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For Brennan, the search for young talent never ends
While inspecting yearlings at sales this summer and fall, Niall Brennan can be seen wearing his usual white baseball cap, sporting his stable’s logo – a green shamrock encasing the golden letters “NB.”
But something is noticeably different about his headgear this yearling season.
Above the right ear is a small, stitched rendering of the red and white silks of Stuart Janney III, the co-owner and co-breeder of Kentucky Derby winner Orb. On the other side is a set of green and yellow silks representing Dogwood Stable, the winner of this year’s Belmont Stakes with Palace Malice.
Both horses were graduates of Brennan’s training program in their adolescent months, meaning the Ocala, Fla., resident quietly had a massive influence on the outcome of this year’s Triple Crown season. While the new hat design serves as a reminder of Brennan’s unforgettable classic campaign, it’s nonetheless time to look toward the future and work just as hard.
“It’s certainly very humbling and very gratifying to have had an abundance of blessings this year, but I don’t see it like this all just happens once,” Brennan said. “In this business, you’re only as good as your last horse – as a trainer, as an owner, as an agent, as a buyer, as a seller, you just have to keep that approach. You still have to get out there and do the work the next day. That’s the game, and that’s how it is.”
A native of Newbridge, Co. Kildare, Ireland, Brennan is one of North America’s perennial leading consignors of 2-year-olds in training, and his team has amassed a long list of black-type winners who got their start with Brennan.
Among the other horses to spend time in Brennan’s program since he went into business for himself in 1990 are Grade/Group 1 winners Point of Entry, Golden Ticket, Dayatthespa, Data Link, Afleet Express, Wickedly Perfect, Kurofune, Nobo True, Yonaguska, and Thorn Song, to name a few.
Brennan, 52, credits his father, champion steeplechase jockey and respected Irish trainer Liam Brennan, for giving him and his brother the tools for success in the equine industry. In addition to Niall’s big spring with Orb and Palace Malice, his brother, Ian, got Preakness Stakes winner Oxbow started at Stonestreet Training and Rehabilitation Center in Summerfield, Fla., giving the family its own version of the Triple Crown.
“My dad was a very good horseman, and just being around him, you learn a lot of things you don’t realize you’re learning,” he said. “We were always around the horses, and it was just part of growing up.”
After a juvenile sale season where Brennan was among the top consignors in a steadily improving market, the stalls must once again be filled for the next season. The process has already begun, and more horses will arrive as the Keeneland September yearling sale kicks into gear. Brennan’s motto, “Success is no accident,” is evident in the due diligence he shows in his inspection process as he analyzes prospects.
When inspecting yearlings, especially at a marathon auction like the Keeneland September sale, Brennan splits the catalog with his longtime business partner, bloodstock agent Mike Ryan, and each inspects his half of the day’s offerings. The following day, they switch halves, focusing on the horses that comprise each other’s shortlists, before coming to a consensus on which ones to pursue, and at what price.
“I don’t think you can expect success there without working very hard,” Brennan said. “We look all day, and as soon as the sale’s over, we’re working on the next day’s catalog ... I’ll look over Mike’s shortlist, and he’ll look at the ones I really like, so then we’ll have both seen the horses. We’ll always see a horse twice. We very rarely buy a horse off of just one look. We will always between us see a horse at least twice, if not three times.
“Mike and I have worked together for so long, we almost know how each other thinks. Over the years, I’ve learned an awful lot from Mike, and I think we approach things the same way.”
While Brennan may be best known for his work on the sales grounds, his training program also receives several homebreds and others not destined for the 2-year-old market. Brennan said the pace of development is usually accelerated for sale horses, headed toward a market that demands perfection, but sometimes a homebred keeps up the pace.
Such was the case with a bay Malibu Moon colt who arrived from Claiborne Farm in the summer of 2011. Bred by Phipps Stable and Janney, the colt would later be known as Derby winner Orb. Getting the colt headed toward his place in history, though, had its occasional rough patches.
“Sometimes, the Malibu Moons can be a little bit challenging in the early stages. Boys will be boys, and Orb was a little like that,” Brennan said. “He was a bit challenging through the breaking process, but he had good energy. Once he got past that after Christmastime and into January, you could really see the light go on for him, and he just started to focus better and really love his training. He brought himself along in February and March on the schedule that a lot of the sale horses were on.”
Joining Orb in that season’s class was Palace Malice, a Curlin colt whom Brennan picked up as a pinhooking prospect for $25,000 at the 2011 Keeneland September yearling sale. Palace Malice wasn’t perfect – he had a small bone chip on a hind ankle that Brennan ultimately deemed insignificant – but he was still one who showed up on each team member’s shortlist.
Brennan described the colt as something of a late bloomer during the roughly seven months under his watch, understandable for a May foal, and planned his sale schedule accordingly. Palace Malice was entered in the Keeneland April sale of 2-year-olds in training, where he went to Cot Campbell’s Dogwood Stable for $200,000.
“He progressed very nicely,” Brennan said. “He was very young in his mind. When it came to be November, December, he was doing everything right, but he was just a young horse. The light wasn’t going on as quick for him as it might for other horses.
“He was physically doing very well, but we decided probably around the end of December, when we really try to start focusing in on which sales you would point these young horses to, that it just made sense to give him a bit more time and go to the Keeneland sale in April.”
Now, as the summer turns to fall, vans will be headed toward Brennan’s farm filled with yearlings to break for next year’s sales and races. Perhaps a few will one day be mentioned in the same breath as their distinguished predecessors.
If they do, Brennan won’t spend too much time resting on his laurels. Before long, he’ll have more yearlings to buy.
“You still go out every morning and put your pants on one leg at a time and go back to work,” Brennan said. “Nothing changes, and that’s what we deal with, doing the same as we always do with the approach in the yearling sales.”
Brennan's top trainees
POINT OF ENTRY
B. h., 2008, Dynaformer—Matlacha Pass, by Seeking the Gold
Training program graduate, homebred for Phipps Stable
Five-time Grade 1 winner
“He was from the first group of yearlings that I got from the Phippses. I was always a big fan of Dynaformer, and I loved Point of Entry as a yearling. He didn’t quite have the substance as a yearling that a lot of Dynaformers would have. He did have many of the Dynaformer traits, but he was a tall, very leggy colt. He was a high-energy colt as a yearling, then as a 2-year-old you could see there was a ton of athletic ability, but he was kind of stringy, probably something like LeBron James when he was 10 years old. You could see it all in there, and you knew [it would come out] when the horse fills out.”
Dk. b. or br. c., 2009, Speightstown—Business Plan, by Deputy Minister
Sold: 2011 Keeneland April sale of 2-year-olds in training, $100,000
Winner, 2012 Travers S. (G1)
“He certainly was a very pleasant surprise in the sense that Kenny McPeek did an excellent job with him and picked him out of the 2-year-old sale, but he wasn’t a big horse. He was a very well-made, tidy colt as a 2-year-old, but I really thought he was going to be more of a typical Speights-town – a sprinter. I thought he was a very quick horse. He worked quick, he showed speed, and physically, he looked more like a sprinter. To be honest, I never thought at that time that he would be a mile-and-a-quarter Travers horse.”
Ch. f., 2009, City Zip—M’Lady Doc, by Doc’s Leader
Bought: 2010 Fasig-Tipton New York-bred preferred yearling sale, $50,000, by Sarazen Stable
Cataloged at 2011 Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co. March sale of selected 2-year-olds in training, sold privately.
Winner, 2012 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup S. (G1)
“We bought her as a yearling at the New York-bred sale at Saratoga, and I love City Zip as a stallion. She wasn’t perfect in front, but I loved her look and her demeanor. She was a very typical City Zip to her body, and she had great action and a great way about her. She leaned into her knees pretty good, but she vetted clean. It didn’t bother me because she just moved so well through it.”
Dk. b. or br. c., 2010, War Pass—Runup the Colors, by A.P. Indy
Bought: 2011 Keeneland September yearling sale, $80,000, by Valera Stable
Sold: 2012 Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co. March sale of selected 2-year-olds in training, $235,000
Winner, 2013 Louisiana Derby (G2), Withers S. (G3); 3rd, Kentucky Derby (G1)
“Revolutionary was always very athletic. Physically, you could always tell he was going to improve, but he might have been just a little more forward than Palace Malice [both were bred and consigned as yearlings by Lane’s End] because he just had a little more focus in the spring of his 2-year-old year. He was all business.”
Dk. b. or br. h., 1998, Cherokee Run—Marital Spook, by Silver Ghost
Bought: 1999 Keeneland September yearling sale, $145,000, by Mike Ryan, agent
Sold: 2000 Fasig-Tipton Florida sale of selected 2-year-olds in training, $1.95 million
Winner, 2000 Hopeful S. (G1); identified by Brennan as his most successful pinhook
“He was extraordinarily fast, such an athlete. He was a very smooth, good-looking colt, and Cherokee Run is so popular. The fact that he brought that kind of money obviously meant he was a successful pinhook for us, but he went on to be a very good horse and a very good stallion.”