King of the Roxy, a grade II winner last year, was voted Ohio horse of the year for 2007.

King of the Roxy, a grade II winner last year, was voted Ohio horse of the year for 2007.

Bill Denver/EQUI-PHOTO

Success Despite Tough Times in Ohio

Ohio breeders are hanging in there despite factors that are hurting the business.

Debbie Kopatz had a busy night collecting four trophies during the Ohio Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders awards dinner at Darby Dan Farm south of Columbus, Ohio, the evening of March 28. The common thread was King of the Roxy, voted 2007 Ohio horse of the year.

If anything, it showed Ohio Thoroughbred breeders, despite very tough times, are hanging in there and still breeding good racehorses. King of the Roxy last year won the grade II Hutcheson Stakes and just missed in the grade I Santa Anita Derby for owner Team Valor International.

“This is awesome, and I was able to bring my family,” Kopatz said at the conclusion of the awards program. “Nothing in our lives has changed. We’re still the same little breeder from Ohio. But what are the odds I’d breed a horse like (King of the Roxy) on a $3,500 stud fee?”

Kopatz laughed and looked at the trophies, three of which were miniature horses. “That’s a lot of horses I don’t have to feed.”

She wasn’t kidding. With revenue for horseracing and breeding declining in Ohio, and prices for hay and feed increasing dramatically, breeders and owners in the state are struggling. This year, with no legislative relief in sight, the trend is expected to continue.

“Obviously, we need help, but outside of that, I think we really need to develop a racing circuit in Ohio to accommodate what we need,” said Tim Hamm, an Ohio owner, trainer, and breeder who was elected the new president of the OTBO. “We need to focus short term on a circuit to accommodate Ohio horsemen year-round.”

Despite a declining foal crop and consistent declines in pari-mutuel handle, there is still an overlap of dates among Ohio’s three Thoroughbred tracks. Hamm said that schedule may need to be revisited for 2009 if negative trends continue.

The OTBO has discussed things like supplements for state-bred horses in open races should the foal crop continue to shrink. He said the objective is to “maintain rewarding a good horse,” and that means at least keeping the 30-plus-race Ohio-bred stakes program intact. The stakes are run at Beulah Park, River Downs, and Thistledown.

“I believe when the stakes program leaves Ohio, there won’t be a reason to breed horses,” Hamm said.
The Ohio Thoroughbred foal crop, which hovered above 600 in the late 1990s, fell below 300 in 2006 and dropped a bit last year. Some Ohio breeders have always shipped some mares to Kentucky to be bred, but now, they are looking at other states with incentive programs boosted by casino revenue.

“If we go any lower than that, there won’t be enough foals for a program,” outgoing OTBO president Elisabeth Alexander said of the Ohio foal crop.

There are a few signs of hope. The Ohio Racing Commission has gotten about $100,000 for a study of the problems facing the state’s equine industry. And a new group—the Ohio Equine Industry Coalition—will be launched soon to bring all breeds in the state together to work toward common goals similar to the Kentucky Equine Education Project.

Kim Williams, who stands three stallions, including 2007 stallion of the year Mercer Mill, at his Fair Winds Farm in Ohio, isn’t ready to call it quits.

“You just do the best you can,” Williams said. “We’ll just try to stick it out.”

Kopatz, the Ohio breeder of the year for 2007, is doing the same. She has three foals this year, two of them Ohio-breds, and has bred her 2007 Ohio broodmare of the year, Marrakesh, the dam of King of the Roxy, to Successful Appeal this year.

Meanwhile King of the Roxy, by Littleexpectations, is expected to race April 5 in the grade I Carter Handicap at Aqueduct.