It was quarter horse weekend at Century Downs, highlighted by Friday night’s annual mixed sale and stallion service auction and by four stakes races on the Saturday racing program. If nothing else, the weekend showed that the challenges the industry faces in Alberta aren’t all that different from one breed to another.
Only half of the 24 listed horses sold on Friday evening. Long time horseman, Glenn Wills, got the high price of $7,000 for RJ Fly Bye. He thought the price was fair, although he took two others home when the auction didn’t meet his expectations. One of the reasons the quarter horse community is racing on occasion on the Alberta A-circuit is because of its access to A-level purses, rather than the B-level purses which are awarded at Rocky Mountain Turf Club in Lethbridge and at Evergreen Park in Grande Prairie. There is also the hope that exposure of quarter horse racing to a broader audience would mean more interest among potential participants. But the idea doesn’t seem to be working.
“The sale was an outdoor event on a cold night,” Wills told me. “We didn’t have as much interest as I would have liked. In fact, we didn’t have any new buyers at all. I think we have to re-think this whole idea of racing in Calgary and in Edmonton. We have to truck everything from wherever we’ve been racing for the sake of a couple of big races. We’ve lost a lot of our members over the past few years, and we’re not replacing them.”
Saturday afternoon produced some competitive racing, however, and proved that at least some of the racing stock is talented and capable. The highlight for me was the performance of Bringonthewave which won the Alberta bred Derby in 20.257 seconds over 400 yards. The 3 year old gelding got a beautiful ride from Ramiro Castillo, breaking from post 8 and streaking straight down the middle of the racetrack to the finish line. Blackfalds resident, Dale Zukowski, who owns Bringonthewave, got into quarter horse racing twelve years ago. He knows the ups and downs of the business.
“We raced Bringonthewave in the U.S. a bit during the winter,” he told me. “He finished 11th in qualifying for the Oklahoma Derby and missed the final by .003 of a second. That was hard. But we knew we had a competitive horse. I bought the horse privately because I had had another member of the same family which got hurt and couldn’t race. But I liked the breeding, and this one has certainly turned out well to this point. He was voted Canadian champion last year as a 2 year old. We’ll probably aim for the Canada Cup for his next start and we might go back to the US with him this winter.”
Trainer Jim Doolin conditions Bringonthewave. He also trains Timbersknightryder which posted a mild upset in winning the Alberta bred Futurity for second generation owner, Tony Laczo. Ramiro Castillo rode this one as well. The horse broke from post 9 and streaked to the finish line in 18.078 seconds for the 350 yard distance. He beat out Royale Special and O Kingsley at the wire. Two of the qualifiers, Last Unicorn and Goldin Warrior, which came out of the trials two weeks ago, were well back on the muddy track on Saturday. When a race goes 350 yards, there isn’t much time to correct for a poor start.
“I bought this one out of last year’s sale,” Laczo told me. “I think I paid $2,750 for him. He made about $26,000 today so I’m really pleased.”
Timbersknightryder’s award came out of a Futurity purse of $45,000. Bringonthewave earned about $16,000 out of a total purse of $25,000 for winning the Derby.
Last Wednesday, I took in the CTHS yearling sale at the Megadome in Olds. In the course of an afternoon spent wandering around the auction, I came to the conclusion that while the numbers are bigger, the concerns are the same: not enough buyers, not enough return for breeders on their investment, and not many ideas about how to fix the problem beyond praying that the opening of Century Mile next spring will produce higher revenues for the industry.
Alberta’s sale was hardly the only one that didn’t do as well as some of the breeders had hoped.
“I sold two horses at the Toronto sale and 37% of the horses listed in the catalogue didn’t sell at all,” one friend told me. “In California this fall, 47% of the horses offered for sale, did not sell. Only Keeneland in Kentucky got decent results and that’s because the world comes to Kentucky to buy horses.”
Indeed, Highfield Farms of High River, which has long played the game at an elite level, sold four horses at the Keeneland auction, three of which netted better than $100,000 apiece. Highfield had 13 yearlings in the Alberta sale. Bob and Pam Cramer’s Westana Ranches paid $30,000 for a filly by Congrats and $35,000 for a son of The Factor. Ed Welch of Grande Prairie put his name on a buy ticket for a daughter of Cape Canaveral, paying $20,000 for the privilege.
The one good news story of the day was long time breeders, Ken and Maxine Anderson, who got $53,000 for an O’Prado Again colt, and $67,000 for a Colonel John colt. That one was the sales’ topper. Both youngsters are going to Riversedge Racing Stable, run by Norm Castiglione and Robert Vargo.
“We had given Craig Smith some money to spend for us at a Kentucky sale last fall,” Maxine Anderson told me. “We told him we wanted a graded stakes mare that had earned at least $100,000 and that had won at least one race as a 2 year old. He phoned me the morning of the sale to tell me he had acquired True Addiction for $5,500. She was in foal to Colonel John and this colt was the result. The previous year we had acquired Royal Ride and bred him to our own stallion, O’Prado Again. Royal Ride has had 8 foals which have made the races and all of them have been winners.”
The Andersons have been contributors to the Alberta thoroughbred yearling sale for close to half a century. In the last couple of years though, they have started to sell off mares.
“It’s getting to be time for us to step back,” Maxine told me. “It’s a lot of work for not a lot of return right now and we’re not getting any younger.”
Therein lies another challenge for the thoroughbred community: the fact that owners and breeders in Alberta tend to be older and newer younger blood is not coming into the sport the way it needs to, to keep the business healthy.
Craig Smith is one exception to that trend. He bought one horse for himself and added about ten more for various clients.
“Over the years, trainers have tried to bring together individual owners who maybe are interested in being involved but don’t have the resources to commit to buying expensive horses,” he told me. “I’m no different. I’ll do what I can to put together a partnership so that owners can contribute what they are comfortable spending, even if they are doing it as part of a group. I think that will continue to be an important way both to have good horses to work with, and to bring new people into the sport.”
For the record, 76 yearlings were sold for gross proceeds of $755,500. That produced an average of $9,443 per head which was down about $800 per animal from last year. The median price slid from $7,000 in 2017 to $4,100 in 2018. Sometimes it doesn’t take more than two or three bigger buyers to absent themselves from the sale as was the case this year. And it’s not just what those buyers might have taken home. It’s the fact that they invariably bid on more horses than they actually acquire, thereby driving up the prices.
It would seem, then, that fueling the industry with more dollars is going to be one of the keys to both its growth, and its survival. A new business model for the Alberta industry will evolve over the next 15 months as Century Mile opens in Leduc and the industry takes stock of how this new facility is received by the public. Clearly, each breed will need to take stock of its own contributions to that growth and what it needs to keep itself viable, going forward.
From the driver’s seat…
Best of luck to Kelly Hoerdt and to Jamie Gray who will represent the west regional at the national driver’s championship at Grand River Raceway in Elora, Ontario on Wednesday. Eight of the top drivers in Canada will compete in the national final. The winner goes to Sweden next year for the world championship. The challenge got a little stiffer this past week when Doug McNair was named to replace Louis Phillipe-Roy. Roy pulled out because the national conflicts with several driving assignments he also has on his agenda on Tuesday evening. McNair, who finished third in the Ontario regional, makes his first appearance in the nationals.
Meanwhile, harness racing secretary, Jackson Wittup, of Century Downs and his assistant, Raeann Gemmell, will be in charge of assembling the condition sheet and race cards for Fraser Downs in Langley BC, at least for now. Fraser Downs opened its new season last Thursday evening. Darren Callaghan, who was serving in a variety of roles at Fraser, has been hired by Century and started work in Balzac last week. Wittup, who worked at Fraser for a number of years following the closure of racing at Stampede Park, is familiar with the track and with the horsemen and the horse population in BC. Several competitors who are at Fraser for the winter, competed on the Alberta circuit this summer.
The idea is not new. Racing secretaries at Mohawk Raceway in Campbellville, Ontario, also write the races for Rideau-Carleton in Ottawa. It’s not clear how long the Century-Fraser experiment will last, but it is hardly the first time it has happened. Checking eligibility of horses and being aware of any differences in the rules between the jurisdictions would seem to be the major challenge, but both Jackson and Raeann have had long experience in the industry in this regard.
All the best to harness horsemen Keith and Bill Clark who have been hospitalized recently but who are on the mend… and the thoroughbred community lost a good man with the recent passing of Jim Thomson. The long time owner and breeder was a fixture at Stampede Park over the years with his wife, Donna, who survives. Jim served in a number of capacities with the CTHS in Alberta, including a term as President. Jim was 92.