06/02/2005 11:00PM

Credit pin-hookers for raising bar

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The five-month Florida 2-year-olds in training sales season comes to an end with the Ocala Breeders' Sales Company June auction of 2-year-olds in training and horses of racing age on June 21-22. The sale has cataloged 635 2-year-olds and 23 horses of racing age.

The numbers indicate that the '05 sales season has been one of the better ones of the past decade. The gross of $114,551,000, compared to $104,827,000 last year, is a record for the Florida 2-year-old sales, held by the OBS, Fasig-Tipton, and Adena Springs Farm. Including those cataloged to the June sale, the Florida season total of 2-year-olds cataloged for auction is 3,320.

Norman E. Casse, the OBS chairman of the board, has been marketing 2-year-olds for some three decades. He used to breed for the 2-year-old market more than he pin-hooked, but nowadays Casse's business plan gives more weight to the pin-hooking end of the market.

"By and large this has been a good year for me," said Casse. "I know some others have taken hits - maybe paid too much for yearlings and maybe bought too many - but I have no complaints."

Mike O'Farrell, who took over the reins of Ocala Stud when his legendary father, Joseph M. O'Farrell, passed away some 20 years ago, credits the pin-hookers with being the catalysts who forced changes in the 2-year-old market.

"They made us change in order to compete," said O'Farrell. "For some this was a painful change in that those who bred for the market had to upgrade their stock and alter the ways they did business. If they didn't, they went out of business."

Ocala Stud, according to O'Farrell, seldom has had as many as 40 mares. The farm goes to the 2-year-old market with 30 to 35 foals of these mares.

"In the old days, before the pin-hookers became prevalent, you could count on getting 75 percent of your foal crop into the selected 2 year-old sales," O'Farrell said. "But, not any more. You're lucky if 30 percent make a qualifying score."

Sire power is another major change impacting the 2-year-old sales. In the 80's and 90's one could take the get of a relatively inexpensive sire to the 2-year-old sales and make a big hit. Nowadays, O'Farrell said, this is no longer true. The pin-hookers are competing with the 2-year-olds of top-of-the-line stallions, and the offspring of so-so sires simply cannot compete.

O'Farrell has a rule of three when it comes to new stallions. He has to have that "gut" feeling that the potential stud, by virtue of pedigree, performance, and conformation, has the stuff to be a winner. He then breeds that stallion to about a dozen mares. He does this for three years and then waits and sees.

"Take Notebook," O'Farrell said, referring to the late leading Florida sire. "His first crop was disappointing. They just didn't look good. But, if you have a plan you have to stick to it, so we continued to breed to him and were fortunate that we did. Montreal Red was just the opposite. His first crop was very attractive. We bred to him for three years and he did not make it. If we let first impressions dictate the established plan, we would have abandoned Notebook and boosted Montreal Red. And, Ocala Stud would have been in trouble."

O'Farrell is cautious when it comes to standing stallions, as he is aware that most stallions are unsuccessful. "Two out of 10 will make it," he said. "I wish I could tell you which two, but no such luck."

O'Farrell's plans for Ocala Stud are pretty much same old, same old. He is a strong believer in continually upgrading the quality of the broodmare band. And this does not mean "buying a $15,000 to $20,000 mare and trying to crack the selected sales with that mare's foal," he said.

Because Ocala Stud markets its produce as 2-year-olds in training, there are going to be good years and bad ones at the sales. O'Farrell says that '05 goes into the books as a good year. Last year did not.

While some sellers of juveniles rue the dominance of pin-hookers in the market, O'Farrell gives them credit for elevating the game. And while this raising of the standards has impacted breeders who have not, the higher standards have also attracted higher-end buyers.

"You cannot compete with the pin-hookers selling below-standard horses," he said. "You might have gotten away with this 20 or 30 years ago, but not any more.

"Look at those who are signing the tabs for 2-year-olds in training. You have the world's leading buyers coming to the 2-year-olds sales. Give credit where it is due. The pin-hookers raised the level."