Skip to main content
Original Issue

Building an empire on horses ready to run

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?"

Another familiar knock against Florida horses is that they win only when they run against one another. "A lot of Florida horses are winning races where only those bred in the state are eligible," says Combs. "You don't hear too much about them away from home." This argument has lost its validity in recent years, as Roman Brother became Florida's first Horse of the Year in 1965 and Dr. Fager and In Reality gave Florida two of last season's best 2-year-olds. "And the Kentucky people can't talk about state-bred racing anyway," says O'Farrell. "They have their own form of closed racing. They all run against each other at Keene-land every spring. That meeting is virtually limited to Kentuckians. Who else in his right mind would be at Keeneland when he could be in Florida?"

Even O'Farrell's rivals admire his salesmanship. "A tremendous promoter," says Kentucky's Bull Hancock. "A great publicity director," adds Combs. "They're smart in Florida. They've got all those rich old people down there with nothing to do, so they sell them a horse."

Combs's statement is not quite applicable to the present establishment in Florida racing. The "rich old people with nothing to do" include William Mc-Knight, Jack Dreyfus and Lou Wolfson. They first bought horses and later invested in Ocala farms, and they have become an important force in the growth of Ocala. "Unlike Kentucky breeders," claims O'Farrell, "we encourage new people to join us. We're not trying to control the whole business among a few of us. And since we're not just looking for people with money to lose, we attract real businessmen—men who know about running a sound operation and making a profit. That kind of thinking has helped us a lot. We have a kind of pioneer spirit. We're willing to try anything new."

The industry that consisted of three farms when O'Farrell arrived now includes almost 100 farms and thousands of people. The farm owners have organized—largely under O'Farrell's influence—to make many improvements. "It was easy to present a united front at first," says O'Farrell, "because there were so few of us. We knew that if we were going to make it we would have to go all-out to boost Florida breeding in general. Now that we've gotten so big, I must admit we're not quite such a friendly group anymore. But, for the most part, we can still work together well."

The main crisis in relations among Ocala breeders occurred in last year's sale, when the colorful and unpredictable socialite Liz Whitney Tippett decided to have a friend, Mrs. Lela Ellis, "buy" a son of her sire, Restless Wind, for a newsmaking $100,000. Says O'Farrel, "She let people know about it beforehand, and then she had her agent bid up to $100,000 so fast everyone could see it was a fake. After all we'd done to make people trust us, she had to go and buy that colt back herself to get that publicity,"

For a time O'Farrell talked of banning the Tippett horses from future sales; she in turn wondered if other breeders were just jealous of her. "They're trying to discredit a sale that should make everyone in Florida very happy," she said, and Mrs. Ellis displayed her own check for $100,000. But the colt, Tumble Wind, became a stakes winner, and the trouble was almost forgotten. O'Farrell is happy to list him among Florida successes, and Mrs. Tippett is preparing another large consignment for the sales. Elsewhere in Ocala, you occasionally hear breeders complain that O'Farrell is taking too much credit for their feats; and O'Farrell himself is sometimes annoyed at men who sit back while he drums up business for their horses. But the Florida breeders are making too much money to do much fighting.

Things should get even better in the future. It has long been established that horses raised on Ocala land "outrun their pedigrees," but for many years this did not require much running. Now, however, Florida people can point to a number of good stallions and mares. "You just can't go out and buy top broodmares unless somebody dies," says O'Farrell. "So for the most part you have to build up your own good families."

The head of Florida's best family is Rough'n Tumble, the 19-year-old patriarch of Ocala Stud. A sore-footed son of the undistinguished sire Free for All, from a bloodline that seemed dead 10 years ago, Rough'n Tumble has sired the winners of almost $3 million. "He has been the biggest single influence in building up our pedigrees," says O'Farrell. "There are only about 10 truly great sires around, and you've got to have one of them or you're in trouble. We just have Rough'n Tumble."

The prolific Rough'n Tumble rarely saw a high-quality mare in the first years of his career. Yet somehow he sired stakes winners out of mares that had never been remotely associated with stakes racing before. His offspring increased the stakes-winning "black type" in many Florida pedigrees, and O'Farrell even used services to him to lure new people into Ocala. The old stallion is nearing retirement age now, but he has done his job so well that the breed is in no danger of falling off again. Florida now has many good mares—although O'Farrell admits that there are also far too many bad ones left—and a few promising stallions. William McKnight's Intentionally had a brilliant crop of 2-year-olds last season, and O'Farrell's imported Prince Taj has the most prestigious European bloodlines ever to enter Florida.

This week the crew-cut, smiling O'Farrell is roaming the Miami stable areas, talking and shaking hands and somehow offering something to suit everyone's needs. Most of the buyers will listen to O'Farrell and pay record amounts of money for his horses. But when the sale ends the sales pitch will go on. The promotional job Joe O'Farrell does is aimed at more than one sale or one financial coup. It is tied up with pride and excitement and love of a region, and maybe those factors explain why he has accomplished more in 10 years than others have done in generations. "Ocala is my whole life," he says. "I've put everything I've got into it. We've scratched and scrambled to make it here, and we've done things nobody believed we could do. Just because we're on top I'm not about to stop hustling now."


ENTREPRENEUR: O'Farrell shows some of the Ocala-breds he will sell at Hialeah this week. From left are Homa the Fair, a bay colt by Fair Ruler; Magic Ring, a chestnut colt by Like Magic; and Alley Fighter, a bay colt by Florida's most successful stallion, Rough'n Tumble.