10/19/2013 11:34AM

Indiana racing sector on the upswing

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In 2007, the Indiana state legislature passed a law approving slot machines at the two parimutuel racetracks in the state. In June of the following year, the resulting slots operations were opened at both Indiana Downs in Shelbyville and Hoosier Park in Anderson.

Half a decade later, although the racing circuit, stallion market, and revenues in the state continue to shift, the momentum is largely positive for Indiana’s breeding and racing industry, with horsemen expressing optimism.

“I think you’ve seen some of the results at the recent sales. Things are certainly looking up for Indiana-breds,” said prominent owner Henry Mast, who, in partnership with trainer Robert Gorham, was the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association’s National Small Breeder of the Year in 2011. “We’re breeding a number of mares ourselves. We’re in the market. We’ll keep looking in the market. We’ll go down [to the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky fall yearling sale] and see what’s available there in terms of Indiana-breds.”

Indiana’s racing industry is adjusting to a new look, as Thoroughbred competition in the state has shifted exclusively to Indiana Downs. Both Hoosier Park and Indiana Downs previously held both Thoroughbred and Standardbred meetings. However, Hoosier’s owner, Centaur Gaming, acquired Indiana Downs for $500 million in early 2013 and moved to implement breed-exclusive racing at each track.

While Hoosier has just a seven-furlong main track, Indiana Downs has a one-mile dirt oval and a seven-furlong turf course. Trainer Michael Lauer, who, along with his wife, Penny, was recently honored as Indiana Breeder of the Year by the state’s TOBA, was enthused about opportunities the new-look circuit provides to boost the strength of competition.

“The turf course definitely helps,” Lauer said. “It will help that it’s a better location. You have half the card shipping in from Kentucky and Ohio. We have the opportunity to draw more, between Cincinnati, and Lexington, and Churchill Downs [in Louisville], and the training centers – Hoosier was an hour longer [to drive]. It’s a better location for the horse population of the Midwest.”

Jessica Barnes, director of racing and breed development for the Indiana Horse Racing Commission (IHRC), also pointed to the pluses of a single-track setup.

“I think from the standpoint of the racing and breed-development program, everything is positive and moving forward,” Barnes said. “I’m hearing lots of great comments from the horsemen about the program and about [racing at] one track – the stability it provides. It’s only going to get better.”

Centaur is expanding Indiana’s stabling to handle this potential for an increased horse population – two barns have already been completed – and plans to renovate the dirt surface prior to the 2014 meet. Lauer was enthused about the renovations and stressed the importance of company leadership that supports racing, such as Centaur Chairman and Chief Executive Rod Ratcliff.

“You have to have [support],” Lauer said. “A lot of places couldn’t care less if you have racing – it’s a pain in their butts. But [Ratcliff is] enthusiastic about racing ... He wants a good product.”

Supportive leadership could be crucial in the future, as a change in state law could change the percentage of slots revenue allotted to purses. For gross slots receipts collected by tracks after Dec. 31, the percentage to purses will drop from 15 percent, with the new state law worded to allow at least 10 percent but not more than 12 percent. Centaur has agreed to the full 12 percent for 2014. The agreement must be approved by Jan. 1, and the IHRC has scheduled its next meeting for Oct. 29.

With the changed racing circuit, Indiana’s premier day of racing, the Indiana Derby card, was contested at Indiana Downs for the first time Oct. 5. The program also put statebreds in the spotlight, as four $85,000 restricted stakes were contested. Indiana’s reigning horse of the year, Aint She a Saint, captured the Richmond Stakes; later that day, her full brother, Needmore Cash, won the Gus Grissom Stakes for owners-breeders Jeff and Sherri Greenhill. Both stakes winners are by Saintly Look and out of the winning Repriced mare Pay the Toll.

“Right now, I love it. I think it’s great,” Jeff Greenhill, who also trains both horses, said of the Indiana climate. “I love both these horses. Aint She a Saint is my top earner ever, so I’ve got a special place in my heart for her. But this little horse [Needmore Cash] has been trying to become a racehorse for about a year now.”

Indiana’s rewards program is two-tiered, offering incentives and championships for both Indiana-bred and Indiana-sired horses. An Indiana-bred horse finishing in the top three in an open race receives a 40 percent purse supplement, while Indiana-bred or -sired horses winning any race at the $10,000 claiming level or higher are eligible for a 20 percent hike in breeder or stallion owner awards. Lauer said he believes that strongly supporting both programs will maintain the health of the industry.

“We need to see more opportunities,” he said of state-sired races, while stressing that “the state programs allow a lot of people to be in the game who otherwise would not be in the game.”

He also believes that a strong incentive structure will encourage horsemen to put down roots in Indiana.

“Horsemen tend to reinvest if they make money,” Lauer said. “They seem to recycle the money in the business.”

The North American foal crop has declined every year since 2005 – although the projected drop for 2013 is at a much reduced rate. According to The Jockey Club’s Report of Mares Bred for 2012, 865 mares were bred in Indiana that season, a drop from 898 in 2011, while the number of stallions in the state fell from 79 to 74.

According to The Jockey Club’s Live Foal Report, Pass Rush, who stands at Swifty Farms in Seymour, was Indiana’s most active stallion in 2012, covering 47 mares, while Spanish Steps covered 42 mares. Four other stallions covered 30 or more mares in 2012: Article of Faith (33), Strong Hope (31), Desert Warrior (30), and Star Cat (30).

Indiana’s stallion market could be poised to respond to a void in 2014, as Spanish Steps, the sire of 2012 Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Little Mike, was recently sold to continue his stud career in Saudi Arabia. The full brother to late, prominent sire Unbridled’s Song most recently stood at Lake Shore Farms in Scottsburg after moving to Indiana for the 2010 breeding season. The state lost another well-known stallion in June, as multiple Grade 1 winner Mecke was euthanized due to the infirmities of old age after neurological issues allowed him to cover only two mares in 2013. He had moved to Hidden Springs Farm in Palmyra in 2012.

“There’s an opportunity for a horse or two, if it’s the right horse or two,” Lauer said. “It’s really hard to get mares.”

Mast and Gorham stand their own stallion, City Weekend, at Equine Veterinary Hospital of Northern Indiana in Wakarusa.

“We think that perseverance does the job,” Gorham said. “You’ve just got to stick it out, and you’ve just got to stay there. If you continue to put the [horses] in front, you’ll get the job done eventually, but it just doesn’t happen overnight with a statebred stallion. In Kentucky, where they breed 100-plus mares, you have such a big volume that you can get it done. But in the statebred program, you never have those kind of numbers. I think perseverance is what you need.”