EVEN as he boarded the plane that first time, Gerry Dilger did not want to leave. America had no attraction apart from the job and who knew how long that would last? Things had been going okay but that was the rub. Okay was never going to satisfy him. He was ambitious and he wanted more.
Though his parents never had anything to do with horses, he somehow developed “a craziness for horses and cattle” as he says himself.
“I remember every Friday after school I’d go down to Ennis mart, just to watch the cattle. Whatever it was, I loved horses and cattle.”
He learned to ride and George McCullough, Johnny Madden and Frank Casey were locals with ponies and horses that needed riders. Dilger was only too happy to provide his services.
His cousin Michael Dilger – now running his own equestrian operation in Mullingar – worked in Ballyalla Stud and got him a job working with the yearlings. That was a tremendous education and he learned even more when doing the Irish National Stud course under the eagle eye of Michael Osborne in 1977. From there, he enjoyed a stint prepping the yearlings at Brownstown Stud for the McGrath family, Tony Butler providing invaluable tutelage.
“I came back home to Ennis for about a month when I got a call from Michael Osborne saying that Castlehyde was looking for a person to do foaling duty and he recommended that I should go. I went down, met with Gay O’Callaghan, and worked for Gay that foaling season.
“The Murty brothers were looking for young Irish kids to work in Kentucky. Deirdre Newman, who had worked at the National Stud and married Michael Dilger, said I should go. I said I didn’t want to go but she persuaded me to put my name in to see if I would get a visa. I was the third or fourth visa to come through so I was going to America. For every step I took down that runway that morning, I nearly took two backwards.”
That was 38 years ago. Having intended to return home after six months, Dilger is now firmly entrenched in the Bluegrass heartland of Lexington.
“You’re just a young lad working. I always wanted to take on a bit of responsibility so I became a manager in time. I went to work for Carl Maggio out of California. He bought a farm in Kentucky and got me a right good start here. When he closed the farm down I had one or two clients that came with me and we started rolling from there.
“I knew Robbie Lyons in Ireland, met Mike Ryan and we got together a syndicate of buying foals and reselling them.”
He set up Dromoland Farm in 1994 and the operation now consists of 312 acres at two locations, conveniently close to Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton.
Two weeks ago, Dilger watched Always Dreaming, a colt he bred with the aforementioned Ryan, make little of the heavy underground conditions at Churchill Downs en route to winning the Kentucky Derby.
Remarkably, it was a two-in-a-row for the dynamic duo, for they were also involved, separately, in selling last year’s victor Nyquist.
Dilger joined forces with a couple of other Irishmen, Pat Costello and Ted Campion (son of the show jumping legend Ned) when buying Nyquist as a weanling at Keeneland $180,000. Ryan and another Irishman, Niall Brennan bought him at Keeneland’s yearling sale the following September for $230,000 before getting $400,000 for the son of Uncle Mo, who became only the second horse to do the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile-Kentucky Derby double.
To produce one Kentucky Derby winner was magnificent. To do it in consecutive years, in competition with the largest operators in the world, is otherworldly.
DREAM COME TRUE
“I couldn’t believe it. It is a dream come true. You’re always hoping to get your hands on a good horse, whether it is to sell one or to breed one, and it happened twice. Mike and I have been partners and great friends a long time so it was fantastic. It really, really was.”
Dromoland had long had a name for quality by this juncture of course. Like Nyquist, Wilko was a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner. Ironically, though Nyquist was trained in America by Doug O’Neill and Wilko in England by Jeremy Noseda, they were both owned by Paul Reddam.
Others to fly the flag included Grade 1 winner Hot Dixie Chick, Itsaknockout, Dublin, Magical Feeling and Well Chosen, as well as the Jim Bolger-trained Phoenix Stakes and Moyglare Stud Stakes winner Saoirse Abu. Nyquist and Always Dreaming top the list now however.
“It’s great for the farm, for the lads – Peter Conway, Denis Fenton, Theresa Whelton and more, that have been with me for years. It’s a team effort and they’re as much involved as I am and it’s great for the name Dromoland to be seen. People would say ‘They have sold some very good horses.’ Now they can say ‘They have sold two Derby horses.’ It does put a bit of a pep in your step but in reality, we have to get up the next morning, go to work and do the same thing.”
The most common theme in any Big Interview with breeders, pinhookers or bloodstock agents is that for all the expertise, luck plays a considerable part in proceedings. That is illustrated once more in Always Dreaming’s case.
Dilger and Ryan bought her dam Above Perfection in foal with what turned out to be Hot Dixie Chick for $450,000. With her reputation enhanced after Hot Dixie Chick’s top-tier triumph, they considered cashing in but their valuation wasn’t met.
“We were very close to getting it done but we didn’t get it done. She produced Hot Dixie Chick and we thought it was the right time if we were going to make a change. But it didn’t happen and we were delighted to get her home. At the time, it would have been a lot of money but today it’s not.”
“Wherever you go you need luck… it has a huge role to play.
“We’ve got a really nice yearling filly by Pioneerof The Nile out of her now. We’re not sure what we’re going to do with her at the moment but she looks very nice.”
Having proven their liking for Nyquist and had their belief validated on the track, it made sense for Dilger and Ryan to send Above Perfection to him once he had begun stud duties.
As an imposing mare, they feel that she could be perfectly suited to their former charge and she is booked in for an assignation.
Dilger concedes that Always Dreaming’s feat meant just that little bit more personally than Nyquist’s, because he and Ryan bred him. And while you can never tell whether you have a champion or not until they hit the track, Dilger felt a frisson of excitement the very first second he laid eyes on him.
“I loved the look of him when he was born and I called the head man at WinStar Farm to tell him that. ‘Hey, I got a very good Bodemeister last night.’ People would say ‘How could you tell when he was only a day old but I just liked the look of him from the minute he was born and he kept on going forward from then. He was always very straightforward.”
Both Nyquist and Always Dreaming impressed in winning the Florida Derby to confirm their places in the Kentucky Derby line-up but that is not all they had in common.
“Nyquist was a bit taller and maybe a little narrower but apart from that they were very similar. One thing about both of them is that they went through their prep very well, with no hiccups. And mind-wise they were very good. They were saying Always Dreaming got a little hot there the first week but I think he was just ready to rock ‘n roll, he was just feeling so good he wanted to do more than they were asking him to.”
It is the Kentucky Derby, so you can never be overconfident but Dilger was happy that Always Dreaming would be in the reckoning coming down the stretch.
“We had the two top men. We had (Todd) Pletcher training him and Johnny (Velazquez) on him. Look, there’s 19 others went over there to beat us. I wouldn’t have switched with any other horse, especially after seeing his performance in the Florida Derby, but you’re always concerned. Is he going to break okay? How is he going to settle? Will the pace be too fast? Too slow? There are all these things running through your mind. And I was nervous because it was the chance of a lifetime. I believed in the horse but any horse can get beaten. There’s no such thing as a certainty.”
As usual after the Kentucky Derby, talk turns to Triple Crown. The next leg for Always Dreaming comes in the Preakness later tonight.
“Am I dreaming about the Triple Crown? It’s in the back of my mind but he has to win the next one.”
The Belmont Stakes is invariably the sternest examination, given that it is run over two furlongs further.
“I’m not training him but all I can say is the way he gallops out after he breezes or races, he seems that he can go forever. You see him going past the finishing line, he’s not stopping. I’m not concerned about the extra distance because he has finished so strong in every race.”
Dromoland provides a comprehensive service in terms of breeding, consigning, setting up syndicates to pinhook and boarding mares. Most of the progeny bound for sales from those mares are raised on the farm.
“Ninety to 95% of the horses that I sell, I’ve been around them since they were born. And the ones that have bought in as weanlings to the farm, I’ve 10 months behind them.”
The farm, like so many, is buttressed by Irish people, and the influence of this tiny island on the bloodstock heartland of Kentucky has grown spectacularly since Dilger took that unwilling plunge.
“When I came over here first, there were probably only half a dozen of us. Now I’d say there’s a couple of hundred. People moving over from Ireland with their families, with the kids, to work here.”
There have been reports of trainers and stud farms finding it increasingly difficult to source staff due to Donald Trump’s hardline stance on immigration. Dilger is adopting a wait-and-see approach.
“I get great kids out of the equine science course in Limerick. They come out with their visas, for three or four months, some of them for a year, and they go back to college. It is a bit tougher after they’ve come out of school to get a visa for them.
“It all depends on what radio station you listen to over here. If it’s more of a Democratic station they’re saying it’s a heavier immigration policy coming in, if it’s from the Republican side, they’re saying Trump only wants to keep out people that have committed crimes, are wanted for drug trafficking or involved in violence.
“There’s a lot of rumours but I don’t see anything really happening at the moment. We’ll have to see how it goes at the moment.”
As for the industry in general, it seems that the trends in Ireland are matched globally.
“All the good horses will sell well, the middle is kind of okay and then the bottom are out of there. It’s the same as it is in Ireland, overproduction is the problem. Ireland, England, France, the United States and now Australia and China are coming into it – the world is getting smaller but you have to keep producing the goods. You have to sell good horses. I don’t care who you are or what you are, you have to have good individuals before people will buy them.”
So the past only counts for so much and when it becomes distant, it counts for nothing. It is always about finding the next one. Right now though, Dilger can enjoy the appropriately-named Always Dreaming.
As he contemplates the journey, he thinks of the friendships he has made along the way. He also remembers those that equipped the Irish pioneers with the tools to become successful in Kentucky. And he marvels at the wonderful relationship between all the ex-pats, regardless of who they represent.
“All the Irish get on great together. It doesn’t make a difference if they work for Ashford, Juddmonte, Shadwell, Darley, we’re all great friends. And it doesn’t make a difference if you have 25 acres or 5,000, we all get on so well.
“I must give great credit to the people at home in Ireland that taught us all. The old men, cagey horsemen. We looked and we learned and we wouldn’t be here without them.”
As Always Dreaming is the latest to demonstrate, Gerry Dilger learned very well indeed.