At age 63, Mike Ryan might be having his best year yet.
The bloodstock agent not only co-bred the 2017 Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming with 30-year business partner Gerry Dilger, but he also picked out the Preakness winner Cloud Computing from the Keeneland September Yearling Sale. At the Breeders' Cup this fall, Ryan's yearling purchases Rushing Fall and Good Magic both captured their respective juvenile races, giving him the seventh and eighth Championship winners of his career.
“I'm so blessed to be doing something I enjoy, and it's the best year of my career for several different reasons,” he said. “It's the epitome of accomplishment in American racing… I take such satisfaction in identifying young talent in yearlings and foals, especially in this constantly changing business. It's hard to get to the top, but it's even harder to stay there.”
Irish by blood, Ryan is a third-generation horseman from County Meath. He didn't grow up wanting to be a top agent in America; in fact, like many other Europeans at the time, Ryan firmly believed there was no better Thoroughbred than one bred in Ireland.
It wasn't until the late 1960s he really started to take note of American-bred racehorses. Ryan had recently decided veterinary school didn't suit him and was splitting his time between the family breeding operation foaling out mares and the Curragh Racecourse. The horses demanding his attention on the turf included stars like Sir Ivor, Nijinsky II and Mill Reef, all North American-bred Thoroughbreds which were able to defeat the Europeans on their own ground.
“Forty years ago in Europe, there were no American pedigrees—none,” Ryan said. “It was crazy to me that they could come over and beat the Irish horses, though I was probably a little bit biased. I decided I needed to go to the U.S. and learn what their breeding industry was all about.”
Ryan was working the sales at Ocala and Saratoga in 1973 when he met up with bloodstock agent George Blackwell, who also happened to be a friend of his father's. Blackwell introduced Ryan to E.P. Taylor, the breeder of one of Ryan's equine idols: Nijinsky. The young Irishman went to work at Taylor's Windfields Farm in Canada in 1974.
Just five years later, Ryan had worked his way up to foreman at Winfields, which foaled out approximately 180 mares each year. He was offered the job as farm manager when the position opened up, but Ryan had always dreamed of going to Kentucky. In fact, his summer vacations had been spent each year at Keeneland.
In 1979 he joined Canada's North American Bloodstock Agency, where he worked for 18 months before making the move to the Bluegrass. In what would prove to be a most-fortuitous event, one of Ryan's earliest equine purchases was a yearling consigned by Robert Clay. Clay's Three Chimneys Farm had just a fraction of the numbers it does today, and Ryan had made a business connection that jump-started his career.
Ryan and Albert Clay got together to form Top Hat Bloodstock in Kentucky, and the Clay family helped the Irishman get his green card. The Top Hat partnership lasted five years, during which Ryan developed an immense network of contacts across the bloodstock industry, including the late Warner Jones of Hermitage Farm. Alongside the Clays, Jones came to be one of Ryan's biggest assets in finding new clientele and establishing his name.
Out on his own for the first time in 1986, Ryan bought his first “really good horse” in 1989. On behalf of owner Tommy Volando, he picked up a Time for a Change (Damascus) yearling colt for $80,000 at the Keeneland July sale. In 1990, Fly So Free captured the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and was named champion 2-year-old; the colt eventually ran out earnings of over $2 million.
That buy epitomizes one of Ryan's main philosophies when it comes to finding a good horse. On his X-rays as a yearling, Fly So Free showed lesions in his stifle joints, which likely brought down his price significantly.
“That horse was never lame a day in his life,” said Ryan. “If you look hard enough, you can find something wrong with any horse. It's a question of what they can overcome on the track, which is why demeanor and attitude are so big for me. It forces me to keep an open mind, because good horses come in every shape, size and color.”
Other Breeders' Cup winners Ryan has purchased include 1995 Juvenile Fillies winner Caressing, now the dam of Travers and Pennsylvania Derby winner West Coast ($180,000 Keeneland September); 2005 Classic winner Saint Liam, also voted Horse of the Year ($130,000 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga); 2008 Turf Sprint winner Desert Code ($150,000 Keeneland September); 2015 Juvenile champion Nyquist, also winner of 2016 Kentucky Derby (pinhooked as $230,000 yearling to $400,000 2-year-old); and 2016 Juvenile Fillies Turf winner New Money Honey ($450,000 Keeneland September).
At the sales and during his regular farm visits, Ryan may be most recognizable for the multi-colored pens and pencils adorning his shirt pocket. Those colors translate to a system of shorthand marks on his catalog pages, and the catalogs themselves, none of which he throws away, become an encyclopedia of Thoroughbred bloodlines.
“I write my concerns about the horse in red, with blue and some green being the most dominant colors,” Ryan explains. “I only use black when I'm seeing a horse for the second or third time, or to record vet work on him. It helps me to separate my notes, and to quickly form an image of each horse in my mind.
“Later on, I'll go back and look at a horse I may have passed over who went on to be successful on the track. Why did I dislike that horse? It helps me keep an open mind for the future.”
For Ryan, his participation in the industry has never been solely about the buying and selling of Thoroughbreds. He also breeds and pinhooks horses, keeping approximately 20 mares at Gerry Dilger's Dromoland Farm, and even participates as an owner. Some of the horses Ryan has bred include Always Dreaming, Grade 1 winners Laragh and Hot Dixie Chick, and Breeders' Cup winner More Than Real; he also raced Grade 1 winner Mani Bhavan.
“There is always something new to learn in this constantly-changing business,” Ryan said. “I enjoy listening to people from other areas of expertise because there is always room for improvement when you're trying to identify and select young talent.”
The association with e5 Racing's Bob Edwards has proven especially fruitful for Ryan over the past three years, particularly with talented juveniles.
“I told Bob in the beginning that building a successful stable is a five-year process, and he listened to the plan I set out for him,” said Ryan. “Well, the first year's yearlings included New Money Honey, and then the 2016 group had both Good Magic and Rushing Fall, who might be the best filly I've ever bought. So, the expectations are probably set pretty high now!”
Ryan estimates he has been associated with 300 stakes winners over the course of his career, and he doesn't have plans to slow down anytime soon. He bought 44 yearlings at the Keeneland September sale this fall and is currently busy planning the matings for his broodmare band.
(Above Perfection, the dam of Always Dreaming, is slated to go to Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist in 2018.)
“There's always such an excitement at this time of the year,” he said. “The new stallions retiring are almost like the freshman basketball players at UK, and it's fun to try to figure out which ones will be the hottest trends in a few years' time. And starting in January, I get to make regular trips to Ocala to watch the new 2-year-olds in training at the farms, so there's just such a sense of promise in the air.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Ryan was in Saratoga/Ocala in 1963; instead, it was in 1973.
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