SI Vault
 
Building an empire on horses ready to run
Pete Axthelm
January 23, 1967
Speed is very important in Joe O'Farrell's life. He drives, talks and acts fast, and the business he runs has grown faster in the last decade than any other horse-breeding enterprise anywhere. During the last month high-speed 300-mile trips between Miami and Ocala have been a routine part of his preparation and promotion of the 2-year-olds that will be sold this week in the Florida Breeders' Sales Company auction at Hialeah. As the nonsalaried president of the sales company, O'Farrell is interested in every horse that will be sold. As general manager and part-owner of Ocala Stud, he is particularly concerned with the 72 horses he will sell for himself or as an agent. When the sale ends the buyers—many of them personally influenced by O'Farrell's sales pitch—will have spent more than $4 million for some 300 horses, to set all kinds of records for the Florida sales.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
January 23, 1967

Building An Empire On Horses Ready To Run

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Speed is very important in Joe O'Farrell's life. He drives, talks and acts fast, and the business he runs has grown faster in the last decade than any other horse-breeding enterprise anywhere. During the last month high-speed 300-mile trips between Miami and Ocala have been a routine part of his preparation and promotion of the 2-year-olds that will be sold this week in the Florida Breeders' Sales Company auction at Hialeah. As the nonsalaried president of the sales company, O'Farrell is interested in every horse that will be sold. As general manager and part-owner of Ocala Stud, he is particularly concerned with the 72 horses he will sell for himself or as an agent. When the sale ends the buyers—many of them personally influenced by O'Farrell's sales pitch—will have spent more than $4 million for some 300 horses, to set all kinds of records for the Florida sales.

O'Farrell will hardly pause to enjoy his success. He will rush back to Ocala to supervise the foaling of another crop of his horses—a crop that probably will bring even more money in the 1969 sale of 2-year-olds. Then he will match up his mares and stallions and oversee the breeding operations on his farm. He also will buy and sell new farms in Ocala, entice new people with fresh money into the region and travel all over the world seeking new horses for himself or new customers for the Hialeah sales. And while he looks ahead, the horses he has sold in the past undoubtedly will keep winning; the Ocala Stud has been the leading commercial breeder in the country in four of the last six years.

"I'm always in a hurry," O'Farrell says. "I hate anything that forces me to sit around and do nothing. You know how it is with horses—some settle right down and others are always wound up. I think the same thing applies to people—and I'm the type of person who never unwinds." O'Farrell's nonstop sales talk about Florida breeding can wear out his listeners, and the frenetic pace of his activity disturbs more complacent people in the racing business. He can be charming in his approach to prospective customers, but he also can be opinionated and abrasive around men he must work with. In the fiercely competitive commercial breeding business, he attracts a good deal of criticism. But on balance his record must be considered remarkable. In an era of kickbacks, phony syndications and other forms of sophisticated robbery of horse owners, O'Farrell has maintained a sound record of honesty and frankness. And in a business long governed by musty traditions and cautious thinking, he has been a daring innovator—the driving force behind the tremendous growth of Ocala as a breeding center.

He speaks proudly if not always modestly about his ideas. "I've done more to improve feed than anyone ever did before," he says. "I'm constantly making tests to improve the land and the horses. I've taken a scientific approach to raising horses, and the record shows that it works." All the science in the world, however, would not have been enough to sell people on the nondescript steeds that O'Farrell and his partners owned in 1956 when they took over Bill Leach's Dickey Stables and renamed it Ocala Stud. Leach had raised and sold that year's Kentucky Derby winner, Needles, but the rest of the stock on Ocala's three modest horse farms had pedigrees on the fringes of the Thoroughbred family. Ocala needed more than fertile soil or ideal climate to become a breeding success; it needed a gimmick, and O'Farrell found one.

The gimmick wasn't new. In the early 1950s Elmer Heubeck Jr., then the farm manager for Carl G. Rose, had tried to sell some poorly bred 2-year-olds by training them first and then offering them instead of presenting them as fattened, untried yearlings. Leach had based a whole sale on that idea, and a Kentuckian named Doug Davis Jr. had tried the same thing with some unfashionably bred stock. The concept of selling horses "ready to run" had met with little support, mainly because the training of a yearling was both risky and costly—and most commercial breeders prefer to leave all possible risk and expense to the buyer.

"I realized that it would cost about $2,500 more to train each horse instead of just fattening him up like they do in Kentucky," says O'Farrell. "But I also thought the buyers would like the idea. After all, it takes a trainer over 100 days just to get the fat off those Kentucky yearlings. We avoided such troubles, because we raised our horses to race, not just to sell."

When you look back on the extraordinary rise of Florida breeding the idea seems logical and simple. But as the first Ocala Stud sale began in Jan. 1957, O'Farrell began to wonder what he had gotten into. "There I was in the open Hialeah paddock," he recalls, "with 26 2-year-olds bred like billy goats. And just as our sale started it began to rain. I had put every cent I had into that sale, and if a hard rain chased away the buyers I figured I would be bankrupt before I even got going." But the rain stopped, and the horses sold for a surprisingly good average of $5,200. Over the next few years more breeders became interested in selling horses after they had been broken and trained. "I had to carry the sale myself for a few years, and the sales company never had any money," says O'Farrell. "But men like George Cavanaugh and Bonnie Heath joined me, and within five years we had enough money to build our own facilities." At that point the average price was up to $9,000; last year, in the company's new sales pavilion at Hialeah, 231 horses brought an average of $14,278. The "ready to run" sales principle, just a gimmick a few years ago, is now a prime factor in a multimillion-dollar business.

Breeders outside Florida still scoff at the Ocala methods. "They talk a lot about selling tried horses," says Leslie Combs II, Kentucky's leading commercial breeder. "But when they sell their horses they aren't far enough along so that a buyer can tell a whole lot about them. I believe they push a lot of horses before they're ready."

"I just think it is wrong," says Lou Rowan, a leader of California's struggling breeding industry, "to wind up a 2-year-old to go as fast as he can for a quarter-mile. You're asking for infirmities. It's not horsemanship. It is salesmanship."

O'Farrell insists it is both. He considers himself a superior horseman and boasts of the record of his operation. "Ocala Stud horses are so fit that even the worst trainer has trouble ruining them," he says half jokingly. "If I were raising cripples how could I have had seven stakes winners last year, more than any other commercial breeder?"

Continue Story
1 2