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Nielsen on New York: Never better
Since 1976, when Jerry Nielsen and his wife, Joanne, bought their first broodmare, the couple have bred many New York-bred stakes winners, including Capades, who was the 1990 New York-bred Horse of the Year, Roman Dancer, I'm All Yours, Along Came Mary, and Quantum Merit.
The Nielsens, who have been married 43 years, own and manage the 200-acre Sunnyfield Farm, a commercial breeding operation in Westchester County, where they keep their 12 broodmares.
Jerry Nielsen, who has a background in commercial real estate and owns a florist company in Darien, Conn., has been active in New York's breeding and racing industry for 14 years.
Nielsen, 69, served on the board of the Eastern Thoroughbred Breeders Association from 1989 through 1994. From 1995 through 1999, he was a board member of the New York Breeding and Development Fund.
Nielsen currently is president of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders, a position he has held since January 2002. He works closely with the group's executive director, Dennis Brida, and deputy director, Jane DeCoteau, and her assistant, Cathi Jackson. The NYTB's offices are in Saratoga Springs.
In a Sept. 26 interview with Karen M. Johnson of Daily Racing Form, Nielsen discussed the state of New York's breeding and racing program, including the great exposure the program received this year from Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide.
Daily Racing Form: What are your duties as NYTB president?
Basically, to steer the boat. Dennis and Jane run the office with the help of Cathi. I talk to Dennis sometimes every day or sometimes once a week. Yesterday, I spent the day with Dennis working on a fundraiser we are having for Sen. Joe Bruno that is strictly for breeders.
Since last year, our organization has gone from a membership of a little over 400, to this year, I think we are at 875. And I think we will hit 900 by the end of the year. That's pretty incredible and I'm very proud of that. I'm very proud of what Dennis, Jane, and Cathi have done. Basically, we are doing twice the business with the same amount of people.
During that time I think [among] the most important accomplishments was working with the horsemen, NYRA, the Finger Lakes people, and the breeding fund; pulling everyone together on the VLT thing - that was our biggest thrust.
What kind of job has Dennis Brida done since he was hired as executive director in April 2002?
Dennis has done a wonderful job. I was so pleased because he knows all the players in New York. He knows an awful lot of the breeders. He knows most of the trainers and a lot of owners in the game. It made my job very easy. If we had chosen a director that didn't know the players, it would have been quite a task for myself and my board members to go out and get all the introductions.
When he started, he started running. He's very much a self-starter. You don't have to turn the key on every two seconds and say, 'Dennis, we have got to do this, we have to do that.' He's usually a jump ahead of things. He gets along with anybody. That's so important.
The time frame for the introduction of the slot machines at New York Racing Association tracks is unknown at this point. How does this impact the breeders?
It affects us like it affects the horsemen. The revenue stream we were expecting in January for the fund board now seems kind of remote. That would be very meaningful to us because the income would go up in the area of 30 to 40 percent within the first full year of operation. However, I notice that at Finger Lakes they are starting construction [on a casino]. I think in the long run that will be important to New York breeders because so many New York-breds run [at Finger Lakes].
What needs to be done to help Finger Lakes, which is struggling to compete with smaller tracks that already have VLT's?
Dennis has spent a lot of time up there. They have given their horsemen the same deal that NYRA has. I was very happy with that. Plus the fact, I think the [purse] increase for Finger Lakes with the VLT's, percentage-wise, will be much larger than here because they are starting at such a low base.
What kind of an impact did Funny Cide's wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness have on the New York breeding program?
I think the horse, Barclay Tagg, the group of owners have done more for the New York breeding industry in the last three months than we have [in spending] maybe $3 million of advertising. And from a political standpoint, the receptions we have had in Albany, all because of Funny Cide, brought so many people together - the legislators, the governor, Sen. [Joseph] Bruno. At the receptions, everyone got together and realized how important the equine industry was to New York. Actually, the equine industry this year will surpass the dairy industry in the state [in economic impact]. Most of the politicians were very interested in this. Look at the green space that we create. We pay taxes on it. We employ people on our farms. They saw the little guy taste a little bit of success [with Funny Cide] and that really spikes a lot of interest.
What kind of relationship does the NYTB have with the breeding fund and NYRA?
When I was first put on the fund board - Gov. Cuomo appointed six breeder members - it gave us the majority, six breeder members and five state-appointed members. The relationship was just terrible. It was the breeders against the board, so to say. As years went by, to the point that is now, it's so much better. We get along and we are getting things accomplished. That's the important thing. Twenty years ago, when I was on the Eastern Breeders board, it was a big day when NYRA gave breeders a pass to get into the racetrack free. Now, I can pick up the phone and talk to them. They are very accessible. If there is a problem, we can call anyone at NYRA and get an answer.
How important is Showcase day to New York's breeding and racing industry?
I think it is extremely important. You know what makes it important? When you talk to breeders from Florida, Maryland, and Kentucky. Today, they look to our program and say, 'Wow, look at your Showcase Day, look at your program.' I think the best advertising for it is how many really top breeders are moving major operations to New York. That spells it all. Breeders from all other states just drool when they see statebred races for $150,000 and $250,000. And I think when the VLT's come on line, I think we will be looking at some pretty major racing here and at Finger Lakes.
Many New York breeders, including you and your wife, breed to Kentucky sires. Is this a reflection of the quality of New York stallions?
We bred primarily in Kentucky. If there is a horse in New York that genetically matches one of our mares, certainly we will [breed to him]. The incentive is certainly there to breed in New York to get a 20 percent award instead of a 10 percent award. We in New York only have like 3,500 to 4,000 mares in the state. Kentucky has 40,000 mares to draw from. That is what brings the stallion population. In New York, if you had a horse that was going to come and stand here for $50,000, and [considering] his genetic pool - how many mares can you draw on him that would fit a horse like that? It will improve. New horses are coming to New York all the time. It will get better and better, but it will take a lot of time. It certainly isn't going to become a Kentucky situation where you have that many sires.
Will the breeding fund be able to keep pace with paying the owner, breeder, and stallion awards when the VLT's are in place in New York?
Yes. That was done all through negotiations. I give Dennis an awful lot of credit for that. That's all done on a percentage. If the VLT revenue goes up 10 percent, the fund revenue will go up the same percent. It will all follow along. That was the whole idea of it. If the revenue went up, the revenue stream to the breeding and development fund went up at the same rate.
Why should a New York breeder be part of the NYTB?
To begin with, it's worth the political end. Look at what we have accomplished. If it weren't for our organization, it never would have been accomplished. The monetary things, if they are a member of our organization they have all the John Deere benefits at factory price if they buy something. They get Sherwin-Williams paint. We have a multitude of things you can get through our organization just by being a member.
Where do you see the NYTB in five years?
We've been going so fast, I haven't even given the long term a thought. I think the important thing will be to build up our Showcase Day far more than it is now. [We need] something at Finger Lakes that would be comparable to Showcase up there, since probably 85 to 90 percent of the horses at Finger Lakes are New York-breds.
What did you think of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's inaugural Great State Challenge at Sam Houston last year?
They started off not bringing everyone into the fold. They offended so many people before they started. I think the first running of it went fine, but there didn't seem to be enough support. The NTRA went off on their own. So many things they didn't take into account. In New York, the breeding development fund needs a change in legislation to pay a purse out of state. So they couldn't put up money for New York horses [running in the Great State Challenge].
The New York-bred sale this year at Saratoga suffered declines. Why do you think that was?
The Saratoga press came out with all these articles one day after the next about the VLT's and what was going on with NYRA. This was just prior to our sale up there. It put a lot of cold water on that, I know that. Everything was going up after the Funny Cide thing and the VLT legislation getting passed, and then two weeks before the sale, it was one article after another. It cast a lot of doubt. I think we were so up on it, and Fasig-Tipton was up on it because of Funny Cide and the VLT's.
Fasig-Tipton went along with the breeders organization to take more horses in the sale because we felt that it would be so good. Maybe that was a little bit of a mistake. We put an extra 30 horses [in the sale] that we didn't have last year. That might have had a little something to do with the sliding prices. The two-day sale we have now, everyone is thrilled with. Whether we take off a few horses next year or not, that I can't tell. I doubt that we will because the foal crop will be that much bigger. They will have more to choose from.
As a breeder, how do you decide what horses to sell and what to keep and race?
Today, the only horses we keep are horses that don't vet out. They are the ones we end up buying back. When we price for sale we are pretty modest in our pricing. But we do end up with some.
What role does your wife, Joanne, have in the Sunnyfield breeding operation?
She does all the matings of her mares. She spends a lot of time in Kentucky. She wants to match the mare to the stallion. She is always working on the computer, doing all the different crosses and possibilities. What has been your and Joanne's biggest thrill as a breeder?
Probably for her, it was Capades. She did awful well. She went over a $1 million and Joanne was very proud of that. I would have to go with that, too. They are all such thrills. Especially now when we buy something back because it doesn't pass the vet and we go on and they do well. That is pretty much the thrill. We have one now with Jimmy Bond, a 5-year-old, Along Came Mary, and she has won over $300,000 and four or five stakes. She didn't sell, and I bought her back for [$49,000].