03/12/2010 12:00AM

Jersey breeders cautiously optimistic

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New Jersey breeders say they are gambling that the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority's new plan to cut race dates and fund a gala 50-day, $50 million summer meet at Monmouth Park eventually will pay off by growing the breeding industry.

The one-year experiment also cuts the total number of races by about 40 percent, and likely won't offer much short-term incentive for breeders. But if the experiment is successful and becomes permanent, breeders say, it could help raise New Jersey-bred quality and crop size.

The Garden State's annual Thoroughbred crop dwindled 29 percent in the decade from 1998 to 2008, according to Jockey Club statistics. In 2008, the last year reported, it numbered just 286 foals.

New Jersey breeders will get some immediate benefits from the sports and exposition authority plan. Statebreds will run for the highest restricted-race purses in the country. And the New Jersey Thoroughbred Breeders Association has taken out a loan arranged by the authority and the state's Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association to cover a projected $1.5 million shortfall in state breeders' awards from 2008 and 2009, and to fund up to $500,000 in awards for statebreds with top-three finishes out of state.

But there's short-term pain for breeders, too: fewer statebred races and higher overall purses will hurt smaller stables and lower-quality stock most, potentially pushing some operations out of business. And the three-year lag between conception and running means breeders are unlikely to invest in additional or

higher-quality stock until they know the Monmouth experiment has succeeded, putting off growth.

"We would all like to have more racing opportunities," said the breeders' association president, Tom Swales IV. "But if you keep doing the same thing over and over again and it fails, you have to change something. While we're going to be losing opportunities, there's going to be a lot of money out there for New Jersey-breds."

The number of New Jersey-bred races will drop by about 22 percent. That could have an upside for breeder awards. Swales said the 2008 and 2009 breeders' fund shortfall came about partly because handle dropped, lowering a key source of awards funding, while the number of statebred races remained relatively high. The hope is that the new Monmouth model eventually can boost both handle and statebred races - and make the statebred program both self-sufficient and attractive.

"Even though it's exciting, it's also scary," Swales said of the plan. "We need this to work. If this does work, I think this will be something that can continue into the future and can be a model other states will follow."

Kurt Sleeter, whose family's homebreeding operation stands Unbridled Jet at Sleeter Farm in Clementon, N.J., says he had hoped for four statebred races a day rather than the promised 2.5. But, on balance, he's hopeful that the plan will improve things. The question is whether it will help the breeding industry in time.

"We've been doing this since the 60s, and we're sticking to our guns," he said. "I don't think this is going to help all the breeders, but we're lucky we have the caliber of mares we have. The guys that are running in claiming races, I feel bad for them. But if we have the ammunition, I think we'll be fine. We're all trying to be positive about it. It's not what we wanted to see, but we think it may help us down the line."

What Sleeter and many others wanted to see was a bank of slot machines at New Jersey tracks. Early this month, legislators introduced a bill to put them at the Meadowlands.

In the meantime, Sleeter says he's keeping doubts in check and hoping for the best in what they see as a critical year for New Jersey's Thoroughbred business.

"As long as we really get the three statebred races a day, it could balance out for us," Sleeter said. "I want us to have a fair shot at racing. If there aren't enough New Jersey-breds to make a race go, are they going to bring that race back up?

"It's scary, but we're just trying to stay positive."

Sleeter said the out-of-state awards will be "a huge help" in allowing owners of New Jersey-breds to compete. But he hopes to see a long-term plan for New Jersey racing soon.

"There has to be long-term plan installed as soon as possible," agrees the breeders' association's Swales. "I understand this season has to run its course before they figure out what we're going to do. But the fact remains, when the fall comes, people are going to be planning where to drop their foals in 2011. If we have a long-term deal in place at the end of this meet at some point, people might opt to drop them in New Jersey. If we don't have some sort of long-term deal, we're going to be up in the air. They need to know where we're heading. We all do."