New thoroughbred season at Woodbine, new challenges for horse racing industry

New thoroughbred season at Woodbine, new challenges for horse racing industry

On a brisk April morning, thoroughbred breeder Glenn Sikura found himself in a stall, helping one of his mares give birth.

These days, the birth of a foal in Ontario is to be celebrated. This is the year that a drastic drop in the birth of foals in the province is taking full effect at the racetrack, after the province cancelled the slots-at-racetrack program in 2012.

On Saturday, the thoroughbred season opens at Woodbine Racetrack for a 133-day meet. Opening day always puts a spring in the step of racing industry folk. There is always excitement in the air. But this season, there are challenges.

While 1,155 thoroughbred foals were born in 2012, the number dropped to only 719 in 2014. This season, those foals will get to the races as 2-year-olds. Only 447 of them are registered as Ontario-breds. And it’ll be even worse for next season, with only 566 foals born in the province in 2015.

“The biggest challenge that racing is facing is horse supply for sure,” said Sue Leslie, the head of various racing organizations in Ontario who has been on the frontline to present the industry position to government. “It’s kind of scary, to be frank. The ability for us to maintain 133 days is a challenge because of the horse supply.”

The good news? Purses should be secure for the year, Leslie said, and the industry has forged good relationships with government. In its most recent budget, Ontario extended its subsidies to the industry for another two years to the year 2021 (on top of the original five years), to give breeders a more secure footing in the future. “We cannot turn on a dime,” said Sikura, who has reduced the size of his broodmare band to 13 from 20.

Sikura has had to streamline his operation because he can’t sell the foals for enough money to “have it make sense,” he said.

Last season, the average price for a yearling at the sale dropped to about $22,000. “I can’t raise them for that,” Sikura said. “I can’t own a decent mare, pay my staff, pay a stud fee and sell a foal for $20,000.”

But he’s still in it and a few others have steadfastly been riding the uncertainties. “It’s a resilient group, I tell you. I tip my hat to the people that do this. They are some kind of tough, boy.”

A new wrinkle: Faced with the drop in horse supply, Woodbine has cut $1.4 million in bonuses from a Sires Stake program that paid extra money to Ontario-sired horses winning in open company. Last year the bonus projection was tabbed at $2 million, but because the Ontario-sired horses regularly won open races over U.S. horses, the purse bonus paid was $3.6 milion in 2014 and $4.4 million in 2015, said Woodbine director of racing Steve Lym in a letter to horsemen.  

As a result, Woodbine has also eliminated some races, including some restricted to Ontario-sired horses. This has raised the ire of breeders and horsemen who say the Ontario-bred races, with large 12- to 14-horse fields, attracted more wagering money.

“It’s crucial that we have Ontario breeders,” Leslie said. “We can’t have a good racing program without them. But we can’t have a great racing program without open horses [bred in Kentucky, or Florida or New York], either.”

Woodbine may tweak the program throughout the season.

Most of the wagering dollar that fuels purses comes from off-track, or from American gamblers. Wagering is up, and the U.S.-Canadian exchange rate has helped Woodbine’s bottom line. Still, it is also hurting it: U.S. owners are less inclined to run horses in Canada for purse money that is essentially reduced by 40 per cent through the exchange rate.

Still, all are hopeful. Jim Lawson, chief executive officer of Woodbine Entertainment Group, said it’s vital to bring in new owners into the business. And this year, Woodbine has opened 12 new betting theatres throughout Ontario, bringing the total to more than 60. It plans to open another 17 this season.

It also has laid a new $5-million (U.S.) Tapeta synthetic track to good reviews that promises safety for horses and a consistency that will work in cold weather. The old Polytrack surface used to form into clumps when temperatures dropped.

Fair weather over the past couple of months has produced a fitter horse on the grounds than in years past on opening day.

“We have very thin margins in the racing industry,” Lawson said. “I feel very confident that there’s light at the end of the tunnel in terms of a long-term sustainable business here.”

As for the July 3 Queen's Plate, the traditional high point of the schedule, Shakhimat is the winter book favourite. Here he is winning the Coronation Futurity last fall at Woodbine: