01/13/2016 4:15PM

Gisser: Comparing Standardbred to Thoroughbred breeders

Derick Giwner
Hanover Shoe Farms continues to dominate the standardbred breeding world and the addition of Sebastian K should only increase that reputation.

A December 28 press release from Hanover Shoe Farms surprised me. Not the fact that in 2015 they again led all Standardbred breeders in offspring earnings, or that they had set yet another record, breaking their own record, which broke their own record which . . . well you get the picture. Over $30,000,000 in earnings is very impressive. Especially when the release points out that Hanover, along with #2 Winbak Farms (over $19 million) had produced the winners of more money than the leading Thoroughbred nursery . . . and that Hanover’s number was three times greater than T-Bred leader Ken and Sarah Ramsey.

My first concern with Hanover and Winbak commanding the market was simple. Would we see a Wal-Mart effect (please note, I am in no way comparing either of these very professional operations with Wal-Mart except in scope), where smaller breeders would be shoved by the wayside, unable to compete, much as small mom and pop shops often go under when a Wal-Mart opens nearby. I posted the thought to social media and in a few other places and was rapidly told “no worries,” that there remains plenty of room for the small breeder. Hanover was over $30,000,000 in 2013 and posted huge numbers in 2014, and there was no collapse of the market.

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So with no smoking gun, I put that idea aside. Then I read that thoroughbred sire Tapit led all stallions in 2015. His progeny earned over $19,000,000. Well that can’t be. His progeny earned more than all of Winbak Farms, and certainly Gainesway Farms, where he stands, must have other stallions (they do, nine others, in fact). Gainesway in fact ranked just 23rd among Thoroughbred breeders in 2015. Huh?  So some more research was in order. It turns out that apparently we were comparing apples and oranges.

Or what appeared to be apples and oranges. Myself, and many people I talked to thought this stat was for the top breeding farm, while it was actually for the top breeder. The breeder is the owner of the dam at the time of stallion contract signing or in the case of Hanover, the owner of the broodmare. Since Hanover and Winbak have large bands of broodmares which they own, they are considered the breeders of those mares’ offspring. The Thoroughbred model tends to be a bit different, with farms maintaining much smaller broodmare bands. In part this is due to the higher stud fees their stallions command. They want more paying customers.

Interestingly, comparing the results between breeds but pulling Hanover and Winbak’s dominating numbers out of the mix, #3-10 are very comparable, in fact nearly identical for the two breeds.  But as we look beyond the Top 10, we do see a considerable drop-off. T-bred #20, Sam-son Farms at $3.2 million, would have been the 11th leading Standardbred Farm. The 20th ranked breeder in harness racing, Little E Llc, at $2.3 million, would have been 37th on the Thoroughbred list. In fact, only 27 of the top harness nurseries would have cracked the top 50 among the runners. So while we do have two monstrously successful nurseries and a half-dozen or other truly major players, there may be some evidence that the extreme top is creating a Wal-Mart effect. Not putting smaller breeders out of business, but cutting their potential upside.

One thing that IS certain (and not surprising) is that the Standardbred nurseries (and their offspring) had to work a lot harder to post their numbers than the Thoroughbred cousins. Kenneth and Sarah Ramsay, the leading Thoroughbred breeders, earned $9.3 million in 1,656 starts. Hanover starters won 2,462 races in 2015, nearly one-and-a-half times as many races as the Ramsay-breds competed! Adena Springs, the winningest Thoroughbred breeder with 261 wins, would have ranked 14th on the Standardbred list.

Adena Springs ranked third in earnings among Thoroughbreds with $8.7 million in earnings. Third –ranked harness farm Brittany Farms had $8.3 million, very similar numbers. Adena Springs, as mentioned, won 261 races in 1,796 starts, a 14.5% strike rate. Brittany had 223 wins from just 622 starters. Unfortunately the USTA does not list the number of starts in its available stats, while The Jockey Club does not list the number of starters, making the apples to apples comparison tougher.

What does this all prove? It proves that Hanover and Winbak are dominant through sheer force of numbers. If Brittany produced the same number of starters as Hanover, at the same level of success, they would have exceeded even Hanover’s amazing numbers. Not to say Hanover and Winbak are not breeding quality racehorses. They most certainly are. But the scope of their operations and the nature of the Standardbred business make the stats a little less significant than that press release first would have us believe. Simply, bigger is better. Now go cash . . . hopefully a huge Powerball jackpot. See you next month.