Ohio Thoroughbred breeders were told April 5 that supporting stallions based in the state should be a big part of the equation in the new environment of racetrack gaming.
Ohio State Racing Commission chairman Robert Schmitz, a speaker at the Ohio Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners awards dinner at Darby Dan Farm near Columbus, said the commission wants to encourage growth of breeding programs in the state. He said revenue from video lottery terminals is designed to support agriculture.
In a related change, the OSRC recently adopted a rule that states in order to be eligible for the Ohio breeding program, a mare must be in the state by Aug. 15 of the year before foaling.
"Why don't you all breed to Ohio stallions? Do you all want to be Kentucky people?" Schmitz asked the group. "One of the major drivers to bring this business back in Ohio is VLTs. Looking down the road in five or 10 years, when it comes time to take a look at the Thoroughbred breeding business, if there are not a lot of accredited horses, it's going to be a problem (with legislators). I hope you all understand that.
"Without the commitment of the people in this room to move forward, (there could be issues). You've got to be able to say to a legislator that things are good in this state, that we're breeding to Ohio stallions."
Ohio has a two-pronged Thoroughbred breeding program. Ohio-registered horses must be foaled in the state but can be sired by out-of-state stallions. Ohio-accredited horses also must be foaled in the state but must be sired by Ohio stallions.
There are stakes and overnight supplements for both categories, though about 75% of the Ohio Thoroughbred Race Fund goes toward Ohio-registered runners. That has been by design because of the recent dearth of Ohio stallions due to major declines in the state's foal crop, and the fact the top Ohio-bred horses are the produce of stallions in states such as Kentucky.
"That balance has served the accredited program well," said OTBO president Tim Hamm, who also spoke at the dinner. He noted his Blazing Meadows Farm operation breeds almost half of its mares to Ohio stallions that stand at the farm.
A few breeders noted accredited foals currently have little commercial value at auction, which is why many mares are bred to out-of-state stallions. That could change with more sire power.
The 2013 Ohio horse of the year, the filly Needmore Flattery, is by Kentucky sire Flatter out of the Left Banker mare Kiosk, a stakes-placed Ohio-bred. Owned and bred by Blazing Meadows Farm and Bruce Ryan, Needmore Flattery, now 3 with seven wins in 10 starts, returned to the races the day of the awards dinner and won the $50,000 Royal North Stakes for state-breds at Beulah Park.
Schmitz asked why syndicates haven't secured higher-profile stallions with larger fees to encourage Ohio breeding. Owners and breeders at the dinner predicted that will occur, and they noted there are more than 20 new stallions in the state this year, including graded stakes winners.
Dave Basler, executive director of the Ohio Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said 10% of purse money generated by VLTs will be dedicated to the Ohio-bred program. About $2 million was available last year, but in two years, he projects the annual figure to be about $6 million.
"That's enough to get some commercial breeders to come to the state," Basler said.
Hamm said there has been interest by Kentucky owners and breeders who plan to at least have mares drop foals in Ohio this year. Dr. Kendall Hansen, who raced 2011 champion 2-year-old male Hansen, confirmed that he shipped five mares to Ohio to foal this year: Art's Lady (by Theatrical), In The Bridle (by Tiznow ), Gingerland (by Forestry), Preservation Hall (by Dixieland Band), and Deepest Desire (by Johannesburg). All were bred to Hansen.
"It's a great time for Ohio racing, but there are a lot of questions out there," Hamm said. "That's what we're all concerned about. We knew 2013 would be a transition year, but that has carried over into 2014. The vision has to come from those of us who have an investment in Ohio. The OTBO becomes increasingly important to be a voice for breeders and owners."
Hamm said as the program grows, OTBO members must offer input on how the money should be shared. For instance, with about $1 million in VLT escrow funds available this year, the OTBO is looking at paying purse supplements down to third place, or raising the supplements across the board.
Though contracts horsemen have with two Ohio racetracks so far provide that Ohio horsemen get about 80% of available stalls, owners at the dinner said their number of stalls have been reduced this year because of a formula based on starts-per-stall. One of them is Hamm, a trainer whose allotment at ThistleDown Racino (Thistledown) near Cleveland was cut in half.
"The breeders who stuck it out need to be taken care of when the times are getting good," Hamm said. "It's very shortsighted of racetracks to not take care of those who took care of them and supported Ohio racetracks when no one else would."
Schmitz declined to address that issue with owners at the dinner. He kept his focus on the breeding program.
"You were racing for a bologna sandwich 18 months ago, and now purses have doubled," Schmitz said. "You're going to have to buy better mares, and somebody needs to find that commercial stallion. That has to happen or racing will be left at the starting gate."