09/09/2013 9:50AM

Jay Bergman: Pennsylvania Sire Stakes program leading the pack

Pennsylvania has 90 registered Standardbred stallions, with 2,700 to 2,800 mares bred annually.

The Grand Circuit may be considered the most prestigious races in harness racing, but as times have changed and alternative gaming has grown, regional races, or sire stakes have gained near-level comparison to the big events. Pennsylvania, the most fertile ground for producing and developing Standardbreds in the current generation, has gained stature as the biggest, or at least deepest, sire stakes program in North America.

With 90 registered Standardbred stallions and between 2,700 and 2,800 mares bred each year, Pennsylvania now produces many of the elite pacers and trotters in the sport on an annual basis. On Mohegan Sun at Pocono’s recent Super Stakes Night, nine of the 14 races were won by Pennsylvania-sired horses. In all 13 of the 14 races were won by sons or daughters of stallions that at one point were based in the Quaker State.

That dominance says much about the breeding program in Pennsylvania, but it also says plenty about the cooperative effort among the state, breeders and horsemen. The same holds true for the sire stakes program, which has evolved nicely over the years into a two-tier system which offers tremendous opportunity for owners to learn and earn with young horses. The incentive to buy, own and race in Pennsylvania is enormous and it has helped the state’s three racetracks offer a high level of racing, especially during stakes season.

The stallion series is the “B” level for the sire stakes program and its purses are a cooperative effort supported by breeders and local horsemen. The Pennsylvania Sire Stakes program is a separate entity with approximately $9 million annually going to fund purses.

Perhaps of more significance in what has established Pennsylvania’s dominance is the presence of breeders’ awards. A $9 million breeders’ fund rewards breeders of 2-, 3- and 4 year-old horses from earnings within the state.

“John Egloff earned $70,000 when Sunshine Beach captured the Battle of the Brandywine,” said Jerry Connors, the director of sire stakes and Harness Breeders Fund in Pennsylvania.

The breeders fund offers a 28 percent reward to resident breeders in Pennsylvania and a 7 percent award for non-residents.

“The non-resident payments are being phased out,” said Connors.

The phasing out suggests that Pennsylvania is committed to its green space and wants to encourage residence of both breeder and Standardbred within its confines.

Connors made no secret that funding for both the sire stakes and breeders funds come as a direct result of money generated from gross terminal revenue at all of the states slot locales. The horsemen succumbed to pressure to allow for some of these dedicated funds to be “repurposed” for other essential state needs during the early stages of the recession. However, the level of that repurposed usage has come down, with $17.6 million taken from the roughly $250 million pot divided by both Standardbred and Thoroughbred horsemen.

This is the biggest week of the year for those focused on the home-grown product, with $260,000 finals slated for the premier colt and filly trotters and pacers. The first stop on the split final tour will be The Meadows on Friday. The elite three-year-olds in the program will be on display with Colonial Trot winner Spider Blue Chip to be put to the test in the three-year-old colt trot in a solid field that will include Aperfectyankee.

“We have four preliminary legs, one at Harrah’s Philadelphia, one at Mohegan Sun at Pocono and two at The Meadows,” said Connors. “We have a scaled down point system and ties are broken by purse earnings.”

The point system is different than the usual 50-25-12-8-5 purse breakdowns and appears to reward participation as well as performance.

Connors pointed out that Captaintreacherous, although he raced in only one leg of the sire stakes, actually had enough points to qualify for Friday’s consolation event at The Meadows, and he hopes the top-rated colt might make an appearance if it fit his schedule.

The three-year-old pacing filly Somwherovrarainbow captured last year’s Breeders Crown but this year has remained very close to home racing. Actually 9 of her 10 races this year have been contested within Pennsylvania. She’s earned $274,003 with five wins and is the likely favorite in Friday’s final.

The finals switch to Harrah’s Philadelphia for Sunday afternoon action and the premier two-year-olds in the state. This could be the set up for a rematch between world champion Cooler Schooner and Merrie Annabelle winner Shake It Cerry. The operative word is “could” since Cooler Schooner has already qualified among the top eight point earners while Shake It Cerry is the first also eligible. Should any of the top eight performers not enter on Wednesday it would pave the way for a rematch definitely worth seeing.

Allstar Partner, a two-year-old pacing colt from the John Butenschoen stable, has been tearing it up and is another that has earned a healthy living without leaving the state. The Four Starzzz Shark-sired colt has won six of eight starts this year and is the top point earner in the division. He prepped on Sunday at Harrah’s with a sharp 1:52 1/5 effort against older horses.

Sunday should also mark the return of GallieBythebeach, a recent impressive runner-up in the Shes A Great Lady at Mohawk. This impeccably bred filly won all three of her Pennsylvania Sire Stakes preliminaries and had enough points to skip the final leg and still finish among the top three in the points standings.

The success of the breeders and sire stakes programs within Pennsylvania has had a dramatic impact on yearling sales. Connors pointed out that Pennsylvania-breds outpaced all other programs at last year's Lexington and Harrisburg auctions. Given its extraordinary stature and some troubles in other once strong locales, it’s conceivable that Pennsylvania will be quite dominant for years to come.