You'd be forgiven for assuming Santa Rosa Partners is a Thoroughbred syndicate formed by San Francisco techies enthralled with horse racing.
"It does sound like California, when instead we're two Irish paddies," laughed Mike Ryan, a prominent bloodstock agent who co-owns Santa Rosa Partners with Dromoland Farm owner Gerry Dilger. They did not waste much time in coming up with a business name, which they got from a beach they visited near Destin in the Florida panhandle.
Santa Rosa is only one of several names that Ryan and Dilger have used during the 20 years they've bred horses together. They first began working together about 30 years ago as pinhookers but now just focus on the mares. What the two seasoned horsemen call themselves as breeders isn't important to them. Their priorities are on picking out quality mares, identifying promising matings, and raising athletic horses for the commercial market with the utmost attention to detail.
Though only a four-mare operation, the venture branded as Santa Rosa Partners found quick success when the partners bought grade 3 winner Above Perfection for $450,000 out of the ClassicStar dispersal held during Fasig-Tipton's 2006 November sale. The then-8-year-old daughter of In Excess was carrying a filly by Dixie Union, who would sell through the Dromoland Farm consignment for $340,000 to W.K. Warren Jr. at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select yearling sale. She grew up to be grade 1 winner Hot Dixie Chick, the first stakes winner and first graded winner bred under the Santa Rosa name.
"Above Perfection is a good-sized mare—16.1 (hands) and (a) very deep mare," Ryan said. "She has a lot of In Excess in her. She was very fast. She was second in the Prioress (G1) to Xtra Heat and that race is worth watching again. I don't think you've ever seen two horses go as hard from gate-to-wire as that particular race. The two of them broke in tandem and ran in tandem all the way around and finished separated by a nose."
Beside her speed and competitiveness, Ryan said they were attracted to Above Perfection because she has no inbreeding in the first five generations.
"That's hard to find," he said.
Since 2007, Above Perfection has been bred to Speightstown , twice to Hard Spun , to Tapit , and Bernardini . When grade 1 winner and Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) runner-up Bodemeister entered stud in 2013, Ryan was one of the early believers in WinStar Farm's son of Empire Maker .
"When I went out to WinStar to look at him (and) I bought a share in him," Ryan said. "I thought he was one of the most magnificent specimens of a stallion that I had seen in a number of years. He's a pretty special-looking horse, and I've bred to him every year."
Ryan and Dilger's instincts were dead-on and resulted in Santa Rosa's second grade 1 winner, Xpressbet Florida Derby (G1) winner Always Dreaming.
Santa Rosa sold the colt for $350,000 to agent Steve Young though the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale. He is now owned by a cadre that includes Brooklyn Boyz Stables, Teresa Viola Racing Stables, St. Elias Stables, MeB Racing Stables, Siena Farm, and West Point Thoroughbreds.
After placing twice at 2, Always Dreaming started his sophomore campaign with a barn-burner Jan. 25, when he broke his maiden by 11 1/2 lengths at Tampa Bay Downs. He carried that momentum into a 1 1/8-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park, which he won by four lengths. Trainer Todd Pletcher knew he had a live horse for the Florida Derby, and he was correct. The colt tracked speedball Three Rules for the first six furlongs, then kicked clear in the stretch to win by five lengths. The final time of 1:47.47 was less than three-quarters of a second off the track record set Jan. 28 by Arrogate in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes (G1). In the Florida Derby he also beat Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) and $1,000,000 Delta Jackpot Stakes (G2) winner Gunnevera.
Always Dreaming continues on a solid track toward the First Saturday in May. He breezed five furlongs April 21 at Palm Beach Downs in 1:01 2/5, a move that Pletcher described as a "nice, steady, stamina-building breeze."
"He was very relaxed, very happy, moving well, and galloped out great," the trainer said. "I was very happy. He's been training great, eating well, (and his) energy level has been good. We're really excited about how he's doing."
Always Dreaming will be shipped to Churchill Downs April 25.
Ryan, who makes most of the mating decisions for Santa Rosa, said he could not be happier to see the cross with Bodemeister produce such a nice horse.
"It is very rewarding. You support a horse and own a share in him and then breed a good one by him," he said. "It is extra special when you still own the mare."
Dilger said Always Dreaming has exuded quality since the day he was born at Dromoland.
"He would always catch your eye," he said. "You'd see him out there among five or six of them and he always stood out. He had plenty of size and scope and strength. He was obvious. I could have never told you he would be a Derby horse, but I always knew he was a nice horse—shoulder, length, hip, and his legs."
Along with the rewards of breeding a grade 1 winner and Derby contender, Dilger gets the benefit of having sold him. Dromoland has sold two yearlings in consecutive years that became Florida Derby winners.
In 2014 Dromoland sold Nyquist at the Keeneland September sale for $230,000. The son of Ashford Stud's hot sire Uncle Mo was a pinhook for Dilger, Ted Campion, and Pat Costello, who purchased him for $180,000 at the 2013 Keeneland November sale. Ryan bought Nyquist as a pinhook with Niall Brennan, who sold him for $400,000 to Dennis O'Neill at the 2015 Fasig-Tipton Gulfstream sale.
Racing for Reddam Racing, Nyquist won seven graded stakes, including last year's Kentucky Derby.
Ryan continues to be high on Nyquist and is breeding Above Perfection back to the first-year Darley stallion this year.
"He is a horse I really, really believe in and I'm biased because we bought him as a yearling," he said. "But I'm breeding three or four mares to him. I love him."
So what would it mean to Dromoland's yearling consignments to potentially sell two Kentucky Derby winners back-to-back?
"To have two Florida Derby winners has been really important for us at the sales, because to sell horses well is great, but they have to go on with the new owner. They have to perform," Dilger said. "It also shows you can raise good horses, which I attribute to my staff—Peter Conway (farm manager), Dennis Fenton (yearling foreman), and Theresa Shone (office manager).
"Also, we're not selling huge numbers every year. At the most we sell 30-50 for the whole year. So if this horse can go on and win that first Saturday, it is a great accomplishment for the farm. This horse—he did everything right. If they were all that way, we'd be blessed."