David Anderson is particularly pointed when he speaks about the plight of Ontario’s thoroughbred breeders.
“The thoroughbreds are in the tank and we’ve got to make some changes, immediately. We’re not in a crisis anymore, we’re in a state of emergency in the thoroughbred breeding business in Ontario and we have to come up with some innovative ideas in order to right the ship,” Anderson said. “We’ve put together this mare purchase program, this mare recruitment program (see Editorial, pg. 6). We need better quality mares and we need more mares in the province and more foals or we’re not going to have horses in the entry box in two, three years’ time. We lost Adena Springs (which has pulled back on breeding in Ontario), we lost Bill Graham and we lost Gus Schickedanz (who both died this year). Right there is probably 150 foals a year and top-quality foals. So, it’s a state of emergency.”
The number of registered thoroughbreds foaled in Ontario has fallen 39 per cent from 1,338 in 2010 to 813 in 2016, the most recent number that is complete. It is believed the registered foal numbers are sharply lower in the last two years.
Anderson, who runs Anderson Farms based in St. Thomas, ON, is also the thoroughbred breeders’ representative on the board of Ontario Racing (OR). He said some big changes are expected to be coming soon for Ontario breeding programs, but it was too early to speak about that in detail at press time. Instead, he stressed the importance of breeder awards and the need for drastic improvement to them.
IDEAS FOR IMPROVING THE THOROUGHBRED BREEDING BUSINESS
“They haven’t changed in quite a few years and I’m a big believer in (enhanced) mare awards rewarded on the results of their foals on the track. I don’t think that we have enough emphasis on that. As the breeders member on the board of OR my goal is to increase those breeders awards for mares by 50 per cent. I think we really need to really need to put an emphasis on that.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to give the breeders a reason, an opportunity, to increase the quality of their mares and the awards have to be significant. It’s not just about paying the feed man or the hay guy, it’s to be able to go out and buy yourself a new mare every year or a couple of mares every year. It’s called the improvement program for a reason. We have to improve the quality of our mares. It’s not the stallions, it’s the mares.”
Arika Everatt-Meeuse, who operates Shannondoe Farm in St. Thomas, ON, said she would like the breeders awards to both breeders of horses that finish first through third racing anywhere in North America.
“If it wins at least an allowance or stake race they should be paid, not just at Woodbine. We all know how often a horse runs at Woodbine. You’re lucky if your horse gets an opportunity to make your breeders award once a month… If it’s a decent horse and it’s making money for somebody, it would be great if you still had the money coming in to the Ontario breeder. If it is an Ontario-bred, you foaled the mare and you raised the mare in Ontario, reward them.
“(Also) they’ve got to pay to third, at least. You’ve got one shot a month for your horse to earn your award and if he runs second you’re like, ‘Oh my god.’ We need to spread the money out to the breeders as much we can and with as much opportunity as we can. So, yes, I’d like to see an increase. I’d like to, definitely, see them paying to third.”
Sherry McLean, who operates Northern Dawn Farm in Hillsburgh, ON said, currently, it’s a vicious cycle.
Horses are needed to fill fields and drive wagering, but many breeders can’t turn a profit breeding horses which forces them to produce fewer horses, which makes it more difficult to run full fields.
“We need some way to get the money back in our breeders’ hands,” McLean said. “How we get our yearlings valued upward, that’s really the big question. They have to have earning potential and that’s where we struggle… We have to figure out how to make horses worth more. You have to improve your stock to do that and you can’t improve your stock if you don’t have money.”
McLean said the solution is more money for breeders, but she understands funds are extremely limited.
BREEDERS AWARDS CRITICAL TO SURVIVAL
As they stand now, breeders awards are critical to keeping farms open, said all three breeders.
“What they do is help pay for feed and help and hay and all those things that we have those continual bills on,” McLean said. “It’s nice to get them. It helps keep you going in the industry. For August and September for me it is great because… that’s the end of my year cycle in August. Yearlings sell, but there’s no cash in yet. Those are the reasons the breeders awards assist. As for helping me buy another horse, no. It costs you too much (to buy stock for breeders awards to help much).”
Anderson said he calls the current breeders awards, “mailbox money. You know we all love to go to the mailbox on the 15th of every month and hopefully pick up a nice cheque and it always goes to paying the feed man or buying a load of hay or the blacksmith.”
Everatt-Meeuse said breeders awards are a “lifeline for so many breeders, because you struggle to make ends meet. The cost to produce our products continues to go up every year.”
She then referenced increased expenses to vet yearlings before they sell due to multiple scopes, x-rays and examinations; an increase in labor costs due to an increase in the minimum wage in Ontario; a taxation system that does not assess horse breeders as farmers in Canada and a bigger gap in the exchange rate for those doing business in the U.S. Meanwhile, prices for yearlings has not kept pace for the vast majority of horses sold.
“We are farmers and horses are our crop,” Everatt-Meeuse said. “Generally, off you go in the fall to sell your product. You’ve got 18 months into them. You’re still carrying a mom and you have another baby, hopefully, on the ground behind, but off you go and you sell your product. The way sales have been it’s very difficult, so you fall back on your hope that this horse goes out and runs now and at least there’s a trickle-in effect of breeders awards maybe the next two, three years — if you’re lucky and the horse stays sound and then you can recoup some money. So, when those breeders awards come in, not just us, but many people use them to give a payment to the feed guy, give a payment to the blacksmith, give a payment to the vet, you know just to limp through to the next sale. So, it is huge and we’re losing a lot of profit on our product because of vetting. They use it to discount the horse.”
Anderson said he shares Everatt-Meeuse’s frustration and hears it from other breeders.
“I know it’s been very frustrating as a breeder in Ontario and they feel let down by the system,” he said, adding that he and others are working hard to improve that system for all.
After all, Everatt-Meeuse said, the breeders are the linchpin to the entire game.
“We are the factory and we are what produces the product that the live handle is made off and if you don’t take the breeders along with you, and we don’t have horses to fill races, then the government’s going to say we can’t fill our races.”
That said, she stressed breeders awards should not be a handout.
“Breeders awards are compensation… for raising a good horse,” Everatt-Meeuse said. “The only way to keep the factory going is to have a backup source of revenue. I don’t think people understand how difficult it is to sell a horse for a profit with the way the business has gone now.
“We want every reason for someone to bring horses in and foal here and produce Ontario-breds.”