02/07/2003 1:00AM

Persistent O'Farrell hits jackpot


MIAMI - When the auctioneer's gavel rang down, Mike O'Farrell's Ocala Stud had sold the highest-priced juvenile ever at the Ocala Breeders' Sales Company's sale of 2-year-olds in training. The dark brown son of Ocala Stud stallion Montbrook was bred and raised by Ocala Stud, and he is the most expensive youngster the farm has ever sold.

"You never dream they're going to bring that much when you take one over to the ring, but we were fortunate, and it all came together," O'Farrell said. "This colt has as good a mind as any I've worked with. He worked well on the track, was good-looking, and all the right people were interested in him."

The major buyers at the juvenile sale had spotted the big son of Montbrook, and the buzz among knowledgeable insiders before Tuesday's auction was that this colt would set off fireworks when he went through the ring. They were right.

On the morning of the sale, the question they all asked, however, was: "How much can a Montbrook bring?" By early evening on Tuesday, everyone learned that the answer was quite a lot. And at the end of the day, trainer Todd Pletcher signed the ticket for Demi O'Byrne, as representative for Michael Tabor.

Although the colt had been expected to top the sale, his price was a surprise. Montbrook is one of the best stallions in Florida, but he had never before sired a seven-figure offspring. Now he has.

"Montbrook has had a couple of really good years," O'Farrell said. "He had to earn his way, but he's had a lot of stakes winners, including some in different markets, and that's helped him get more recognition."

Among the best of the nationally prominent horses who have elevated Montbrook's status is the second-place finisher in last year's Breeders' Cup Sprint, Thunderello, who is entering stud this year at John T.L. Jones's Walmac Stud in Kentucky. The year before came Grade 1 winner Outofthebox, and the stallion has a dozen and a half other stakes winners, including graded winner Snuck In, who, like Outofthebox, has gone to stud in Florida.

A son of the Buckpasser stallion Buckaroo, Montbrook had immense speed, winning 5 of his 8 starts, all at 3. His best victories came in the Grade 3 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash at Laurel and Riva Ridge Stakes at Belmont. Buckaroo's sons were not in great demand as sires, and despite Montbrook's obvious ability, standing the horse was not a simple proposition.

Montbrook did have the advantage of an exceptional physique, with size, substance, length, and balance. And although he was unraced at 2, Montbrook was a $260,000 2-year-old in training in 1992 and showed high speed both training and racing. When he retired to Ocala Stud, the syndicate that owns Montbrook stood him initially for $3,000 live foal, which helped to keep breeders committed until the proof came at the races. Montbrook now stands for $20,000, and his book is full.

Although they all can't work out as well as Montbrook, O'Farrell is a breeder who looks for quality and value in a stallion prospect.

"I'm a poor boy trying to play a rich man's game," he said. "I don't pinhook, and all the horses I sell are homebreds. So when I stand a stallion I really need to believe in him."

That observation also applies to mares. O'Farrell acquired Cut Class Leanne, the dam of the February sale topper, at the Keeneland November breeding stock sale in 1998.

"I already had a couple of Cutlass mares and was looking for another good one to breed to Notebook because I wanted to try to repeat the cross that had produced Three Ring" who was a winner of the Grade 1 Acorn Stakes, he said "This was a mare I really liked, and she was in foal to Hennessy."

O'Farrell bought the mare for $105,000, and it looked like a great opportunity. But the racing gods were not immediately generous.

"The foal was born dead," O'Farrell recalled. "Then she went barren to Notebook. But this was a tremendous family, and you've got to have persistence. If you like them to begin with, you have to keep on with them."

His faith paid off. In 2001, Cut Class Leanne delivered a dark colt by Montbrook, and two years later he went through the ring at the OBS February sale at Calder for a record price.