Photographs of stakes-winning graduates typically adorn Niall Brennan's shedrows at 2-year-olds in training sales. With the latest crop of stakes horses emerging, this season will be no exception for the Ocala, Fla.-based consignor.
Kobe's Back, impressive winner of the San Vicente Stakes (gr. II) Feb. 16 at Santa Anita Park for Lee and Susan Searing's C R K Stable and trainer John Sadler, is the latest graded stakes-winning sale graduate in a long line of accomplished winners presented by Brennan.
The son of Flatter out of the Well Decorated mare Well topped the first session of the 2013 Ocala Breeders Sales Company's March selected sale of 2-year-olds in training for Brennan, selling to bloodstock agent L E B with David Ingordo signing the ticket, for $480,000. The colt, purchased as a yearling by Sitak Stable for $60,000 at the Fasig-Tipton October sale in 2012 out of the consignment of Susan Forrester, agent, worked an eighth of a mile in :10 1/5 at last year's OBS under tack preview.
"The colt has so much poise and presence," Brennan said of the half brother to graded stakes winner Well Spelled following last year's under tack preview. "He has the presence of a good horse. All the parts fit. He performed beautifully at the under tack show, and he did it without pressure. He is impressive on the track and in the barn. I expect he will be on our stakes board next year."
Brennan's words proved prophetic. The San Vicente score by Kobe's Back places the handsome gray among the leading Southern California-based contenders for this year's Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum Brands (gr. I), as well as on Brennan's 2014 stakes board.
"You can never predict that the good ones will stay healthy," Brennan said the day after Kobe's Back notched his second stakes score and first graded stakes victory. "His success is not at all surprising."
Not many horses win a stakes race in their career debut, but that's exactly what Kobe's Back did last June. Despite breaking in the air in his introduction to afternoon competition, Kobe's Back rallied from last in a nine-horse field and won the 5 1/2-furlong Willard Proctor Memorial Stakes by 3 1/4 lengths over the Cushion Track synthetic surface at Betfair Hollywood Park.
In a near repeat of his Willard Proctor score, Kobe's Back once again charged from last and won the San Vicente going away in his first race over traditional dirt and his initial outing as a 3-year-old. Sadler indicated that Kobe's Back may make his next start in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel Stakes (gr. II) at Oaklawn Park on March 15.
"I always figured he would be better off on dirt," said Brennan. "We train at home on the dirt, so I knew he liked it. Of course, good horses can run on anything. The key is finding a horse's preferred surface because that's where they will excel. I believe his preferred surface is dirt."
Kobe's Back has made only one start over a route of ground, finishing 10th in the 2013 CashCall Futurity (gr. I) at 1 1/16 miles at Hollywood as a 2-year-old last December. He lost all chance in the race—won by Shared Belief—when he clipped heels while racing mid-pack a half-mile out.
Brennan believes Kobe's Back is well suited to handle increased distances.
"He won his debut sprinting because he was much the best," Brennan said. "I don't believe he wants to be a sprinter. The colt has so much natural speed that Sadler has been training him accordingly to get him to relax. It worked out perfectly in the San Vicente.
"There is obviously speed on his dam's side, being out of a Well Decorated mare," Brennan remarked. "He's a big, powerful colt, and he gets some stamina from his sire. He gives me the impression that distance won't be an issue. He should get a trip."
In 2013, Brennan found his operation in a familiar place: near the top of the leading consignors of 2-year-olds in training. At season's end, he ranked third behind only Ciaran Dunne's Wavertree Stables and Eddie Woods. Brennan sold 86 of the 100 head offered in his 2-year-olds in training consignments last year for a total of $9,484,500.
Brennan said he expects to enter about the same number he offered last year in this season's sales.
"We have some nice stock," he said. "Even though we're already in February, it's still early in the year for these new recruits. I don't get too aggressive too early. The horses are still working in hand. We don't ask for any speed at home. At the sales, we'll have them ready to show something without having them fully cranked.
"I never want our horses going all out," he added. "We let them work along, that's our program. Our horses don't have to be the fastest. I have a lot of them that I really like. I just wish all the sales this year were in April or May because that's the kind of stock we have. We also have some later foals in this year's crop. I don't have a problem being patient. There is always a market for nice horses."
In a welcome diversification for the veteran consignor, Brennan estimates that 60% of the horses in his program this year are non-sale horses.
"This year we have a great balance because we have a large number of horses for clients that aren't being pointed to a sale," he said. "We really get to take our time with those horses. There is a deadline for sale horses. It's nice to have the balance, and it says a lot about our staff and the clients that we have that give us the opportunity to work with these types of horses."
Brennan prepped last year's Kentucky Derby winner Orb for Stuart Janney III and Ogden "Dinny" Phipps of Phipps Stable, a partnership he has trained for the last few years.
Among Brennan's stakes-winning roster of recent sale graduates are: Palace Malice, winner of last year's Belmont Stakes (gr. I), and an Eclipse Award finalist who sold at Keeneland's 2012 April sale; Revolutionary, third-place finisher in last year's Derby and an OBS March graduate of 2012; multiple graded stakes winner Summer Front (Keeneland April 2012), and Mighty Brown (OBS April 2013).
With the start of the 2-year-olds in training sale season set to kick off March 3 at Barretts Equine Limited in Pomona, Calif., Brennan, who has seven head cataloged for that sale, is optimistic that race-ready juveniles will remain in high demand.
"I suspect that the momentum will continue," Brennan said. "When you look at the sales earlier this year you see that there was a lot of participation from buyers. You would think that the snow and ice during the recent Fasig-Tipton sale in Kentucky would have given buyers an excuse not to attend, but it didn't. The 2-year-old sales should be just as encouraging. I expect that they will be well-shopped. And as usual, the horses that rise to the top will bring the most money.
"The select sales are still very much that," he added. "Buyers are extremely selective, and they tend to focus only on the top 10 or 15 in the sale. When you look at the OBS April sale, you have a larger catalog, a broader attitude and a smorgasbord of buyers in all budget ranges. There is no doubt that 2-year-olds in training sales are a wonderful marketplace, and serious buyers recognize that fact. The success of the graduates is a great endorsement."