Influx of New Stallions and birth of Century Mile lead to optimism
On the racing front, the opening of two new tracks, Century Downs and last year Century Mile, has no doubt contributed to signs of improvement as Thoroughbred purses, races and starters saw small increases from 2018. While the $6,791,197 in purses given out in 2019 is a far cry from $16 million in 2004 and 2007 (many more race dates) and $9.7 million in 2012, there was positive movement in 2019.
Purses were up from $6.4 million in 2018 with the number of starters up to 1,002 from 967 and races up to 700 from 659 from 2018 markers.
However, as with most tracks in North America, field size continues to be the battle for Alberta racing.
“With only 6.8 starters a race at Century Mile in 2019, we are definitely looking for improvement,” said Paul Ryneveld, managing director of racing for Century Casinos which also includes Century Downs. “Century Downs by comparison has been 7.4-7.5 the past two years.”
Ryneveld outlined some strategies his team has been pursuing early in 2020.
“We sent racing secretary Rob MacLennan on a recruiting trip with moderate success. We will have to see if anybody new actually shows up.”
Ryneveld also opened the Century Mile barn area earlier in 2020 as construction had been completed. “We met with the HBPA to develop more concise conditions instead of splitting up similar level horses. Finally, the stall allocation based on performance from 2019 (minimum of one start-per-stall-per-month) is going forward.”
A shortage of broodmares is a common theme in thoroughbred breeding across Canada and in Alberta in 2019 the number of mares bred dropped to below 200 after four consecutive years of that number being over 300.
It is almost hard to believe that in 2005 there were almost 1,000 mares bred to 94 stallions, while in 2019, 25 stallions bred 196 mares (as of Feb. 3, 2020).
The Jockey Club’s reported foal crop number for 2018 of 251 was actually an increase over 2016 and 2017 but from the aforementioned report of 2019 mares bred, that number is likely to be lower for 2020.
However, the breeding industry in Alberta will be spurred on by the opening of the one-mile dirt track Century Mile and that is already evident from the arrival of five new stallions to the province for 2020 including the millionaire Dynamic Sky (by Sky Mesa) and Canadian classic winner Coltimus Prime (Milwaukee Brew).
Horse Racing Alberta’s Breeding Support Program issued over $400,000 to breeders of Alberta-breds placing in various sanctioned races in 2019, an incentive that can continue to help boost the mare numbers in the province.
Stability from a new five-year lease extension plus a five-year option announced early in 2020 between Hastings Racecourse and the City of Vancouver has the potential to allow the racing and breeding industry in British Columbia to gain sustainability.
The number of mares bred in B.C. has held steady in the last few years according to the Jockey Club statistics. In 2019, there were 184 mares bred to 15 stallions, compared to 192 mares bred bred to 18 stallions in 2018. In 2017 the number of mares bred was lower than these two figures at 181.
The resulting foal crops, however, have been in decline for more than a decade with 125 foals registered from the 2018 crop dropping from 157 in 2018.
Similar to the Alberta profile, the number of races, amount of purses and number of starters showed small increases in 2019. Total purses of $6.6 million offered in 2019 was higher than the 2018 total of $6.4 million and 566 starters competed in 389 races. In fact, the B.C. average field size of 7.0, while still low, is among the largest it has had since 2012.
There have been several initiatives in the BC industry that have been put in place to bolster the breeding sector as well as attracting new owners and fans.
In 2020, a new BC-bred bonus series was announced by the BC CTHS. President Grant Watson announced the CTHS-BC will be sponsoring an 18-race Maiden Special Weight series over the season with a $10,000 bonus in each race for BC-breds finishing in the top three. The bonus money will be allocated with 63 per cent for first place, 25 per cent for second and 12 per cent for third with a 50-50 split between the breeder and owner.
“We felt these bonuses are very important to both British Columbia breeders and owners,” Watson said. “It is vital that owners and potential owners of BC-bred horses know that the BC breeders appreciate their support.”
For the second consecutive year, the Hole in the Wall Gang and Glenn Todd’s North American Thoroughbred Horse Company will offer young horses purchased last year in the US for sale at the CTHS Horses of Racing Age auction March 14.
A shipping incentive program is in place for 2020 at Assiniboia Downs that will aim to increase the horse population at the Winnipeg track. Shippers will receive either $250 or $600 for making one start at Assiniboia with the amount determined by where the horse is brought in from.
Average field size of 6.5 in 2019 was one of the lowest in the country and down from 7.0 in 2018. The track had 516 starters last year compared to 584 the year before in 350 races, racing for $3.1 million in purses.
Field size has been affected by the numbers of mares bred in the province the last two years, 66, with a registered foal crop in 2018 of 55.
The good news in 2019 was that Manitoba-breds made a bit more in purses as 110 starters earned at average of $16,213, the highest amount recorded by the Jockey Club for Manitoba dating back to 2000.
The CTHS Manitoba-bred Incentive Program has helped horses born in the province earn bonuses for finishing in the top three in various races and there is a schedule of Manitoba Incentive Program Sponsored Stake races. The program also offers breeder and stallion awards.
The CTHS Manitoba yearling sale saw an increase in horses sold, jumping up to 24, the highest in five years. The average yearling price, however, declined for the third straight year to $3,243, the lowest number since the year 2000.
A government report commissioned in 2018 deemed the horse racing industry to have a strong economic impact on the province, leading to the Manitoba government stepping in early in 2019 to provide the industry with some $22 million in funding over three years.
With the number of mares bred in Ontario dipping to its lowest ever in 2019 at just under 600 and Woodbine and Fort Erie racetracks both dealing with field size issues, the Ontario breeding and racing industry is in a critical state.
In 2019, 589 mares were bred to 34 stallions, also a new low number, which will certainly lead to a skimpy horse population in the coming years.
Ontario Racing announced late in 2019 the continuation of the Mare Purchase Program as well as the new Mare Recruitment Program, incentives which offered bonuses to those who buy mares at certain US sales and bring them to Ontario to foal. The programs, which closed in early Feb. were deemed successful, resulting in over 120 mares arriving in Ontario with more than half pledged to be bred back to Ontario sires.
Live foal crop numbers have declined over the last three years in Ontario. In 2017, 878 foals were registered, while 826 were recorded in 2018, according to The Jockey Club. Speculative 2019 Ontario foal crop numbers are showing a continued drop in the overall registered foal figures.
“Seeing this decline in the Ontario registered foal numbers, our TIP committee needed to look at material solutions to address these challenges,” said John Hayes, Independent Chair of Ontario Racing. “Those discussions spurred the development and the promotion of the Mare Purchase and Mare Recruitment programs. These initiatives signalled to the racing community that we were trying to invest and grow this business.”
It is the hope that more mares in the province will eventually help field size but lead to a better local yearling sale. The average yearling price at the Canadian Premier sale hosted by the CTHS Ontario was up in 2019 to over $21,000 but not high enough to keep many breeders in the business.
According to the Ontario Fact Book from the Jockey Club, the earning power of Ontario-breds is holding steady.
In 2019, 1,988 starters earned over $62 million for an average of $31,229, up from 2018 and the second highest amount in 20 years.