In July, Daniel Ross penned an article for Thoroughbred Racing Commentary entitled ‘David vs Goliath: the growing divide between small and large U.S. stables’ which highlighted declines in purse earnings and number of trainers nationwide as well as a growing divide between the ‘super trainer’ and the smaller outfits.
Canadian Thoroughbred decided to crunch the numbers on the Canadian racing game to see if the numbers held true north of the border and spoke to Western Canada based trainer Greg Tracy, who oversees a stable of nearly 100 horses, and Ontario-based conditioner Steven Chircop, who manages a stable of 10 or less, on how the game has changed in the past 10 years.
The number of trainers across Canada with at least one start has decreased from 965 in 2007 to 696 a year ago — a drop of 27.9 per cent — while the number of trainers with more than 40 starters has decreased from 33 to 20 — a decrease of 17.5 per cent — in the same timeframe.
The 55-year-old Tracy, leading trainer at Northlands Park from 2014 through 2016 and currently leading the way once again at the Edmonton oval, is something of an anomaly.
“My numbers have probably gotten stronger,” said the veteran conditioner who got his start south of the border in Montana. “I showed up here with American clients and then started picking up Canadian clients. It’s been on an incline for me and we’ve been lucky to do well and have people want to go with us.”
Tracy has surpassed the $1 million mark in earnings the past five years and looks well on his way to another seven-figure season. However, he recognizes the decline in fellow trainers and attributes some of that attrition to a lack of horses.
“There’s not a lot of people where I am that travel to the places I go to get horses. I don’t know if people used to go more and just haven’t lately, but I go down to Kentucky and to the sales and bring horses back,” said Tracy. “I’m not sure if it’s the dollar that’s keeping people from going but horses are harder to find. I used to go to California to Golden Gate to find horses that I could bring back to Vancouver. There used to be lots and lots of horses for sale but now California has a horse shortage so not many horses work their way north. I’ve had to go further south to Fair Grounds (in Louisiana) and other places to find horses.”
Chircop, a 33-year-old native of Brampton, ON, has worked hard to make a name for himself in Ontario racing by claiming horses with an eye to improving their form.
“Being a smaller outfit, I have to put in a lot of my own money and invest in myself to try and get others to believe in me,” said Chircop. “The majority of the horses I train, I own a part of them. I depend on them to make a living. The income I have coming in (on a day rate) basically just covers the costs.”
Currently overseeing a stable of 10, Chircop arrived at Woodbine in March with a barebones string of starters.
“I’d lost a lot of horses at Penn National so I started out with just three horses. I was essentially the groom and the hot walker. My dad, recently retired, came in to help me out,” said Chircop. “I take my horses away for the winter and I’m aggressive with them and try to win as much money as I can and get them claimed so I can try to upgrade my stock.
“I go to Gulfstream in Florida to try and claim stock back. But other people have the same idea and sometimes you don’t come home with as many as you would have liked and come back to Woodbine behind the 8-ball.”
Despite the difference in experience and the size of their stables, both Chircop and Tracy land on the same main issue.
“There’s not as many horses out there, so people protect them more because it’s hard to replace them,” said Chircop. “Unfortunately there’s not as many new owners coming into the business so it makes it hard to compete against the big outfits.”
COST OF DOING BUSINESS
For Tracy, managing his abundant stock is paramount to his success as a trainer and businessman. He’s currently looking after 70 head of horses, down from 110 at the start of the year due to turn out, injury, claims and horses that just didn’t work out that had to be sold.
“If I don’t sell them and the horse gets turned out, there’s three months of turn out and another three months of boarding and getting back in shape, and the owner will have $70,000 into that horse that you probably can’t get back,” said Tracy. “So, anything worth less than $10,000 we try to sell privately because it doesn’t make sense to keep them through the winter, board them and get them back in shape. It’s easier to claim horses at the Fair Grounds in the spring and not have to board them and get them fit to run.”
Win or lose, horses have to eat and train and with purse money across Canada in decline from $132,839,406 in 2007 to $98,039,649 in 2016 (down 26%), making ends meet is more difficult.
“When I first came to Alberta, the hay and straw was so cheap, but so much of it is making its way to the U.S. now. It’s still great quality, but it’s not cheap like it used to be. I used to buy hay for $3/bale and now it’s $8-10/bale (2000 compared to 2017),” said Tracy.
Tracy, who employs 20-25 staff at any given time, tries to build some of the day-to-day costs into his day rate but the math rarely works out.
“I try to make $10 per horse when I train. I figure out the groom, the gallop and feed and then make $10 per horse and that takes care of your truck payment and some of that stuff,” said Tracy. “But on top of that, you have to win. You get 10 per cent of the winnings and that’s how you make your money.”
Once again, both trainers are on the same page when it comes to the cost of doing business.
“The price of hay and straw has jumped dramatically,” agreed Chircop. “But when you have owners and staff who have stuck with you, for my current clients I ate that cost. For the day rate, I’m not making money off it, that’s just covering the basics and that’s why I do a lot of the work myself.
“When you’re in a barn of 45 horses, they rely on their staff as the eyes and ears. I’m my own eyes and ears taking them out each and every day. Help in Canada is much more expensive than in the U.S. A groom having to choose to work with me or with a bigger barn… you lose that help to bigger guys where the groom can make a better commission.”
Chircop also noted he has lost some owners to other trainers on the backstretch offering reduced rates. He feels his chances to succeed are often squashed by the larger outfits.
“When you have 40 or 50 horses, you’ll have two or three horses available for the same condition and trainers don’t want to run against each other so they end up holding up horses that could be helping the smaller guys have races go,” said Chircop. “When the race doesn’t go for $12,500, the little guy ends up having to run their horse in for $20,000.”
As of Aug. 27, the top 10 trainers have won 262 of the 637 races run at Woodbine for an impressive 39 per cent strike rate.
Unable to compete on numbers, Chircop is relying on horsemanship.
“I’m trying to compete with horses that might have fallen through the cracks and I’m trying to rejuvenate them back to what they were,” said Chircop who was able to take Kara’s Orientation from a $20,000 claimer to a graded stakes winner back in 2011.
“Kara’s Orientation was a bad gate horse. The day I claimed him, the claim almost got voided because he got stuck in the gate,” said Chircop. “I was able to spend a lot of time with him. I only had two horses, so I took him to the gate every day and worked with the gate crew. It’s time consuming to go there and wait your turn, but I believe that sorting him out at the gate is what made him as good as he was.”
For Tracy, the key metric is purse money.
“You have to have the purses in order to make it pay for the owners to have horses,” he said. “In Alberta, we’re losing days and there’s so much downtime in the winter. In Vancouver, they’re running two days a week and then they’re off for six months. It costs a lot to keep the horses through six months of boarding and down time.
“Some get in it for a hobby but when you have lots of horses that turns into a business and it’s an expensive game. Once people start losing too much money they get out. Owners need to be in a spot to make money or at least pay their way.”
LOVE OF THE GAME
Despite the notable decline, both conditioners still enjoy their chosen profession.
“The upside is that you’re your own boss and you get to work at the racetrack with horses. When I do well, I win. When you have a bad run you wonder, ‘Why am I doing this?’” Tracy said, laughing. “I enjoy being able to buy horses and that hope you’ll always have of the next big horse. Every time they go in the gate, that high… that excitement, whether they win or not it’s hard to do something different after you’ve done this.”
The veteran trainer offers the following advice to his younger colleagues.
“My first 25 years of training, I spent all my time looking for clients. Now I’m in the position where I spend my time looking for horses,” he says. “When you’re young, all you’re worried about is finding clients and they try to get you on deals and you’re starved out doing it. It was harder back then trying to operate on less funds and trying to make a name. Once you get over the hump and start winning, then it gets a little easier.”
Chircop said he will continue to look for value in the claiming market as he attempts to build his name and his stock.
“I won the yearling sales stakes with Medidocihospisurg (2011 Elgin Stakes), a former sale topper I claimed for $16,000 and I’m trying to do it again in the Elgin tomorrow with Star Contender,” said Chircop. Star Contender finished third in the Elgin, which was contested on Aug. 30, after Chircop was interviewed. “He was an $80,000 purchase and was a good two and three-year-old for Mark Casse but was running now, at seven, in the claiming ranks in Florida. I followed the horse and was able to claim him.”
It’s an uphill battle, but it’s one the hard-working Chircop is poised to make.
“Lack of horses. Lack of owners. And guys trying to train for a smaller day rate just to have horses,” said Chircop. “It’s tough when the new owners coming into the business are being pushed towards the top 10 trainers. But, I love what I do.”