03/15/2014 7:30PM

Hartley and De Renzo Ocala's master talent scouts

Barbara D. Livingston
Champion and dual classic winner Silver Charm is among the stars consigned as youngsters by Hartley/De Renzo.

There are a few hints that these are the folks who pinhooked a 2-year-old for a world-record $16 million. Still, what is the enduring impression of Randy Hartley and Dean De Renzo? They’re just a couple of hardworking horse lovers trying to keep their business rolling.

The stallion barn and adjoining breeding shed at Hartley/De Renzo’s farm in Ocala, Fla., are more ornate than most, a nod to De Renzo’s wide array of talents and the windfall that afforded the embellishments. The farm’s original 163 acres are neatly groomed and populated with gorgeous horses whom tourists surely swoon over. And as a prodigal touch of irony, The Green Monkey – he of the curious name and considerable onus – has returned to the farm, having been separated, symbolically and literally, from five other resident stallions in his own little barn and paddock.

Hartley/De Renzo might look like just another large, rectangular parcel in an ambling town famous for its horse appeal, but its principals are what set it apart. Committed friends and business partners for nearly a quarter-century, Hartley and De Renzo have succeeded at the top end of the Thoroughbred business through their finely honed combination of solid business principles and old-fashioned good fortune.

“Randy and I are always on the same page,” De Renzo said. “I don’t think we’ve had a serious argument in all our years together.”

Even before they consigned the Forestry colt who ultimately became The Green Monkey to the Fasig-Tipton select sale at Calder in 2006 – and Coolmore Stud outbid Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum to reach that magical $16 million figure – Hartley/De Renzo already had evolved into a highly reputable, full-service operation for breeding, training, and sales.

De Renzo, 54, grew up in New York City before moving to Ocala in 1984 to be around the animals he loved. Hartley, 46, grew up in St. Augustine, Fla., and met De Renzo in the early 1990s through a mutual business acquaintance. They quickly hit it off and formed their own company in 1992.

“It hasn’t all been wonderful,” said De Renzo, the bigger talker of the two, during a recent interview in the farm’s main office on Highway 225A just west of town. “In 1999-2000, when we were involved in the Japanese market and the yen went in the tank, we lost something like
$3 million. We had only been pinhooking up until then and wanted to diversify and try to sell horses in all sales. We built a stallion barn and opened up our breeding operation, and then it all went bad.”

But they recovered quickly. In 2001, they began standing Successful Appeal, who would become the leading freshman sire in North America in 2004 (the same year the stallion was moved to Kentucky). In subsequent years, they continued to thrive while adhering to their core philosophy of buying yearlings with pedigree and conformation and training the horses themselves to become prized commodities on the open 2-year-old market.

“We just kept upgrading our pedigrees and tried to find what the [buyers] will go an extra mile for,” De Renzo said. “We follow that market pretty hard. The Breeders’ Cup became just as important as the [Kentucky] Derby, and we had to step our game up and get not just the horse, but the horse with the pedigree.”

Their work at the yearling sales is tireless. Although they have about 30 employees at their Ocala base – some of whom have been with them since 1991, even before they started their joint venture – they do not use “scouts” in culling their lists of prospective purchases.

“We’ll come back at the end of the day, and a lot of times Randy and I will have the same shortlist,” De Renzo said. “Something we look for is when a horse has an attitude – that he or she has a purpose. They walk down and back with a very forward, fluid motion and have a will. It’s hard to measure that will, or what’s commonly called ‘heart,’ but it’s something we really do try to get a gauge on.

“The conformation may not be 100 percent, but that doesn’t mean we’ll necessarily reject the horse. They may be toed in or toed out or a little offset in the knees, but if we like a pedigree, we’ll consider going in for that horse. We like to say we’d rather have a Corvette with a shimmy than a Chevette.”

In a given year, Hartley/De Renzo will buy 50 to 60 yearlings to turn around the following year, many of them by April. “Very rarely do we have one that doesn’t eventually make it to a sale,” said De Renzo.

“Every one that comes through our hands, we treat like a champion and hope he or she becomes one in later years,” he added. “Obviously, it’s out of our control once we sell them, but the majority of the time when we sell quality horses, they usually go to quality trainers.”

Future stars who trained at the farm and/or were 2-year-old sales graduates consigned by Hartley/De Renzo include Silver Charm, Xtra Heat, Closing Argument, D’wildcat, Greenwood Lake, Spring At Last, and In Summation.

Their biggest score last year was a $1.6 million purchase by Robert LaPenta last March at the Fasig-Tipton select sale of 2-year-olds in training at Palm Meadows in Florida. The Bernardini colt named Sassicaia has started twice, most recently finishing second in a March 8 maiden race at Gulfstream Park for trainer Chad Brown.

The pair have hit the ground running at the early select juvenile sales this year, consigning the second-highest-priced 2-year-old at the Barretts March auction, a Malibu Moon filly out of In the Ghetto purchased by Todd Pletcher, as agent, for $950,000. Hartley/De Renzo also consigned two $300,000 colts at Barretts, by Pulpit and War Front, and sold eight juveniles Tuesday at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co. select sale, led by a $475,000 Kitten’s Joy colt.

Hartley and De Renzo also usually raise about 15 homebreds a year from their own mares, and while they aim to sell those, they usually wind up maintaining a small racing stable. Their biggest farm client is the Dream Walkin Farm of country music star Toby Keith, who keeps about 50 mares at the farm while maintaining his primary base in Oklahoma.

The property recently was expanded to include an adjacent 97-acre farm formerly known as Hawkins Ridge and now totals about 260 acres. There is a five-furlong dirt course, a six-furlong turf course, two swimming facilities, and now more than 275 stalls.

Their day-to-day routine consists primarily of Hartley and De Renzo climbing aboard their ponies and putting the yearlings (now recently turned 2-year-olds) through their tasks. Asked if they can tell whether a trainer they meet at a sale is trying to buffalo them, they laughed.

“Oh yeah,” said Hartley. “That’s what we’ve built our business on, being hands-on horsemen. We started out doing this because we love horses. Some people get too big and materialistic and are too worried about other things. The day we stop doing what we do is when we need to stop, but I don’t see that happening.”

The richly appointed stallion barn, which De Renzo designed and helped build himself, houses five of their seven stallions, the most accomplished of whom is With Distinction, a 13-year-old son of Storm Cat. He was the leading general and juvenile sire in Florida last year and has topped a number of important categories in the state since 2010.

The other stallions on the grounds are Archwarrior, City Place, Doctor Chit, and Rattlesnake Bridge. The Green Monkey is just outside in his own spot, while Senor Swinger stands at Diamond B Farm in Pennsylvania. With some exceptions, mares are shipped in to be bred and are not boarded at the farm.

De Renzo said as the operation grew they became one of the largest sales consignors in Florida.

“We tried to slowly scale down ... we were enjoying it, but when you start to represent 200 horses, you’re just spread too thin. Right now, we know everything about every horse.”

With the recent upturn in the sales market in Florida and in North America in general, De Renzo predicted continued strong demand at the select OBS and Fasig-Tipton Florida sales in March, which allow buyers to watch prospective purchases display their talent in presale under-tack shows. De Renzo’s opinions from a February interview were borne out last week, as the OBS March sale broke records in gross, average, and median.

“It’s been a pretty good curve,” he said, referring to the growth of the OBS select sale. “The fastest horse doesn’t top the sale now – the best horse does. I’ve watched it over the past 20 years, and it’s gone from fast horses to quality horses.”

Among Hartley and De Renzo’s pet projects is restoring The Green Monkey to respectability. They believe the 10-year-old horse has gotten a bum rap in the industry after failing to win in three career starts. His first crop, now 4-year-olds, was very limited but still boasts a listed stakes winner, Kinz Funky Monkey. The Green Monkey stands for $5,000 and was booked to about 20 mares for the 2014 season as of early February.

“He injured his neck and never healed up quite right, and if you watch him real closely, you’ll notice he still holds his neck in a certain way,” De Renzo said. “He had an amazing amount of talent. I remember even before he was broke, Randy said, ‘That’s the fastest horse we’ll ever have.’ What’s happened with him is unfortunate, but we’d kind of like to have a chance to clean up that perception that he’s a dud.”

As for that fateful sale-record day in 2006, “I remember coming home and saying, ‘Did that just happen?’ ” Hartley said. “We did bring in some very smart financial people to help us in long-term investments and retirement. Of course, as horsemen, we’ve reinvested a lot in horses.”

Both men mostly limit their work to five days a week, with weekends reserved for leisure activities, often involving horses. “We like to be able to enjoy our lives,” said Hartley, who is big into barrel racing.

They live just a few miles apart, close to the farm. “Randy’s two miles this way, and I’m two miles that way,” said De Renzo, a single father and licensed pilot who flies his own small plane (courtesy of The Green Monkey) to out-of-town sales.

Whatever they’re involved in, the partners unfailingly exercise a mutual respect that long has been the foundation of their successful business.

“We have a lot of trust in each other,” Hartley said. “Dean might go buy a horse that I’m not totally crazy about, or vice versa, but there’s an understanding between us that we’re both trying to accomplish the exact same things, and we’ve never gone to battle. So far, it’s working out pretty well.”