Windylea Farm reaching new heights on the NYRA circuit
by Ryan Martin
Windylea Farm won their first owners title on the New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) circuit by posting a record of 31-12-5-10 at the recently concluded winter meet at Aqueduct Racetrack.
The Hoosick Falls, New York operation, founded by the late Phil O’Neill, came from humble beginnings four decades ago in Bennington County, Vermont, where their blue-collar-bred horses would race at the now defunct Green Mountain Race Track.
Now managed by Phil’s son Kip O’Neill, Windylea Farm has soared to new heights, which the younger O’Neill says is all thanks to his father’s vision.
“After he died in March 2021, we found a letter that he wrote to himself in 1975. I’m not sure if he had ever looked at it since, but the timing certainly was delayed a bit in the maturation of the program,” O’Neill said. “It’s eerie to read because given the footprint he set at that point, we’ve really continued on that same path he envisioned. His hope was to breed and race high quality horses, not so much with the fixation on numbers, but always wanting to be competitive in the breeding and racing program. We’ve been able to accomplish that with the team we’ve assembled both on and off the track.”
Windylea has slowly but surely made the progression from the bottom to the top. After starting at Green Mountain, they raced primarily at Finger Lakes Racetrack before building a reputation on the NYRA circuit in recent years.
O’Neill wasn’t even old enough to attend the races at Green Mountain when Windylea Farm first raced thoroughbreds.
“You had to be 16, so I had to watch races from the clocker’s stand,” O’Neill recalled. “From there, we moved on to Finger Lakes and some other small tracks. When we formed Windylea, it was a small farm based in Vermont and we’ve grown that operation to move to a bigger farm in eastern New York. When Dad passed, he left a great roadmap for success and plans for the future. We’re really trying to carry on his legacy, while at the same time make the necessary changes to the operation for the continued growth.”
It was in 2017, just four years before Phil’s passing, that Windylea purchased their current land in Hoosick Falls – located about 40 miles southeast of Saratoga Springs.
“At that time, we decided that we wanted to invest some additional capital in both our farm and the breeding stock as well as the racing stock,” O’Neill said. “Our farm manager, Kyle Willard, has been with us almost 20 years and does a phenomenal job. We’ve seen the natural progression since then. We went from Green Mountain to Finger Lakes. We always have raced at Finger Lakes since the late 1970s and we’ve enjoyed that success.”
The model implemented by O’Neill and his team allows horses to step up or down based on their performances. Windylea campaigns horses at all four New York state thoroughbred racetracks, which includes Finger Lakes as well as the three NYRA ovals.
At Finger Lakes, located in Farmington, New York, Windylea has horses stabled with trainer Jonathan Buckley, while NYRA-based horsemen Rob Atras and Mark Hennig condition Windylea’s heavier hitters.
“As you can see from our results, we’re racing at a higher level now and there’s more movement with horses when you do that,” O’Neill explained. “When they aren’t having success on the NYRA circuit, we can move them to Finger Lakes. They learn how to win up there a little easier. If they have the ability, we can transition them back to the NYRA circuit, and we’ve done that in multiple situations.”
One success story is Warriors Revenge, who Windylea claimed from trainer Charlton Baker for $7,500 in June 2021 at Finger Lakes. Under Buckley’s tutelage, the son of Warrior’s Reward went on a tear to win seven straight races from June-November 2022 at Finger Lakes before transferring to Hennig.
“He’s a horse that had an eye injury back in 2021, so he missed some time. The vets out there and Jon’s patience allowed him to keep his eye which was our primary focus at the time,” O’Neill recalled. “We were able to find some spots for him to have success last year at Finger Lakes and I wanted him to have success. He was a little quirky when we claimed him and he’s certainly proved to be a good campaigner and transitioned to the NYRA circuit this fall.”
Warriors Revenge has finished in the money in all four starts since making the transition, including a 4 1/2-length victory in a first level state-bred allowance on January 8 and a trio of third-place finishes.
“He could have been second a couple of times he finished third, but we wanted to try and win those races and chased runaway winners those days,” O’Neill said. “He’s a pretty cool horse, we’re happy to have him in the barn and he’ll run sometime in mid-April in [the second level] condition.”
O’Neill went on to speak volumes of both Hennig and Atras.
“We do a lot more of the claiming game with Rob and more of our New York-bred horses that come down from Finger Lakes seem to end up in Mark’s barn,” O’Neill said. “Rob is a younger trainer that comes from a background of not having the best horses. He grew up that way, as did we as a farm. It kind of helped us work together on trying to find horses to claim and being creative and at the same time, knowing that sometimes you claim one that ends up not being worth the dollars you paid for it. So, you make the hard decision and run them where they can compete. We’ve had a great relationship doing that. I trust Rob’s judgment on where a horse is at and how they’re doing.”
Another prominent Windylea horse is the Hennig-trained Ouster, who recently recorded a 100 Beyer Speed Figure when defeating fellow New York-breds by five lengths going a one-turn mile on March 18. He didn’t race until the age of 4, but has covered considerable ground thus far, breaking his maiden on turf going two turns in November before transitioning back to the main track to win twice.
O’Neill described the son of Outwork, who boasts a consistent 9-3-2-2 record as, “a measurement of patience and perseverance.”
“We bought him as a yearling and entered him in the [OBS April] 2-year-old sale. Unfortunately, he had a mishap in his work, didn’t work that well and I ended up buying him back because I didn’t want to let him go for the dollars people are willing to pay,” O’Neill said. “It then took us a couple of additional years of getting to a race. I give Mark and his team a ton of credit. The horse has certainly caused me a lot more gray hair, but he’s paying dividends by us giving him time. He had a really good race five weeks ago and he backed it up last week with a touch better effort and a cleaner trip. I think if we can get him around two turns again, he’ll be even stronger. He’s such a big, long striding horse.”
O’Neill said Ouster would likely target open allowance company for his next start.
“We don’t try to get too far ahead of ourselves,” O’Neill said. “Mark and I have talked about what to do with him. He’s eligible for a first level open allowance and that would be the most conservative approach. We’ll look in that area first.”
Windylea’s biggest claim to fame on the breeding front is dual New York-bred Champion Lead Guitar. Owned by Jim and Susan Hill, the daughter of Maclean’s Music was named both New York’s Champion Female Sprinter and Champion Turf Female in 2020. Consigned through McMahon of Saratoga Thoroughbreds at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Fall Mixed Sale in 2016, she was purchased for $35,000 and then resold for $200,000 the following summer at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga New York-bred Yearling Sale.
“Lead Guitar certainly afforded us other opportunities with that mare and that mare has thrown some other good foals. It put our name on the map as a breeder with her success,” O’Neill said.
The success garnered in breeding Lead Guitar was quite a far cry from the days when Windylea’s sales prospects got very little to no attention at all.
“When we first started breeding, no one came to look at our horses. They weren’t the best bred and we were very new on how to raise a young horse,” O’Neill recalled. “But through my Dad’s vision and through the work of Kyle Willard and his team at the farm, we’ve been able to establish a really good breeding and training program. We sell weanlings, yearlings, 2-year-olds and we’ll sell some broodmares, and we buy in all those markets as well.”
O’Neill speaks speak highly of the New York program, which he described as one size fits all.
“I believe the New York program affords a small, medium or large-sized breeder with the best opportunity for success. It’s not always affordable to carry every horse you have to the races,” O’Neill said. “You have to part ways and sell from the top and the bottom. You can’t just sell your weakest horses or yearlings.
“But the program allows you to earn after you sell them,” O’Neill added. “When we sell horses, we look to position them in markets for sales that have the best opportunity to come back and compete in New York. Between the breeding program of paying an in-state award for a breeder of 30 percent on a win and 15 percent on a placing - and cut that in half if you breed to an out-of-state stallion - that’s pretty lucrative. It’s shown to be lucrative for the top breeders in the state and that’s what we aspire to be.”