When the chestnut colt by Flower Alley breezed at the 2011 OBS April Sale, he didn’t attract a great deal of attention. Although he was by a promising young stallion from a prominent sire line out of a modestly successful female family, the colt hardly stood out among nearly 1, 400 youngsters cataloged.
Although his eighth of a mile breeze in :10 2/5 was solid but not spectacular to the vast majority of potential buyers, the work and the way he did it left a deep impression on horseman Dennis O’Neill. “I’d be lying if I said I’d knew the Flower Alley colt would win the Derby or anything like that,” Dennis said, “but I can tell you it was a case of love at first sight.” Dennis came to Ocala seeking quality runners for the clientele of his brother, California-based trainer Doug O’Neill.
A few days later, when his bid of $35,000 bought Hip No. 494 on the sale’s second day, it was the linchpin of a chain of events that began when Eisaman Equine’s exercise rider Victor Davila pinhooked the Flower Alley colt as a yearling. The story reached a crescendo with Dennis O’Neill high-fiving jockey Mario Gutierrez after I’ll Have Another, the object of his affection the previous April, ran down Bodemeister in the stretch to win the 138th Kentucky Derby.
Dennis bought six horses at the 2011 OBS April Sale, paying prices ranging from $32,000 to $130,000. He was there because OBS April had become his favorite hunting ground in the search for horses for his brother’s clients. “Before I started coming to Ocala in April, I would only go to sales in Florida in Miami,” he said. “but once I started coming to April I realized what a great sale it was. There are so many nice horses every year, that if you really do your homework you can find good horses and great value.”
I’ll Have Another was not the first major winner Dennis O’Neill found at OBS April. At the 2010 Sale, he gave $70,000 for a filly by Congrats consigned by Niall Brennan. A little more than sixty days later that filly, named Wickedly Perfect and trained by his brother Doug, broke her maiden at first asking at Hollywood Park. She won the Sorrento Stakes (G2) at Del Mar next before running second in the Del Mar Debutante (G1). After winning Keeneland’s prestigious Alcibiades Stakes (G1), she was sold for $800,000 to Japanese interests.
Both Wickedly Perfect and I’ll Have Another were purchased as a result of the way Dennis O’Neill shops for horses and why the OBS April Sale fits his program. “I guess you could say I approach buying horses backwards,” said Dennis. “The [Under Tack] Preview is number one, followed by conformation and finally I worry about pedigree. I was attracted to I’ll Have Another by his long, smooth stride and his pedigree was good enough. He breezed with that same stride you saw in the Kentucky Derby. To tell the truth, he was such a nice mover I thought he’d sell for more money. For me, a nice way of going is the most important part.”
While Wickedly Perfect sped a quarter in :21 flat at her Under Tack breeze, O’Neill says the way they move is far more important. “As a matter of fact, I’d rather see a good mover breeze a little slower – once you get past :10 and 2/5 or so, buyers start falling by the wayside.”
While I’ll Have Another was getting ready for his date with destiny at Churchill Downs, Dennis O’Neill was back in Ocala at the April Sale, buying seven two-year-olds at prices ranging from $25,000 to $100,000 , and true to his theory only the hundred grander worked as fast as :10 flat. We caught up to him a day before he would catch a plane to Baltimore and reunite with team I’ll Have Another for the Preakness on Saturday.
With the two-year-old season winding down, what are his plans for the “offseason? ” I’m going to play a lot of golf,” he said with a laugh. “I bought 15 or 16 horses this year, and I’ll spend the summer watching them develop with Doug. He’s got about 60 horses in training at Hollywood and I’ll have the babies at Santa Anita.”
Whether there’s another I’ll Have Another back in the barn in California remains to be seen. For now, the Brothers O’Neill are in Baltimore trying to add the Triple Crown’s middle jewel to their own collection. They may not sing like the Everly Brothers or clown like the Marx Brothers, but with Dennis buying and Doug training, this brother act is on top of the world.