04/29/2013 10:30AM

Jay Bergman: More money for young horses bright spot for breeders

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Myron Bell has been in the industry for 40 years as gambler, yearling buyer, owner and breeder.

How’s the Standardbred breeding business doing?

I posed that question to Myron Bell, an expert in the field by virtue of over 40 years as gambler, yearling buyer, owner and breeder, and most recognized as the eyes and ears of George Segal’s famed Brittany Farms.

“What breeding business?” Bell said facetiously.

Though the business has been struggling of late, especially with a major contraction in Ontario, Bell seemed pleased with changes being made on the racetrack. Especially gratifying is the fact that many tracks are finally listening to pleas to boost purses for younger horses.

“We’ve gotten Yonkers to raise purses in the non-winners classes," Bell said. "Mohegan Sun at Pocono raised the purses on non-winners-of-one race to $12,000. Yearling buyers have to know that they will be able to make money if they’re going to invest."

Yonkers recently took its purse increase one step further by raising purses for conditioned horses 20 percent while only raising claiming races 10 percent.

Despite an incredible drop-off in the number of foals being produced in North America, the demand and purchase prices have not increased enough to offset the supply loss.

Bell is quick to point out that the breeding business is quite different today for some obvious reasons.

Bell said: “Just look what Idyllic brought at the January mixed sale ($140,000). These mares are worth more on the racetrack than they are in the breeding shed. It used to be you could buy a quality racemare for a price and not have to worry whether she raced or not.”

Bell was obviously alluding to the fact that there’s so much money available these days that owners are not rushing their mares into the breeding shed. While Bell has kept active as a breeder, with nine broodmares and a nice pipeline of weanlings and yearlings coming forward, he understands why Segal and Brittany Farms has contracted from a high of nearly 150 broodmares to a current active population of 95.

Bell said: “George (Segal) is 74 years old. He’s had Brittany on the market for a while now and I think with the Thoroughbred business gaining strength, there is more of an opportunity for the farm to be sold. He’s as upbeat about the business as he ever was. I think if the farm does get sold, George will probably look for a smaller farm, say 200 acres. He doesn’t need the 700 acres of Brittany any more."

Bell’s expertise has led Brittany to select and manage some of the sport’s leading stallions. The late, great Artsplace carved out a dramatic niche in the sport, but notables like Western Hanover, Western Ideal and his son American Ideal have left an indelible mark on the pacing side of this sport.

Bell, like most breeders, is eager to see a new Meadowlands grandstand and hopes for a revival in the sport. He recognizes that New Jersey, once the premier spot to stand a stallion, may never regain its position of prominence.

“I’m hoping that a new grandstand will help us attract a new and younger audience,” Bell said. “We’ve got to educate new fans and new owners.”

On the subject of owners, Bell reflected some on the past. In the early 1980’s the Meadowlands was the mecca of the sport, not just because of its dynamic overnight product, but because of Joe DeFrank’s unveiling of rich owner-supported stakes races for two-year-olds. With little added money and plenty of yearling buyers staking, the Wilson once pushed over a $2 million purse, still a record to this day for a harness event.

The Wilson and its companion races for sex and gait led to a boom in the breeding business, with owners vying for the best stock at yearling sales and incredible interest in owning broodmares and stallions.

“It was the greatest thing for the breeding business and the worst thing for the breeding business,” said Bell. “It brought out money to buy the horses, but at the same time it ruined the career of a lot of horses that simply got pushed too hard too early for one race.”

Perhaps that’s why today’s breeding business may not really be in as bad a shape as forecast. The good news is that there is less incentive for owners to retire horses at any age these days unless the horses can’t make money on the racetrack. There is even less incentive to breed mares that won’t command respect at public auction. What we’re leading to is a more refined breeding business, one that also has a lower ceiling for stallion valuation.

This year many stallions saw their stud fees reduced. Some farms offered special two-for-one deals to give some smaller breeders the break they needed so they could afford to breed and stay in the business.

Bell’s 2012 Pacer of the Year Captaintreacherous, whom he syndicated last year for $4.8 million, may be the highest-priced syndication we see for a long time. He will make his sophomore pari-mutuel debut shortly, but for Bell, the feeling is that with his pedigree and two-year-old racing season he’s more than proven his worth.

In the past the syndicate price of a potential stallion was generally based on what stud fee the horse could be sold for and the number of mares that could be bred. In today’s industry, that price may say more for what Captaintreacherous can earn on the racetrack. With current requirements pushing more horses to race past their three-year-old season, it’s not inconceivable that a horse of that caliber could earn $3 million before ever going to stud.

Captaintreacherous, from the first crop of world champion Somebeachsomewhere, has attracted more attention of late.

“We’ve gotten interest in a few shares since the untimely passing of Rocknroll Hanover,” Bell said.

The implication there is that those involved in the Rocknroll Hanover syndicate want to be on board as quickly as possible if there is to be a breakout stallion.

For Bell, who grew up watching and wagering at Yonkers and Roosevelt raceways, there’s a clear understanding that this sport may never see those day again, but at the same time he believes there is always hope.

“I think we’re seeing with the amount of money being bet at the Meadowlands that there is still a strong interest in the game,” said Bell.

Now if we could just get some of that money going towards yearling prices.