In Kentucky these days, optimism always seems to have a caveat.
The first two days of the Keeneland September yearling sale recorded positive gross, average, and median figures—but the number of horses not sold was high. Instant Racing, a potential source of purse money, was launched at Kentucky Downs—but the courts could shut it down.
Turfway Park began its late summer/early fall meet with some momentum given the return of the WinStar Kentucky Cup Day of Champions—but purses at the track still lag far behind those at other tracks that offer gaming.
It’s a tough time to get started in the racing business, but Kentucky has its share of young trainers. Stephen Lyster, a 26-year-old Kentucky native with a small stable at Keeneland and a family background in the business, said he wanted a challenge, and he got it.
“It’s the hardest,” Lyster said of training horses and building a stable, “but it’s what I like to do. When you’re training a horse and it wins, you can’t beat the feeling. Hopefully these horses will race a little bit and I’ll get my name out there and get some clients.
“The problem is that right now, in this economy, nobody is moving.”
Lyster is the son of Warren Lyster, who owns Tarleton Farm near Paris, Ky., and the nephew of Wayne Lyster, who operates Ashview Farm near Versailles, Ky., and is a former chairman of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. After Warren Lyster gave up training, his son began overseeing the racehorses.
Stephen Lyster said he expects to be “back to seven or eight horses” when the 2-year-olds begin racing. He said maintaining a stable has been tough with purses and auction prices down the past few years, and that from an overall economic view, horse racing will be one of the last industries to rebound.
“It’s so hard to get new money into the business,” Lyster said. “There are all these hurdles you have to jump to get a horse into the winner’s circle. If I was a new owner, I’d have to be in pretty good (financial) shape to invest.
“This industry has to change, and people have to be willing to change to do it.”
Lyster said Kentucky needs to follow other states in adopting racetrack gaming to support purses and breed development programs and spur new investment. He said at this time it’s “impossible” to make money with a Kentucky-bred in state because of the purse disparity, so horses go elsewhere to compete.
As for the September auction, Lyster said he doesn’t expect much change from last year.
“The number of horses cataloged is down 11%, there should be a large handful of RNAs—and sale withdrawals to go along with that,” Lyster said. “It seems like there’s always a strong demand for the top horses in the first few books, but I believe this is still a buyers’ market.
“It is imperative that we stay on the right path to improve the supply and demand in our industry, and I think many consigners have a long road ahead of them.”