PA-Bred Program Sets Sights on KY

The Pennsylvania breeding program is fast becoming a major player in the nation.

Pennsylvania probably won’t become a leader in terms of number of Thoroughbred foals bred each year, but its breeding program figures to give programs in the rest of the United States a serious run for their money.

The Pennsylvania-bred program began in 1974 to provide horses for the state’s racetracks at a time when the Mid-Atlantic region was saturated with live racing dates. The top earner in the program back then banked $14,000; this year, an allowance race at Philadelphia Park Casino & Racetrack can produce $14,000 for a state-bred winner.

“Two years ago, we had an excellent breeding fund program,” said Mark McDermott, executive director of the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association. “Today, Pennsylvania’s breeding program is absolutely the best in America.”

McDermott made his comments Feb. 25 during the Mid-Atlantic Racing Forum, which is part of the Pennsylvania Gaming Congress in Harrisburg, the state capital. In 2006, the year before revenue was realized from racetrack slot machines, the breeding fund paid about $7.8 million. This year, it could top $23 million.

Stallion awards will go from $3.4 million in 2006 to $9.1 million in 2008; owners’ bonuses from $2.3 million to $6.9 million; state-bred stakes purses from $700,000 to $3.3 million; and restricted overnight purses from $200,000 to $4.6 million.

The Pennsylvania Thoroughbred foal crop, meanwhile, was 1,150 in 2006 and could hit 1,550 this year. McDermott said he doesn’t expect it to get much higher, but the quality of horses bred will continue to rise given the financial incentives.

“On a per-foal basis, it’s the most lucrative of any state,” McDermott said. “In a very short time Pennsylvania will be second to Kentucky as the leading Thoroughbred breeding state in the United States, and once that is achieved, who knows?”

Indeed, Kentucky breeders and owners in recent years have called Pennsylvania a competitor. Legislation to authorize a constitutional amendment on racetrack gaming in Kentucky is making its way through the General Assembly this year; the Kentucky breeding industry would benefit greatly from proposed revenue splits in the bill.

On the racing side, Pennsylvania horsemen will race for even more overall purse money in 2008. Joe Santanna, president of the Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and National HBPA, said $18 million to $20 million could be offered for 100 nights of racing at Presque Isle Downs, and $36 million to $40 million for roughly 20o nights of racing at Hollywood Casino at Penn National.

At Philadelphia Park Casino & Racetrack, Pennsylvania-bred stock is having an impact, according to director of racing Sal Sinatra. The average number of state-bred horses per race has gone from about 4.5 to six, and when the figure reaches eight, a race is closed, he said.

“I think in the next two to three years, we’ll have quite a few state-bred races,” Sinatra said.

With purses for maiden special weight and allowance races now topping $40,000, Philly Park is getting noticed by East Coast horsemen. Sinatra said horses are shipping in from New York, and export handle on Philly races is up 20%.

Sinatra and management at other area racetracks have been meeting to collaborate on a regional racing program that would benefit all tracks and increase handle locally.

“We want to keep the dollars wagered in the Mid-Atlantic region,” Sinatra said. “I think we can get players looking at us instead of Gulfstream Park (in South Florida), which in my opinion has really gone down.”

Between the New York Racing Association tracks, Philly Park, Monmouth Park in New Jersey, and Delaware Park, the region offers some of the highest purses in the country.