10/15/2010 4:57PM

A vote of confidence for N.Y. racing, breeding

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NEW YORK – T he announcement last week that Frank Stronach is moving five stallions, including Touch Gold, to New York was more than a footnote about relocating breeding stock. It was a vote of confidence by a major industry player in what seems like a suddenly brighter outlook for New York Thoroughbred racing and breeding.

There are still skeptics who won’t believe slot machines are really coming to Aqueduct Race Track next spring until they actually see it, and you can’t blame them for being wary. New York’s voters approved video lottery terminals at state tracks back in 2001, and while the machines have been installed at the rest of the state’s tracks, one thing after another has kept them out of Aqueduct, where they are expected to generate more than $60 million a year for purses and capital improvements at that track and the two others operated by the New York Racing Association, Belmont and Saratoga.

Construction at Aqueduct began back in 2002, then was halted as the NYRA went through nearly a decade of dark times, withstanding a storm of politically motivated investigations, challenges to its franchise, and a black comedy of failed racino-operator bakeoffs. In the last few months, however, everything has changed. Genting International, a Malaysia-based international casino operator, delivered a knockout bid, has already forked over a $375 million upfront payment to New York state, and expects to have at least 1,500 machines blinking and clanging by late next spring.

The passage of the VLT legislation in 2001 spurred investment in the state’s breeding industry, but many of those who bought farmland and bloodstock took a beating as year after year passed without a slots startup, even before the recession began and the breeding business nationwide began to decline. From 2007 to 2009 alone, there were sharp downturns in New York’s bloodstock population: The number of mares bred fell 19 percent from 2,007 to 1,605, and the number of active stallions took a 28 percent hit, from 113 to 83. Meanwhile, states with racinos such as Indiana, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia all showed sharp upticks in those categories.

Now, though, Stronach and others are betting that New York is about to rise again and that owning a New York-bred might be a very good thing over the next few years. All NYRA purses are expected to rise starting next summer, and a small slice of the VLT revenue will go directly to the state’s Breeding and Development Fund, meaning that owner, breeder, and stallion awards should increase as well.

The hope is that this infusion of purse and bonus money will provide not only an improved investment climate but also some improvement in the quality of the statebreds. Over the last few years, as the NYRA struggled to present year-round racing amid declining revenue, it had to lower the bar to fill cards and introduce ever lower levels of restricted races. Slow horses who would have been exiled to Finger Lakes a decade earlier instead became mainstays of the NYRA circuit,

This isn’t to say that there haven’t been some very nice horses bred in the state, including Funny Cide and Commentator. The state will be nicely represented in this year’s Breeders’ Cup by a small squad, including Haynesfield, winner of the Suburban and Jockey Club Gold Cup; Rightly So, the Grade 1 Ballerina winner; and Silver Timber, one of the nation’s most accomplished turf sprinters. Most of these stars, however, were sired by out-of-state stallions. That could change with an upgrade in the state’s stallion ranks and prove lucrative for investors: New York-breds sired by in-state stallions receive double the supplemental awards and are also eligible for more than $1.2 million a year in stallion-stakes purses.

Stronach’s five New York stallions (Alphabet Soup, Harlem Rocker, Silent Name, Tiago, and Touch Gold), who will stand at the McMahon family’s farm in Saratoga Springs, provide such an upgrade immediately.

“In all of my 45 years in the New York [breeding] industry, there has never been a group of Grade 1 horses assembled like these,” Joe McMahon said.

And there’s no question about why such an assembly has been convened.

“The slots initiative in the state of New York is very compelling,” said Dermot Carty, director of sales for Stronach’s Adena Springs Farm. “The prospect of improved purses as well as stallion and breeder’s awards was a strong motivation for Adena Springs Farm to support the New York State program with our stallions.”