Ten years ago, during a boom in Alberta horse racing, Adrian Munro started Highfield Stock Farm in Okotoks, south of Calgary, on a beautiful piece of property that includes stellar views of the Canadian Rockies and nearly 3 kms of frontage on the Highview River. Little did he know the rug would be pulled out just two years later when racing ceased at Stampede Park in Calgary and the proponents of a new track in nearly Balzac failed to get the project off the ground.
Munro said the lack of a track in southern Alberta was devastating to the racing industry, but the third generation horseman wasn’t about to abandon his dream.
“Our family has been in the racehorse business in Alberta a long time,” Munro said. “My grandfather owned horses and my dad has always been involved in it since I was a kid. He’s had horses my entire life.”
A decade later, Munro’s patience and investment in Highfield Stock Farm is paying off. The farm was voted the Breeder of the Year in Alberta in 2010 and 2013, was the leading consignor at the 2014 Alberta Thoroughbred Sale and is the breeder of Capitalism, the 2014 Champion Two-Year-Old Colt in Alberta. Even better, Century Downs — with considerable help from Highfield and Munro’s father, David — is finally open to restore the north-south circuit with Edmonton’s Northlands Park that made the industry a success in the 2000s.
“It’s very exciting. My dad was on the board of directors of United Horsemen of Alberta (that helped build Century Downs). He acted as president. I’ve been involved in it. Highfield helped them come out of creditor protection in 2010 and were able to keep them alive. So, it was very rewarding after years and years of struggle to see Dwight McLellan’s vision come to fruition and see a track in southern Alberta,” Adrian said.
“I think it’s extremely critical to Alberta racing to have that southern Alberta track operating. We isolated a large portion of the province only having racing in northern Alberta. Hopefully, we can re-energize the ownership groups here in southern Alberta and get them back involved in racing.”
Extension Of Slot Deal
Adrian, the president of the Alberta division of the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society (CTHS) and the national vice-president of the CTHS, is naturally bullish on racing in the province despite a major hurdle to come.
“Our slot program expires in March of 2016,” Adrian said. “Probably the biggest and most critical issue we have in the industry is needing an extension of that slot agreement for another five to 10 years. We’re working on it. We’re optimistic we will be able to see that amendment and get it passed by the house here. Alberta racing is one of the strongest programs in western Canada, for sure. For example, with our breed improvement programs for Alberta-breds, the owner of an Alberta-bred that gets above certain levels, gets a 37 per cent bonus. Our breeder programs here in Alberta get 30 per cent on top of that for an Alberta-bred and we have a lucrative stallion bonus.”
Complicating an extension of the slot deal is the fact Alberta has an NDP government after 44 years of Progressive Conservative rule.
“(The NDP) probably have a new policy direction that we aren’t used to. So, there is a concern that it won’t get through, but horse racing, as you know, employs a tremendous amount of people. There’s probably 20,000 people indirectly or directly affected by this industry in Alberta. So, we’re very hopeful and our negotiations and conversations with the new government have been somewhat positive to date,” Adrian said. “At the end of the day, we do provide a lot of jobs to Alberta. So, hopefully, we’ll be able to convince them to amend the agreements so we can continue with our momentum, especially after the devastation of ’07 with the track closing in southern Alberta. Now that we have two tracks, just give us an opportunity and we can grow the industry again.”
Good Mares, Good People
Highfield Stock Farm began with a commitment to acquiring good mares and good people.
“My dad has a very good eye for mares that he, hopefully, has passed on to me a little bit,” Adrian said. “One of the first things he did was he hired one of the best farm managers in western Canada in horses in Cal Britton. Cal’s been with us for all 10 years of the operation and has been a big part of our success.”
Jennifer Buck, the farm’s equine manager, said the 125-acre property has anywhere between 45 and 65 horses at any given time.
“We get busier when we have horses coming back from the track and getting laid up. We do a lot of rehab,” Buck said. “We have two standing stallions. Right now, we have our own Cape Canaveral, and we’re standing Mast Tack. This is the first year we’ve completed with Mast Tack. He’s an Adena stallion. The last two years we’ve had Wilko here from Adena. So, the idea is to spread them out and then as they start to get progeny known, then we send them back and trade in for another one.”
Adrian said the partnership with Adena was crucial for showing the Alberta breeding industry wasn’t dead, despite a decrease in the number of foals born.
“The deal came along at the right time,” Adrian said. “It was just an opportunity to be part of the right group that has national and North American prominence and show there was confidence in Alberta racing.”
Highfield Stock Farm also owns a large percentage of the stallion Exhi that stands in Ontario at Park Stud in Orangeville.
“He’s really exciting for us,” Buck said. “He’s not getting a lot of coverage in Ontario, but we’re hoping his yearlings will be popular. We had the top-selling yearling (at the Alberta Thoroughbred Sale) last year at $49,000 out of a mare of ours, Lemon Drop Martini. This year, we have a colt out of a mare of ours, Fabulous Brush, by Exhi. We’re excited about him. We’re really excited about the Exhi yearlings that we have.”
Buck said Highfield Stock Farm foaled 20 mares this year and will sell nine or 10 of its own yearlings at this year’s Alberta sale, as well as a handful of others for select clients.
“People are always asking us to prep,” Buck said. “We’re lower on our numbers for our yearlings, so we’ve accepted a few extras this year. So, we’ll have about 15 yearlings in total.”
Adrian said the farm currently has 13 broodmares in Alberta that shuttle between that province and Ontario, as well as two others currently in Kentucky.
“It is a very comfortable number,” he said. “What we want to do is we want to maintain the quality of our broodmare band. At one point in 2008 we were up to 27 mares. It just wasn’t working for us to maintain the quality of the commercial product going to the sale every year. We’re better off moving some of our mares on and continuing to turn our mares over so we’re continuing to produce the quality that we want to when we go to the sale.”
Apart from the mountain vistas and the Highview River that runs through the property, Buck said the farm has massive elm trees standing sentinel all along the roads coming into and around the farm that are, “just stunning.”
“We have a huge landscape crew that are just amazing at how they keep everything looking like it’s a thoroughbred farm golf course.”
Adrian, who is also the chief operating officer of the Highfield Investment Group, said, “we fall in love with pieces of land and it’s one of the pieces of land that we’ve fallen in love with… We have almost 1,000 acres there.
“The building itself on the main farm on the 125 acres is second to none. It was built in the 1980s by Bob Elliott and funded by the Alberta government. The infrastructure that he put in place is phenomenal — from the irrigation system to the potable water system to the paved roads throughout. The quality of his turn-out sheds and his barns is impeccable. It’s just a magnificent piece of property and just a beautiful location and an idyllic setting.
“I’m fortunate enough to live on the property itself.”