03/04/2013 10:39AM

Bergman: The Downward slide of breeding


Tradition just doesn’t mean what it used to.

How else can you explain the reason why the owners of just 30 three-year-old pacers made the initial payment to this year’s Meadowlands Pace?

It’s somewhat ironic how the sport has shifted from one dominated by trainers, drivers and breeders to one now supported and run by owners.

Not so long ago owners were set back from the day-to-day operations in the standardbred sport. They received their bills once a month and paid on time and left pretty much everything else in the hands of accomplished trainers. When the trainer said to stake the horse, it was welcome news to any owner looking to race at an elite level.

In 2013 owners, combined with select trainers, have teamed up in such a way that staking has taken on a new form. There are some trainers with so many horses in the same class that they have to find appropriate spots to put them. The same may go for three-year-olds when nominating and sustaining payments are due. What benefit is there for an owner, or trainer to put in more than a couple of horses to any particular race? There are so many options, including six-figure Sire Stakes races that require minimal nominating payments, what’s the sense in supporting races that require a heavy share of owner money with limited added money.

Unlike our thoroughbred cousins the sport of harness racing’s purses have been driven by way too much owner and breeder money and not enough added funds supported by the racetracks.

But the number 30 may have a lot more to do with the simple lack of horses available to race at an elite level.

Just look at this chart provided by the USTA:



Foal Year

Total Foals

Pacing Foals

Trotting Foals










































The total number of foals, especially pacing breds has pretty much fallen off the cliff in the last ten years. Mind you this period included the addition of slot machines in Pennsylvania, New York and Indiana to go along with Delaware and Ontario.

How are we supposed to expect a large supply of elite horses when so few are being produced each year?

Sure, there will always be a percentage that rises to the top, but logic would dictate that a few stars went missing among the 5,000 fewer pacing foals produced in the ten- year span.

What’s critical about this sport and this chart is that for all slot revenue has done to help elevate this business, it has somehow left breeders out of the equation.

How else can one explain why these depressing numbers exist?

Sure, I get it when track owners like Jeff Gural want to push more money towards aged trotters and pacers. I get it when he suggests we need name recognition to achieve a level of attention from the missing public.

But how in the world are we going to find the next Niatross or Somebeachsomewhere from a diminishing pool of matings?

What today’s owners look for is clearly not a yearling. It’s a racehorse. Yearlings don’t necessarily have to turn into racehorses, nor do they have to return a profit. What spurs owners to buy yearlings is the promise or potential of greatness. They are raw, unknown talents available for purchase based on the speculation that the new owner sees something on the page or in the flesh.

But for owners to take a risk, there has to be the potential for rewards.

In an era where day-trading has taken over for long term investment, the standardbred breeder has been left out in the cold. Large stables and owner combines have ruled the last 10 years and thus have taken a decidedly different tact towards profiting from horse ownership.

Today’s owners are bottom line driven. They aren’t looking as much to win the big one as they are to maximize the potential of their assets earning power.

Why spend $10,000 nominating to a race with the hope of finishing fifth at best, when you can save the money and still find stakes races and overnights far more lucrative and obviously less costly to participate in?

For this trend to change for both breeders and owners there would have to be more of a reason to breed and more to buy a yearling. What worked in the 80’s was a series of races at the Meadowlands for two-year-old. The “Million Dollar Babies” concept did wonders for the breeding business. Yet in the long run it was not an overwhelming success simply because the owners investment just started with the yearling purchase but quickly escalated with high staking fees required to nominate to the lucrative races. Inevitably while breeders enjoyed a brief bonanza, too many owners came in the business and left the business in short order.

Yet for buyers to take a stronger interest in yearling purchases, only a shift away from our current overnight-centric racing schedule can do anything to alter our course. Owners will pay for proven racehorses because they return instant dividends. For them to pay for yearlings on an annual basis there has to be a greater incentive and a closer time frame for a return on investment.

Many breeders in this industry have marveled as to how fast our two-year-olds reach their ability to go at extreme speed. In the past it was thought that racing a two-year-old too early in the season was a way of ruining their careers. Yet today it’s not uncommon to see these colts and fillies ready to pace in 1:52 and under right out of the box.

For breeders to have a serious chance to reverse this trend maybe its time to fund a series of seven-figure races (with significant added money) in May of the two-year-old season. With most yearlings selling in October and November, nomination payments can begin on December 15 and sustaining payments made in January and February for the potential May contest.

Otherwise the drain on breeders will continue, and inevitably our ability to provide the betting public with significant competitive races will disappear.



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