OZONE PARK, N.Y. – Just four live race days remain in 2023 to complete a remarkable year of racing action on the New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) circuit. To celebrate the season, the NYRA Press Office checked in with a selection of trainers, owners, jockeys and racing personalities to share their reflections on the memorable year.
Windylea Farm holds the distinction of being the only owner to wrest a NYRA meet title away from perennial leaders Klaravich Stables this year when securing honors at the Aqueduct Racetrack winter meet with a 31-12-5-10 record.
The victory marked the first meet title for the Hoosick Falls, New York operation, which is located about 40 miles southeast of Saratoga Springs. Founded by the late Phil O’Neill, Windylea Farm launched four decades ago in Bennington County, Vermont, where their horses would race at the now defunct Green Mountain Race Track.
Now managed by Phil’s son Kip O’Neill, Windylea Farm has surpassed the $1 million mark in earnings for the fifth consecutive year and currently sit eighth in the overall NYRA owner standings with a record of 109-20-13-30. Among their top performers are the Mark Hennig-trained duo of Ouster and Into Happiness, who are both three-time winners on the NYRA-circuit this year.
Q. What did it mean to win your first meet title on the NYRA circuit?
“I think what it says is that the program we’re building can compete at all levels. Initially, we competed mostly at Finger Lakes and other tracks and started to engage in the NYRA circuit in 2018. We’ve really grown up to be able to have a formidable stable that can win on all surfaces and hopefully at all levels.”
Q. Talk about the progress the stable has made to be a Top 10-competitor on a tough circuit.
“We have 20 wins so far this year on the NYRA circuit. The lion’s share came early which speaks to the way we position our program. We race a lot of our horses up at Finger Lakes and the ones that are doing well we transition down and that gives us live stock for the winter time at Aqueduct. That helps to further the portfolio of horses that we have. We play in the claiming game as well so we can continue to compete when we transition horses out of the program.”
Q. Was a seasonal highlight winning a pair of allowance races early in the Saratoga Race Course meet with the New York-bred Ouster in open company and with Kentucky-bred Into Happiness, who won first off the claim?
“I don’t care if it’s a $5,000 maiden or a stakes win – every win is special – but having the opportunity to be onsite and the way that Into Happiness [under Hall of Famer John Velazquez] and Ouster [with Dylan Davis up] won Opening Week for Mark Hennig at Saratoga this year was very special.
“When I see Johnny V. on a horse of ours, I’m very proud to be at this level in the business to have the respect of him to take the mount. That’s partially a sign of respect for the trainer and the job our trainers do, but when you see Johnny V. or Dylan Davis and others wearing our colors, I’m certainly very proud to be part of this business.”
Q. The win by Into Happiness was eye-catching, rallying from 14 lengths off the pace to win by 3 1/2-lengths in a seven-furlong sprint.
“It was her first race off the claim and certainly that was not the plan leaving the paddock to be that far back. When I saw that Johnny tipped her out just outside the quarter pole, I knew that he felt he had a shot to pick up a piece. And then at the eighth pole I thought, how many is she going to win by!
“She’s been a special filly since we got her back in June. I can’t say enough about the job that Mark and his team have done with her to get her to improve and mature.”
Q. You have a significant breeding operation with just shy of 20 mares – was the claim of Into Happiness for $40,000 driven by that program?
“It was a collective effort for both breeding and racing. Certainly, after she won by a pole the day that we claimed her and we out shook three or four others for her, her racing future became more apparent.”
Q. What is your business philosophy?
“We’re just trying to raise the bar all over so we can race and breed at a higher level. We sold three yearlings for six figures this year at Saratoga and one was just shy of that. So, it’s the first year we’ve sold that many for that number. Our goal is to always compete at that highest level as a seller, but we’ll also purchase at that sale as well if we find something that we like that we see value in.
“We’re not changing our philosophy as much as we are trying to steer it in a better direction. We’ve been breeding New York-breds on a small level since that late 80s / early 90s and as we grew the program it just made fiscal sense to invest in our property so we could bring the horses home earlier and ship them out later to be foaled out and then have more control over the upbringing of the babies.”
Q. What do you like about the New York-bred program?
“The New York-bred program is the most user friendly from a breeder and owner standpoint that I have found in the industry. As a breeder, you earn money if the horse finishes 1-2-3 whether in a stake or a $5,000 maiden race at Finger Lakes. As an owner, when you make the investment you always look for the horse that can compete in open company, like an Ouster, and when they do that you’re paid royally for it.
Q. What are your goals for 2024?
“I’d like to continue to move the program forward. We have a great team with everybody at our farm and all the trainers and jockeys we work with. We’ve established ourselves in the industry as a player. While I want to compete at every meet we race at for the owners’ title, that’s not always realistic because we don’t always have the numbers and stock to do that. But the goal is to be competitive every time we’re in the entry box and have the horses in the right spots to compete.”
America’s Day at the Races will present live coverage and analysis of every day of the Aqueduct Racetrack fall meet on the networks of FOX Sports. For the broadcast schedule and channel finder, visit https://www.nyra.com/aqueduct/racing/tv-schedule.
NYRA Bets is the official wagering platform of Aqueduct Racetrack, and the best way to bet every race of the fall meet. Available to horse players nationwide, the NYRA Bets app is available for download today on iOS and Android at www.NYRABets.com.