'Shamrocks in the Bluegrass': John Ennis Enjoying the Ride

John Ennis | Photos by Z

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Opening an occasional series focused on Irish expatriates in Kentucky, TDN meets a son of Co. Meath testing the GI Kentucky Derby water with his impressive Leonatus S. winner.

As migrations go, one is rather less surprising than the other. On the one hand, over the past two years the synthetic circuit at Turfway has consecutively delivered the winner and runner-up in the definitive test of a dirt Thoroughbred. On the other, the trainer hoping to produce another GI Kentucky Derby horse from the same unlikely platform is only the latest in a perennial line of Irish expatriates to have successfully adapted their skills to a new environment in the Bluegrass.

Most of the compatriots to be featured in this series will do so through their endeavors on horse farms, rather than on the racetrack. But almost of all of them have a similar story to John Ennis, in having crossed the water with little more than a willingness to work for chances in “the land of opportunity” that might never have been found in their homeland.

“No chance,” replies Ennis, asked whether he could have achieved similar things back home. “Absolutely zero. You'd have to go back there with $1 million and probably still fail. That's the long and short of it. I love going jump racing, when I'm back home, love it. But could I do it there? Not a chance.

“When I came over here, I was going absolutely nowhere. Ireland, Newmarket, Dubai, it had all dried up. And I got here with nothing. I'd say I had $500 or $600 to my name, didn't have a phone. But it's amazing how things can snowball over here.”

As it is, continuing the momentum of his best campaign to date in 2023, Ennis has already saddled 11 winners from 33 starters this year and one of those, Epic Ride (Blame), looks the horse to beat for 20 Derby points in the John Battaglia S. at Turfway on Saturday.

Whatever happens, just finding himself with a potential Derby type suggests that Ennis is entering a new phase after laying the foundations of his Stateside career with a pragmatic eye for precocity. Hitherto his modus operandi at the Thoroughbred Center near Lexington has been to showcase speed in early juveniles, in the hope of selling them on. It's almost been like transferring the breeze-up pinhook to racetrack competition.

“And we're still doing the same model,” he stresses. “I've plenty of sharp-looking individuals for the spring. But yes, if we can, going forward hopefully we're trying to get that bigger, maybe classier horse. I'm not trying to change things that are working, but every trainer wants to get up to the Premier League. You don't want to get labeled just with that cheap, early sprinting type. You always want better quality.”

Not that the two are mutually exclusive. As Wesley Ward has shown, you can upgrade while still dealing primarily with speed.

“Correct,” Ennis responds. “There's plenty that do go on from winning early in the spring to become Breeders' Cup horses, and then have a good 3-year-old career as well. So all I'm trying to do is get that better quality, whether it's five furlongs or two turns. Good horses make good trainers. The top trainers will tell you that those horses basically train themselves.”

Up to now, however, necessity has been the mother of invention. Since early, commercial types were more affordable, they became the seed corn. And, in contrast with the breeze-up programs, Ennis could also avoid the artificial deadline of a 2-year-old sale catalogue.

“It's just kind of a win-win situation,” Ennis says. “It was a quick turnover: I could get these horses to run fast, keep them sound, get them to the Keeneland spring meet. And I could make a little money, because I'd own a piece myself. There didn't seem to be many people doing it, and I thought that it could be a way to survive over here.

“For the 2-year-old sales, you get one day where they have to be ready. But if we're not ready for Keeneland opening weekend, we've still got the whole month, and then Churchill. Prize money is good, so if you can win you might get paid twice: you get your purse, and you can sell.”

The foundations were admittedly precarious. Ennis bought his first yearling, a $7,000 colt by Yes It's True, at Fasig-Tipton's October Sale in 2017. Other than dabbling with the odd bit of rehab or pre-training, in the five years since his arrival he had subsisted chiefly on freelance trackwork. Even $7,000, then, was more than he could afford.

“I was getting older, and it was getting harder on the body to be galloping all the time,” he recalls. “But it looked like I would just have to carry on as I was unless I could develop the training side. I remember going over to Fasig and thinking, 'Look, no one is going to give me horses. No one knows me. No one trusts me. So I'll have to buy my own.'”

Erin, meanwhile, his wife and mother to their twins Jack and Eleanor, was supportive as ever. Somehow they scraped the money together, with the help of friends, and Weiland showed a bit of dash before fading into fifth on debut at Keeneland. Ennis rolled the dice immediately, entering the colt for a stakes at Churchill, and was rewarded when Weiland just prevailed after a tense stretch drive.

“So after that we got him sold, and it just snowballed from there,” Ennis says. “And I just kept reinvesting, kept doing it, again and again.”

Deep in the Keeneland September Sale of 2019, for instance, he found an Oxbow colt for $9,500. The following July, as a Churchill debut winner and GIII Bashford Manor S. runner-up, County Final topped Fasig-Tipton's Horses of Racing Age auction at $475,000.

But now Epic Ride is threatening to elevate Ennis to new heights. He already did that, in fairness, simply by walking into the barn as a $160,000 yearling. He had been found at the Keeneland September Sale by Welch Racing, who were recommended to Ennis by his friend and client Martha Jane Mulholland of Mulholland Springs Farm.

“So it was great to be given that opportunity,” Ennis says gratefully. “It's a group round Jennifer and Mark Welch from Tennessee, lovely people and kind of new in the game. I think it was Mark's dad that always wanted to have a Derby horse, and for his ambition to be carried on, so that's why they named him Epic Ride.

“He's a beautiful, scopey horse; big but not too big, if you know what I mean. On looks he certainly wouldn't be out of place in the Derby paddock. And he's fast, but he carries it. The thing I really like is that he's uber professional, just settles so well. He probably should have won first time, sprinting, but it actually probably worked out better that he just got beat, as it got that extra race into him and he was able to win his maiden impressively. And then he came back for the Leonatus S. I didn't think he was quite ready, physically, but he won easy, didn't get a smack or anything and galloped out strong.”

Ennis is too familiar with the challenging margins of his profession to be getting carried away, but the reality is that a similar performance against a deeper field on Saturday could not fail to evoke the recent examples of Two Phil's and Rich Strike. The latter was probably not as effective on a synthetic track, but Two Phil's turned out to be one of those horses that are simply more adaptable than people tend to expect.

“And before those you've obviously had others, like Animal Kingdom, that switched between surfaces,” Ennis muses. “And you know what, one thing about Turfway, they come out of their races really good. They don't have the grueling, punishing races that they sometimes do on the dirt. These horses that have been coming out of the Jeff Ruby [the Grade III climax of the Turfway series], they've bounced out of it and they've run well in the Derby. So, look, we'll see if he can get the points, and then we can start thinking about the Ruby or the [GI] Blue Grass.”

Long before he started training on this scale, Ennis had always noticed the different effects of different surfaces in conditioning a horse.

“For years, I was riding a lot of nice horses for some of the bigger trainers,” he notes. “And when you're riding that many horses, every day, you'd get to feel how some of them were getting tired and labored underneath you. So I never want to empty a horse on the dirt, because it can bottom them fairly fast. At the Thoroughbred Center, it's a heavy enough dirt, it takes a bit of getting. You could easily overcook a horse if you trained them too much. So, yeah, less can be more.”

That earlier experience riding trackwork also introduced Ennis to what elevates the best horses from the herd. For he was once the regular exercise partner of a future dual Horse of the Year in Wise Dan (Wiseman's Ferry).

“He was just a different gear, a freak,” he says with enthusiasm. “He was your American Frankel (GB), he was that good. He'd have been quick enough to go six furlongs, his cruising speed was that fast. And he'd probably have stayed a mile and a half, too.”

Ennis has never attended the Derby and nor does he intend to do so–unless he meets one condition.

“It's only down the road, obviously, but I've always said that I'd never go until I have a runner,” he says. “If this horse doesn't make it, I won't go. But it would be a dream, just to be part of it. The Derby's not the be-all and end-all, but it would be huge just to do that walk over, with 130,000 people screaming at you. That stuff doesn't happen. It would be madness.”

In the meantime, Ennis is keeping his feet on the ground and sticking to the process. Here, after all, is a man who started with nothing. The first to support him was Allen Greathouse, now an investor in nearly every yearling project.

“I've got some great clients now, but he was the first,” Ennis says. “He trusts me, and he's doing well with it. We bought a Collected yearling off Stone Farm at Keeneland for $2,500, Gewurztraminer, and after he won easy at Churchill we sold him for $250,000. And actually I was out at Stone Farm the other day, and hopefully they'll be sending me his siblings.

“I've now got Three Diamonds Farm, Cheyenne Stables, Dixiana. Bourbon Lane are sending me some. It's building up crazily; really, I need more room. When I started out, I was subleasing a couple of stalls. Then I might have had two horses in this barn, four in that one, all spread out. Now I've got a whole barn of 40, plus 10 in another one. And 30 of them are 2-year-olds. Thank God, they've been running consistently well for quite a while now. Maybe it's the better horses, maybe I'm placing them better, maybe it's a combination. But momentum is key, isn't it? So, yeah, just keep the foot down.”

It's a world apart, certainly, from the cul-de-sac he had reached at the end of his 20s back in the Old World. Unlike so many Irishmen who have preceded him here, Ennis was by no means born into the game. His dad, a truck driver, would take him from their home in Co. Meath to the old Phoenix Park, and the boy would gaze in awe at Steve Cauthen riding out of the parade ring in the old Sheikh Mohammed silks. He left school at 15 and entered the apprentice academy at the Curragh with little sense of vocation. By the time he boarded that plane, his path with horses appeared to be fading. All he knew was that he had a friend to stay with, and hoped to pick up some trackwork. Within two or three months he was riding through to mid-afternoon daily, making good money, already beginning to sense that this was a place where a striver could make things happen.

“And let me tell you this, the Irish expat community in Lexington is the best in the world, bar none,” he says. “If something goes wrong, or someone's in trouble, they all come together and look after you. I've seen it time and again. Everyone will get together to get you out of a hole. It's amazing. We're all competing, all trying to buy and sell horses, all trying to make money–but we're all in it together.”

Last year his father came over and found himself being photographed with Cauthen in the Keeneland paddock–a barn client, in his role with Dixiana–and watching races from the farm's box.

“I trained a Dixiana homebred filly [Icicles (Frosted)] to win a stakes at Turfway at the start of the year,” Ennis says proudly. “They're all so easy to deal with, Steve, Rob Tillyer, everyone.

“I'm 42 now and have still never had money. But the reason I don't have money now is because I keep buying horses! And at least I can provide for my family. I would definitely encourage other guys to come over. There's so many good people in Ireland and England, just wasting away. Come over here and give it five years. If you don't like it, go home. But give it a go.”

Of course, a spirit of adventure brings no guarantees. If Ennis has earned unusual success, he evidently has aptitudes that are no less common.

“American Dream, that's basically what it is,” he says with a shrug. “But it is all about hard work. You get over here, and you work. Look after whatever dollars or cents you can get, try to keep things together–and always invest in yourself.”

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