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Ciaran Dunne and Wavertree look to build on banner 2012
Ciaran Dunne grew up in the shadow of Thoroughbreds in County Kildare, Ireland, where his father worked as master gardener at the Irish National Stud. But it was the horses, not the flowers, that appealed to Dunne.
“It was always going to be horses,” said Dunne, 46.
A graduate of the Irish National Stud’s prestigious course for young horsemen, he headed for the United States in 1987 at age 21. That trip launched a career that has taken Dunne from farm to racetrack and back again – and has made him one of the nation’s most successful yearling-to-juvenile resellers through the Wavertree Stables that Dunne and his wife, Amy, have operated in Ocala, Fla., since 1995.
Last year, Wavertree topped all 2-year-old consignors by gross after selling 98 juveniles for more than $13.2 million. Wavertree also consigned 2012’s most expensive 2-year-old at a U.S. auction, $1.3 million Darwin; What a Name, one of France’s top juveniles; Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint winner Hightail; and Grade 1-placed 2-year-olds He’s Had Enough, Know More, Broken Spell, and Mechaya.
Dunne started his U.S. tour back in 1987, when Margaux Farm in Kentucky hired him. He later went to the racetrack, where he worked with trainers Tom Skiffington and Niall O’Callaghan, and then came back to Kentucky for a stint at Glennwood Farm, where he met Amy, then an exercise rider.
The couple moved to Ocala in 1994 when Amy was offered work there with Horsemen’s Bloodstock Services, now defunct. Amy went on to work for Summerfield Sales while Ciaran hired on with The Oaks and then Eisaman Equine, and all the while the Dunnes operated their own training and pinhooking business. It was too much, Ciaran Dunne recalls, and they were about to throw in the towel on their own operation when Darrell Sapp offered to send them a dozen horses to break and train.
So, in 1995, the Dunnes went out on their own as Wavertree Stables, named in honor of William Hall Walker, Lord Wavertree, the man who gave his stud farm to the Irish nation and thus founded the Irish National Stud. Over the next two decades, Wavertree’s clients have included Sapp, Glencrest Farm, Donver Stable, Paul Reddam, Mike Akers and Dapple Bloodstock, G. Watts Humphrey’s Shawnee Farm, and Cory Wagner. Often, the Dunnes are partners in the horses they sell.
Among Wavertree’s Grade 1- or Group 1-winning graduates are Careless Jewel, Devil May Care, E Z’s Gentleman, Honey Ryder, and Shakespeare, as well as Canadian champion Inglorious.
Dunne credits Amy and Wavertree team members Mark Edmonds and Kate Sheehan for much of the operation’s success. “Last year was a banner year,” he said. “We were an overnight success, and it only took 17 years.”
This year, Dunne says Wavertree will have more than 100 horses at auction, including 75 to 85 for the select juvenile sales. Wavertree began this year’s select juvenile sale season with no loss in momentum, selling 10 horses at the Barretts March sale last week for $1,835,000.
To what do you attribute Wavertree’s outstanding 2012?
“Client-wise, we’ve been very lucky. A lot of them have been with us long term, and that’s allowed us to push on. Blind luck has something to do with it, too! But we’ve chipped away at it, and we’ve pretty much always been a part of just about everything we sell, whether we own a piece of it or in the buying of it. We have a client base that allows us to interfere quite a bit, and we learn from them along the way. You also get better as you go. Last year, it just all came together.
“When you can go to the sales with a little bit of power behind you, where you’re not spending most of your day figuring out how you’re going to pay for the one you bought yesterday and you’re able to concentrate on the one you want to buy today, it frees you up considerably.”
What do you mean when you say your clients ‘allow you to interfere?’
“All of our owners are hands-on. We don’t have a lot of guys who say, ‘Oh, go to the sales and buy me five or six horses.’ We’re fortunate – quote, unquote! – that they show up at the sales and help us. But, you know, they really do. Everybody is involved, and it makes it easier at the end of the day. These guys are there at the conception, they go through the buying process, and we encourage them to come out to the farm, see the horses get broke, and be part of the early process.
“But, you know, the further along you go, it’s like a pyramid – as you go up, horses fall off along the side. Eighty percent of what we do goes wrong, and at the end of the day, you’re left with one Darwin standing there, and when you get to Miami, he brings $1.3 million. Or a Devil May Care that ends up running in the [Kentucky] Derby. But along the line, there’s disappointment. And that disappointment is easier for us to relay and for them to cope with because of the involvement they have. We try to make the process fun, and I like to think that all of our owners are our friends, too. And, believe me, the guys that we train for, they’ll keep you grounded. They won’t let you get a big head!”
How do you think the 2-year-old market has changed in the five years since the 2008 collapse?
“For a couple of years there [pre-collapse], it was so good there was no way it could stay at that level. We were so fortunate for five or six years and didn’t know it, selling million-dollar horses and just taking it for granted that that’s what you did. Then, all of a sudden, that dried up, and those million-dollar horses are few and far between. But I think there’s still a very solid middle market, and I think this year it might be even better because as the numbers drop, supply and demand kicks in. Our clearance rate last year was the best it has ever been, and that tells me that demand was up. Were they [selling for] million dollars after million dollars? No. But there were guys to buy most everything we took to market, and that’s probably more important.”
What are you expecting of the 2013 market?
“I think the catalog numbers will be down again, and maybe the gross won’t be as high. But it seems like, just from being at the farm and the people that have come by or that we’ve talked to, there’s a lot of interest in the 2-year-old sales. I don’t see the high end being crazy-crazy, but I think the middle will be very, very strong.
“I think we’ve got a really solid group this year, and there are a couple of horses we’re very excited about. They just need to continue moving forward and show up and perform on the big day.”
How did you get into the pinhooking business?
“I’d be the poster boy for ADD (attention deficit disorder), and for me, change is always good. The great thing about what we do is that win, lose, or draw, you get to draw a line underneath it and start again. When you’re at the racetrack and you have a horse, you have it forever. For me, that would be difficult because my mind moves on quickly. We’re perfectly suited for what we do. We get them in, and you’re as excited as hell when you get a group of new horses in; you never know what’s going to be in that bunch getting off the van. Then you meld them and mold them, and some work out, and some don’t. But then you get to sell them, and you get to start all over again. That was the big draw for me.”
What was your big break?
“Darrell Sapp, who was out of Ohio, sent us those 12 horses. One of them was a filly by Northern Baby that he bought and that he went on to name Well Dunne. He sent her to us, we got her ready, and we sent her to Eddie Kenneally. She won at Keeneland in April of her 2-year-old year. If you win a race at Keeneland or you’re involved with one that wins a race at Keeneland, it’s almost like winning the Derby, really. That was our biggest break.”
Are there aspects of the 2-year-old sales today that you’d like to see change?
“The gallop-out thing, I think, has been taken to an extreme. When you work a horse an eighth of a mile and someone wants to tell you that he only went out a good three-eighths, he didn’t go out a good half, I think we’re starting to ask too much of the horses. That’s my big pet peeve.”
The select 2-year-old sales have drifted later into the calendar, and that would seem to be better for the horses. Do you agree?
“I do. I think that’s wonderful. When you consider that we only have these horses for five or six months, and when you consider how young they are, another month is huge. The later, the better.”
What’s the best advice you ever got about pinhooking?
“It came from Walt Robertson. It was the first crop of Twinings, and we’d been on our own maybe three years. We had one, and we thought, ‘Oh, he’s really crooked.’ But the client wanted to enter him for Fasig, so they came to do the inspection, and I was almost apologetic showing the horse, but he was really pretty. Walt looked at me and said, ‘I can sell crooked. I can’t sell ugly.’ That’s the biggest thing we’ve learned: Curb appeal is everything. When they walk out, they’ve got to be pretty.”
Born: Kildare, Co. Kildare, Ireland, in 1966
Residence: Ocala, Fla.
Family: Wife, Amy, and daughter, Caitlin
Recent history: Leading U.S. juvenile consignor in 2012 with 98 sold for $13,247,000, including $1.3 million Darwin
Notable Wavertree graduates: Honey Ryder, Darwin, Devil May Care, Shakespeare, Careless Jewel, Inglorious, E Z’s Gentlemen, What a Name, He’s Had Enough, Hightail, Know More, Broken Spell, Mechaya
Great profile, very well written!