dundalk nursery off a mark of 70. Could you ever have envisaged that she'd improve to the level that she has?

Well, you know what, Michael Donohoe is really good friends with her former trainer Michael Halford, and we had bought horses from him before. Going Global had gotten sick previously and hadn't run well before she won at Dundalk but they had good reasons as to why she hadn't been running well. We knew that story coming into the race and then, when she did produce at Dundalk, it was time to strike. We had a little bit of extra insight into buying her and Halford liked the way that filly had been training for a while so he guided us in the right direction. That was the story there. 

You touched on the fact that a lot of trainers over here in Ireland where I am based, their business model accounts for trading horses, and Michael Halford would be up there with one of the best at that. Are there certain trainers you like to return to?

We have a good rapport with a lot of people and there are a lot of people who lead us the right way. It's the people who are going to leave a little extra in the tank who we are interested in buying off. That's the way I train my horses and I don't like to have them fully cranked first-time up. I like to let them develop through their races and I try to buy my horses off like-minded people. You need to try and buy a horse who is likely to continue to develop over here in the States. You know the yards that are crack first-time out specialists and I try to stay away from those trainers because all of their horses usually show everything they have first-time out. It's the guys who leave a little extra in the tank and like to let them develop race to race, those are the guys we like working with. 

What would be the key differences between the European horses compared to the American-breds who you have grown up with?

Size and conformation are the big things. To buy a dirt horse versus a grass horse, it's apples and oranges. You are looking at the horse totally differently. A dirt horse has a big thick bone, and a big hind end, gaskins and forearms, that can withstand training and pushing through the dirt. Your turf horse is a bit more angular, lighter of body and bone, just a little bit more agile. You need to put two different caps on when you are looking to buy a dirt horse versus a grass horse. 

And when it comes to acclimatising a European import, what is your approach to that?

They are all different and all treated as individuals. I like to gradually build them up and let them tell me when they are ready to do more and start breezing. Some horses take a month before you breeze them and others are ready to go within two weeks. They are all different. You can't put them in a cookie-cutter training style as they all needed to be treated differently. 

When you go down through the imports that you have done well with in America, there are no Galileos, Frankels or Dubawis in there, which makes the achievements all the more impressive. 

We mostly have horses by mid-range stallions, because we can afford them. We're not looking to buy a Galileo (Ire), Frankel (GB) or Dubawi (Ire) for half a million dollars, our budget is much less than that. Those are the stallions we look at, the ones that produce the goods but who are within our price range. We bought horses by Mehmas at the right time but now that stallion is moving up the ladder. It's all about leaving that to Michael and Niall, who are great at that. What's an advantage is, they work the yearling sales as well and watch these horses develop through all of the different yards. They have keen insights from when they hit the sales ground right up until when they race. That's a big advantage. 

American Oaks winner Rhea Moon (Ire) (Starspangledbanner {Aus}) is the latest star European import to grab the headlines for your stable. How did she come on your radar? In many ways she was quite unexposed given she'd only had the two starts in Ireland for Ken Condon. 

She ran a really good second to a Juddmonte colt [Straight Answer (GB) (Kodiac {GB})] on her second start at the Curragh and that horse came out and won a stakes race not too long afterwards. She had good sneaky form in that she came out of a live race and ran a good second. Again, she came from a good yard that develops them the right way instead of having them cranked to the gills first-time out, so she looked a nice prospect. We went after her and thankfully we were able to get her.

You touched on how important a turn of foot is on the American turf racing scene. She showed that when winning the Oaks. Where next for her now?

She's in steady training right now and we will probably run her some time in March or April with a view towards a prep for the Gamely S., that's a Grade I, which we have in late April. Hopefully that will launch her 4-year-old campaign and lead us towards the Breeders' Cup in November. 

Given the prize-money situation in Britain and Ireland, have you had much interaction with owners from this part of the world who are interested in placing their horses in training directly with you rather than selling them abroad?

I actually have started to get overseas owners going that route as opposed to me buying them. We'll see how that goes. I got a filly sent to me, called With Love (GB) (Territories {Ire}), who is owned by Atomic Racing in Ireland. 

Look at a filly like Bellabel (Ire) (Belardo {Ire}); she won a race worth €6,490 on her final start for Jessica Harrington in Ireland but has won almost $200,000 in America which is borderline insane. 

She was another nice pick by Michael Donohoe. He has many clients who have horses in training with Jessica and she recommended us to buy her as the owner wanted to sell. We were in the right place at the right time. We gave her a little break and she'll also be back towards the end of the month. Hopefully she's another nice prospect for us. 

Has it been a conscious decision for you to concentrate on turf racing in America over the dirt?

The concentration on turf has really come down to budget. In America, if you want to compete with the Bob Bafferts, Todd Pletchers and Steve Asmussens of the world, it costs a lot of money. Those gentlemen have many million-dollar yearlings to work with and, to try and compete against that, you have to have a ginormous budget. I am lucky to have good owners with good budgets but nowhere near that. You can buy a good European horse for a fifth or a tenth of that price. It seems that, in turf racing, too, these horses seem to have a little more longevity and can be campaigned for an extra year or two. The racing is really more about that last quarter burst over the punishing grind from start to finish on dirt. That's why these horses seem to last longer and get the chance to develop into stakes horses or, for the fillies, into breeding prospects. 

Where do you see the future of turf racing in America? It seems to be expanding and growing so it could be an exciting position to be in.

I really see that. I see an expansion of turf racing across the country for many of those reasons; the longevity of the horses and people seem to like the last quarter mile compared to dirt races that can be decided right out of the gate sometimes. People like to enjoy seeing their horses run over a long period of time and so turf racing fits that category. 

Could we ever see a Phil D'Amato-trained runner at Royal Ascot?

One day. That definitely is a dream. I know Wesley Ward has been successful at Royal Ascot. You definitely need to bring the right horse but, one day, it would be a dream for me to do something like that.

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