05/30/2013 12:08PM

Ohio breeding program on way back from the brink

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John Engelhardt/River Downs
The last race run at River Downs last year. The track was demolished, and a new grandstand and casino are being built as Ohio tracks begin to feature casinos.

Ohio’s breeding industry hit rock bottom in the spring of 2011.

Only 124 mares were bred statewide that year, a far cry from the 1,380 bred two decades ago in the halcyon days before neighboring states raised the stakes by adding casino gaming to their racetracks. To put it into perspective, 50 North American stallions bred more mares on their own in 2011 than the entire state of Ohio.

Later that year, the state government approved video-lottery terminals at Ohio racetracks after years of stalls and stumbles, and two decades of inertia began to shift almost immediately. In 2012, Ohio posted a 19 percent gain in the number of mares bred, the first positive return since 2002, and had an increase in its stallion population for the first time since 2003. The figures remained modest, but baby steps were better than nothing.

Today, Ohio’s racing landscape is in the midst of a major facelift. Thistledown became the state’s first Thoroughbred venue to open a racino in April and is hosting live racing with purses much higher than last year. River Downs has been wiped off the face of the earth as owner Pinnacle Entertainment builds a new casino, grandstand, and racing surface. Meanwhile, Beulah Park will play caretaker to the River Downs meet this summer before likely being razed itself and moved to the Youngstown area in the northeastern portion of the state.

All the while, breeding stock has made its way back into Ohio. While the final breeding figures remain to be seen, Tim Hamm, president of Ohio Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners and proprietor of Blazing Meadows Farm in North Jackson, projected sizable gains.

“We’ve had several people call and want to ship mares to the farm to foal,” Hamm said. “There’s a lot of activity. As far as counts, who knows? We won’t know that until it’s said and done, but we do know there’s a significant increase, and I think it’s going to be a great breeding program.”

Just how much of a cut Ohio’s horsemen will ultimately receive from the VLT revenue remains to be seen. Ohio state law requires that 9 percent to 11 percent of the income from VLTs goes to the horsemen for line items including purse structure and breeding programs, but Hamm said the exact percentage will be up for negotiation on a track-by-track basis, depending on a number of factors, including how much money each ownership group puts into building its facilities.

Prior to the first Thoroughbred racino opening at Thistledown, Hamm said Ohio’s statebred program was operating on a budget of about $1.7 million a year. Within the next 16 to 18 months, he expects that figure to increase by several million dollars and ultimately reach $8 million once River Downs and Beulah Park get their casinos up and running.

“The bulk of that’s going to be purse structure,” Hamm said. “Just in round numbers, if we use 11 percent as the number, probably about 9 percent of that would go into the purse structure, and the other 2 would be divided up about four or five ways.”

Ohio was among the last states in the region to approve and install casino gaming at its racetracks. The state was nearly engulfed by surrounding racino-infused jurisdictions, with Indiana to the west, Pennsylvania and West Virginia to the east, and to the south traditional powerhouse Kentucky, which recently added Instant Racing at several of its tracks. The malaise in Ohio can be seen in the decline in purses over the past 14 years. The average purse in Ohio races peaked at $9,692 in 1999, when total purses in the state reached $33 million, and declined 38 percent to $6,057 in 2012.

With each unveiling of another state’s new, sparkling centers of gaming, the active mare population in Ohio dropped, as breeders gravitated toward more lucrative programs.

Now, breeders and their mares have begun setting foot and hoof in the state again. Some prominent breeders also have expanded their broodmare bands into Ohio, including Mandy Pope’s Whisper Hill Farm and Henry Mast, a leading breeder in Michigan and Indiana who was named the national Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association’s Small Breeder of the Year in 2012.

Mast has been ahead of the curve in the Ohio-bred program, sending a string of mares to foal there in 2011 before the VLT legislation was officially approved, meaning his first crop of Ohio-bred 2-year-olds will hit the track just in time to race in the first year of the racino era. He now sends three to five mares to foal in Ohio each year.

“I don’t think there’s any question that it’s going to become much stronger,” Mast said of Ohio’s breeding program. “It surprises me a little bit, to be honest, how hesitant some of the Ohio people are in terms of standing stallions and things like that. I think you’ll see that happen in the next two or three years. Horsemen just need to see it happen before they commit. I prefer to be a year or two ahead of that game.”

One stallion owner who got ahead of the game was Robin Murphy of Poplar Creek Horse Center in Bethel, who acted when the casino companies first began buying up the Ohio Thoroughbred and Standardbred properties.

Beulah Park was the first track to change hands among the Thoroughbred venues, with an agreement reached by Penn National Gaming Inc. in March 2010. Thistledown followed in May of that year, scooped up by Harrah’s Entertainment, while a deal was confirmed by Pinnacle Entertainment to buy River Downs in November 2010.

“When I knew the tracks sold, that’s when I decided to get my first stud,” Murphy said. “I felt that they weren’t going to spend that money on buying those tracks if they didn’t feel confident that the program was going to come on. I felt comfortable there, and I wanted to get a jump on the breeding program because it’s going to take at least three years before we see any income from these babies we’re trying to produce.”

Murphy now stands seven stallions on her 80-acre farm, located in the southwestern part of the state, which she also uses for layups and as a training center. A relative newcomer to Ohio racing, Murphy previously specialized in Quarter Horse showing and breeding but shifted to Thoroughbreds during the economic recession of the late 2000s to help cover costs. The decision is starting to pay off.

“Three years ago, I picked up my first [Thoroughbred] stallion,” she said. “Last year, I had three stallions. This year, I have seven. Five of them are graded stakes winners, and they’re all top-bred horses. Next year, I’m going to add an eighth horse.”

On top of that, Murphy said the number of mares sent to foal at her farm in the past year has increased from three to 26.

By all accounts, that number ought to continue growing, perhaps even to the heights of brighter days that not too long ago seemed long gone.

“I think the foal crop’s going to approach a thousand,” Hamm said. “Maybe that’s aggressive, but I think there will be 700 or 800 foals in the foal crops over the next four years. It’s going to be a good state to breed and race in, and I think racing will be back in the top 20 percent of the country.”

Ohio breeding and racing overview

Year Races Purses Starters Starts Race Days Avg. Field Avg. Purse
2012 2,622 $15,882,500 3,613 17,592 329 6.7 $6,057
2011 2,594 15,478,900 3,929 18,967 321 7.3 5,967
2010 2,636 15,458,300 4,525 20,521 341 7.8 5,864
2009 2,646 17,828,600 4,533 21,427 343 8.1 6,738
2008 2,537 18,235,820 4,279 19,499 329 7.7 7,188
2007 2,805 22,498,200 4,846 22,860 360 8.1 8,021
2006 2,980 25,198,383 5,260 25,651 382 8.6 8,456
2005 3,226 25,424,600 5,476 27,023 433 8.4 7,881
2004 3,288 25,999,600 5,991 29,264 441 8.9 7,907
2003 3,262 26,116,132 5,897 28,486 450 8.7 8,006
2002 3,509 30,500,800 5,959 30,619 447 8.7 8,692
2001 3,455 30,712,400 6,059 29,719 450 8.6 8,889
2000 3,428 30,987,600 5,392 27,859 445 8.1 9,040

 

Thoroughbred stallions in Ohio by year

Year Stallions Pct. change 5-yr pct. change
2012 35 21% -
  #2011 29 -6% -65%
2010 31 -18% -
2009 38 -25% -
 **2008 51 -32% -
   *2007 75 -9% -
  ††2006 82 -8% -28%
     2005 89 -10% -
   †2004 99 -10% -
2003 110 3% -
2002 107 -6% -
     2001 114 -6% -25%
2000 121 -10% -
1999 134 0% -
1998 134 -4% -
1997 140 -7% -
1996 151 -4% -29%
1995 158 -10% -
   ^1994 175 2% -
1993 172 -14% -
1992 200 -6% -
1991 212 - -

† Pennsylvania approves racino legislation  
†† Racinos open in Pennsylvania  
*Indiana approves racino legislation  
** Racinos open in Indiana  
^ Racinos legalized and opened in West Virginia  
# Ohio approves racino legislation  

 

Mares bred in Ohio by year 

Year Mares Bred Pct. change 5-yr pct. change
2012 148 19% -
    #2011 124 -9% -72%
2010 136 -14% -
2009 159 -34% -
   **2008 242 -33% -
    *2007 362 -19% -
   ††2006 446 -9% -48%
2005 490 -13% -
    †2004 566 -15% -
2003 666 -24% -
2002 882 2% -
2001 865 0% -2%
2000 864 1% -
1999 859 1% -
1998 849 -8% -
1997 918 4% -
1996 881 -18% -36%
1995 1,071 2% -
    ^1994 1,048 -3% -
1993 1,075 -7% -
1992 1,160 -16% -
1991 1,380   -