Windylea Farm looks to maintain momentum into 2021

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2021

Windylea Farm’s Jemography, a 5-year-old New York-bred gelding by New York sire Big Brown, wins Feb. 4 allowance at Aqueduct. NYRA Photo.

By Melissa Bauer-Herzog

When Phil O’Neill thought about buying another farm to expand his Vermont-based Windylea Farm operation, it only made sense to expand into New York.

A mainstay in New York racing for more than 40 years, O’Neill found a perfect property just a few miles from the original Bennington, Vt., farm in nearby Hoosick Falls, N.Y., in 2017. That move saw Windylea’s New York farm take over as the home of the operation’s broodmares.

“When you look back at the stability of the New York program and the longevity of it, it made perfect sense [to buy the New York farm],” said Kip O’Neill, Windylea Farm’s controller. “Where we’re located in Vermont is only about eight miles from the New York border, so back in 2014-2015, my father started looking for property over there where we could still utilize the same staff and grow our business over into New York state.

“As we grew the breeding operation, outsourcing mares for that longer period of time to stay compliant with the New York program was just getting cost prohibitive.”

Kyle Willard, already an important member of the Vermont team, was named farm manager of the new farm and the expanded Windylea was up and running.

Windylea Farm’s New York division, a commercial breeder and breed-to-race operation, houses approximately 20 mares and the O’Neills keep about 25 percent of each foal crop. But it was one of the horses they sold in 2016 that brought them the most success in 2020.

Sold for $35,000 as a weanling then $200,000 as a yearling, the Windylea-bred Lead Guitar made a huge splash in the New York-bred program in 2020 with a four-race win streak that included two stakes victories. Her domination of the New York female turf division in the second half of the year earned her a spot as a finalist for the New York Thoroughbred Breeders’ championship honors in the female turf and female sprinter divisions.

Lead Guitar, finalist for New York-bred championships in female turf and female sprint divisions, is product of Windylea Farm breeding program. NYRA Photo.

“Lead Guitar was always a very forward filly, we still own the mare (Eleadora) and she actually is being bred back to Maclean’s Music this year. She just had a Mo Town colt [Jan. 19],” said Kip O’Neill. “So seeing Lead Guitar on the track as really a follow up to [Windylea Farm-bred] Runaway Lute, he was really one of the first really good homebreds that we had, but more recently with her success and knowing that we still have a young mare that’s producing is very gratifying and just helps our program overall.”

Primarily based at Finger Lakes for most of its time in operation, Windylea has expanded into other states in recent years both with horses it breeds and buys. The farm currently runs in New York, Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Minnesota with plans to send some of its horses to other jurisdictions to run in 2021.

“In 2021 we’re looking to expand over the border into Canada and we’ll be racing up there at Woodbine and we’re looking to expand some of our footprint in different jurisdictions here in the U.S. as well from a racing standpoint.” O’Neill said. “Our breeding population is pretty stable, we have over 20 mares and that’s a good number. We’ll continue to invest in better mares and retire some of the older ones but that number is pretty stable for us. Then we’ll continue to look for opportunities to purchase within the New York sales and other sales.”

Windylea Farm is also focused on providing aftercare to racehorses in its stable with the operation purchasing a retraining farm in Naples, Fla., to provide their horses the training needed to find new careers after racing.

“Any time you invest like we have in this breed or really anything else you have to look at the whole picture,” O’Neill said. “Once we grew our program to a point where we could no longer continue to retire them just as pets, we looked to see how we could find a second career for horses.

“The obvious with mares if they’re bred well enough is to put them in the breeding shed, but when you’ve got colts and geldings, and mares that aren’t that well-bred, then really to be a good custodian to the sport you’ve got to find a second home and a second life for them. These animals, they want to be active and they do better when they’re active so that was why we invested in that. We’ve been fortunate enough over the last year or so up in this area, finding a couple of different venues who have done great work with the few horses that we’ve provided them and we continue to get videos of past [Windylea] Thoroughbreds in the hunter-jumper world and in the dressage world and that’s gratifying to us.”

Even though Windylea is focused on expanding into other racing areas, the O’Neills have no plans to move the main operation elsewhere. In addition to the area being their longtime home, O’Neill also points to the New York-bred program’s support of both owners and breeders as another reason they base their breeding program in the Empire State.

“There really isn’t one out there that supports owners and breeders top to bottom like the New York program,” he said. “When I say top to bottom, from a breeders’ standpoint you can win money whether you’ve got one of your homebreds in a state race at Saratoga or a $5,000 claimer at Finger Lakes. That really has kept the program afloat because we do have a lot of small breeders and the program really needs to continue that support, otherwise you’re going to see it become very top heavy.”

Ranked ninth among New York owners last year by earnings with nearly 50 percent of their horses hitting the board, Windylea is already making an impact in 2021 as the leading New York-bred owner through March 1 by earnings ($226,546) and winners (seven from 18 starts). Windylea’s winners in 2021 include Jemography, a New York-bred gelding by Big Brown who won his third straight race Feb. 4 at Aqueduct.


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