Taking Stock: Hickey's One-Man Show Produced Buck's Boy, Lady Shirl

Lady SpeightspeareMichael Burns


The news last week of P. Noel Hickey's death Aug. 8 at 94 was a reminder of how much racing has changed over the years. Hickey owned a stud farm in Ocala, Irish Acres; stood his own stallions that he patronized; bred the runners he raised and raced; and trained them, including one Eclipse Award winner and another near champion, both foaled in Illinois and from stock far off the perimeter of prevailing fashion. Who does that these days?

Back in the day, it wasn't unusual to see regional areas populated by trainers who bred and raced their “backyard” runners. These horsemen/women typically ran small-scale enterprises that incorporated poorly raced or unfashionably bred private stallions and small bands of undistinguished mares, but they enjoyed the protection of restricted state-bred monies that allowed them to ply their trade and make a living at the edges of the bigger game. Sometimes, a “big horse” would occasionally pop from such a program.

In Maryland in the 1970s, for example, Robert Beall ran a restaurant but trained some horses he bred on the side. He had his own stallion and a few mares and trained their offspring around his workday schedule. Beall's stallion, Friend's Choice, was by the Spy Song horse Crimson Satan and had won eight of 46 starts and earned $50,169. Though not a stakes winner, Friend's Choice was bred by Leslie Combs ll and shared the same fast female family of Mr. Prospector, who was also bred by Combs. Both had Miss Dogwood as their third dam. This female line, Miss Dogwood/Myrtlewood/Frizeur/Frizette, is one of the most storied in the Stud Book, and Seattle Slew is a member as well–his fifth dam was Myrtlewood.

Beall had a modest mare named Duc's Tina, a daughter of the Spy Song stallion Duc de Fer, that he bred to Friend's Choice in 1974, and the resulting foal was Dave's Friend, who was inbred 3×3 to Spy Song by Beall's design. Beall trained Dave's Friend to win several graded races and then sold the gelding to John Franks, who raced him until he was 11. For several years Dave's Friend was among the best sprinters in the country and retired as the all-time money earning Maryland-bred with a record of 35 wins from 76 starts and $1,079,915 in earnings.

Hickey elevated the Beall and similar models to a much larger scale, and he executed his plans in a precise and novel manner, particularly in Illinois from about the mid-1980s to the late-1990s when the state's restricted program had grown in scope with the rejuvenation of Arlington. And if he needed any inspiration that an “off-bred” horse could scale the heights at Arlington, he got it in the form of the first winner of the Gl Arlington Million in 1981, John Henry, a gelded son of Ole Bob Bowers who was bred on the wrong side of the tracks. Soon, Hickey's “Ill-breds,” as Illinois-breds were derisively referred to at the time, were dominating the turf course at Arlington. In 1990, Hickey led the trainer standings at Arlington with 49 winners, all of them owned by Irish Acres. The next year, he had 61 winners, a record for the track.

Like most who operated this way, Hickey didn't have access to the best or most fashionable stock, but he had a great understanding of the functionality of pedigrees and exploited this as a trainer. In fact, he'd frequently call Jack Werk, founder of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, to discuss sire and dam lines and their characteristics on the racecourse. Hickey also exploited another advantage – his Ocala farm. Hickey would ship his pregnant mares from Irish Acres to Illinois to foal and then ship the foals and mares back to Ocala as Illinois-breds in name only. They were raised and trained on limestone and sun in Florida, giving them a developmental leg up over their Illinois-raised contemporaries that endured comparatively harsh periods of cold weather.

During a long stretch, Hickey trained mostly for his own account, but there were some exceptions. One was the Hickey-trained Illinois-bred Buck's Boy (Bucksplasher), who won the Gl Breeders' Cup Turf in 1998 and earned an Eclipse Award as champion turf horse for George Bunn's Quarter B Farm. Altogether, Buck's Boy won 16 of 30 starts, earning $2,750,148, and he represents the apex of Hickey's long career as a breeder, owner, and trainer, which began in the early 1960s after he'd immigrated to Canada from his native Ireland and started fooling around with horses at Blue Bonnets, at the time a significant track in Montreal. Hickey bred Buck's Boy and initially raced him through his first three starts, winning twice, before selling the gelding in the summer of 1996 to Bunn.

Buck's Boy was a son of Hickey's stakes-placed Buckpasser stallion Bucksplasher, who stood at Irish Acres, and the champion gelding traced in tail-female to an imported Irish-bred mare Hickey had purchased in Canada in the 1960s named Cambalee (Ire), a foal of 1950. She was 18 and had already delivered nine foals by the time she produced her first for Hickey, Irish Molly, in 1968. Irish Molly's Verbatim filly Molly's Colleen was foaled in Canada in 1982, and Molly's Colleen foaled Buck's Boy in Illinois in 1993, at the J.P. Wenzel farm in Junction, a speck on the map about five miles west of Shawneetown, Illinois, in the southern tip of the state and not too far across the Ohio River from Kentucky.

Illinois Connections

I spoke with Hickey several times in the late 1980s and through the mid-1990s when I was bloodstock editor at Daily Racing Form and a columnist with Illinois Racing News. He'd been a youth track star, which helped him later as a trainer of equine athletes, and he had a professional background in finance. He'd left Ireland for Montreal in the 1950s to work in the financial sector before transitioning full time to horses, and his business acumen was vital to running a sprawling enterprise with many moving parts in different states, all under his direction.

To keep expenses low, for instance, Hickey would trade seasons in his stallions for board. “That's how I came to know him. I wanted to breed to Bucksplasher,” said Hugh David Scates, whose family has about 20,000 acres in agricultural use near Shawneetown. Scates and his brother Joseph, who stand the unraced Chuck Fipke-bred Soul of Ekati (Perfect Soul {Ire}), a half-brother to Fipke's Grade l winner Jersey Town, would foal “about 10 to 15 mares” for Hickey each year. “He needed the mares in the state by a certain date to qualify for the program, and his van driver would bring them in from Ocala,” Scates said.

One of the best horses raced by the Scateses, the fast Illinois-bred open stakes winner Island Riffle Cat (Cat Creek Slew), a winner of five of seven starts, was from the Hickey-bred mare Mugsey Molly–a half-sister to Buck's Boy. Island Riffle Cat was trained by Kelly Ackerman, who also happens to handle a Fipke string of fillies in the Midwest.

Before he started breeding horses for his own account in Illinois, Hickey had had success in the state as a trainer. An important horse for him was That's A Nice, with whom Hickey won the Glll Washington Park Handicap on turf in 1978 and 1979 at Arlington for Frank J. Sitzberger. That's A Nice was sired by the Noholme II (Aus) stallion Hey Good Lookin, not exactly a major stallion, but Hey Good Lookin's female line, Hickey pointed out, traced to Frizette. Hickey would later stand That's A Nice at stud, both in Illinois and Florida, and the stallion became a leading sire in Illinois and the sire of Hickey's homebred Grade l winner Lady Shirl, one of the best turf mares in the country in 1991 and at one time a live Eclipse Award contender. Lady Shirl won 18 of 41 starts, including the Gl Flower Bowl at Belmont and the Gll E.P. Taylor S. at Woodbine, and earned $951,523 in a six-year career from 1989 to 1994.

Hickey had acquired Lady Shirl's dam Canonization because she traced in tail-female to blue hen La Troienne (Fr) through the Phipps mares Brilliantly, her second dam.

Like Buck's Boy, Lady Shirl was foaled at the J.P. Wenzel farm in Junction. Wenzel, by the way, had raced Mugsey Molly, the half-sister to Buck's Boy that later produced the Scates stakes winner Island Riffle Cat, and it's likely he'd acquired the mare in a trade with Hickey.

Wenzel died a few years ago, but I tracked down his daughter Holly Wenzel, who now lives in Wyoming. She'd worked closely with her father at the farm and at the track and was mentored by Hickey one year at Hawthorne when she had her father's string in training. “Every year, we foaled about 100 mares on the farm,” Wenzel said, “and about 70 to 75 would be for Hickey.”

And how did the relationship with Hickey develop? “Well, we raised alfalfa hay. And through advertisements, we ended up shipping loads and loads of semi-loads down to Ocala for Irish Acres. And then Noel found out we had horses, too, and blah, blah, blah. And we–me, dad and mom–went down and met him and Bobby”–Hickey's wife–“and that's when we created our little business of foaling mares for Noel in Illinois.”

Hickey's legacy

Hickey was a meticulous horseman who paid a great deal of attention to pedigree and trained according to that knowledge. He was generous in sharing his knowledge, too, said Holly Wenzel. “He was amazing. I was training my father's horses and Noel was in the same barn one year. He came down and gave me advice and told me what to do and how to do it. He'd watch my horses exercising with me in the mornings and help me decide the program for each horse, what races would be best for them, like say a six-furlong race on dirt or a long one or a mile on turf for this one or a state-bred race on turf for another. He taught me how to characterize all that.”

Holly Wenzel continued: “We loved Noel. And I don't think a lot of people realized this but Noel was so funny. He could crack a joke and make any bad situation into a good situation. He was friendly, he was very, very businesslike, but he treated everyone well. His employees, he treated them like royalty. He treated them very well. Even his van driver who would haul the mares from Ocala to Illinois and then take them back with foals by their sides loved Noel, and I wish I could remember his name, but he became like family to us, too, because he was up at our place so often.”

Two of Hickey's longtime assistants are still around. One is trainer Doug Matthews. The other is Hilary Pridham, an assistant now for trainer Mike Stidham.

Remnants of Hickey's breeding program have also endured and have links to the present.

On Saturday, Chuck Fipke's homebred Canadian champion and Grade I winner Lady Speightspeare (Speightstown) won the Glll Trillium S. at Woodbine. Her second dam is Lady Shirl, who Fipke purchased in 2005 as an 18-year-old mare for $485,000 at Keeneland November with Jack Werk signing the ticket. Fipke was attracted to Lady Shirl for her race record and her female line–as Hickey had been when he'd purchased Lady Shirl's dam.

For Fipke, Lady Shirl produced Grade II winner Lady Shakespeare (Theatrical {Ire}), the dam of Lady Speightspeare; and Grade l winner Perfect Shirl, a daughter of Fipke's homebred Grade l winner and champion Perfect Soul and dam of Fipke's 2022 Grade l winner Shirl's Speight (Speightstown).

Fipke, an independent thinker, probably has more similarities to Hickey than anyone else in the game. Fipke knows pedigrees and plans his matings accordingly, he exclusively races his homebreds in his own name and assumes 100-percent risk, he targets his horses for races and distances based on pedigree, and he supports his own stallions, including some that weren't stakes winners, like the unraced homebred Not Impossible (Ire)–sire of Fipke's Queen's Plate winner Not Bourbon.

It's fitting, therefore, that a part of Hickey's legacy continues with Fipke, and I'm sure Hickey would approve.

Sid Fernando is president and CEO of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, Inc., originator of the Werk Nick Rating and eNicks.

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