Clay Horner is a partner in the Toronto-based law firm Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP and has extensive experience in counseling senior management and Boards of Directors of leading public and private corporations. Last month, he was named Chairman of the Board Of Directors of Woodbine Entertainment Group, having been Vice-Chair since 2006. Horner’s appointment happened as part of a WEG change that also included the announcement that Chairman Jim Lawson will be the new Chief Executive Officer, replacing Nick Eaves, who stepped down earlier this year following 20 years with the company. Horner is a longtime breeder/owner of harness horses and has been represented in seven editions of the North America Cup. This year, his brother, Scott, will be looking to make it to the NA Cup final as one of the owners of the undefeated Split The House. Clay will also be hoping to be represented on the undercard of the NA Cup in the Fan Hanover with Solar Sister, whom he owns with retired WEG Chairman David Willmot. Horner talked to Harness Racing Update about the importance of the NA Cup as a marquee race on the standardbred calendar, promoting some high-profile pacing and trotting races as a series with a bonus, the possibility of the Meadowlands operating a casino and his greatest heartbreaks in racing.
HRU: What does the Pepsi North America Cup mean as far as a significant race on the harness racing calendar?
CH: At WEG, we run our racing business with a real regard for racing and horse people. The value that we present in terms of our staking proposition relative to where standardbred horsemen race anywhere else is just unbelievable. You talk about being able to get into a race for $1 million like the North America Cup – and no other race has a purse that big – relative to the payments you have to make for the Meadowlands Pace, for example, and you realize how valuable the North America Cup is and, importantly, how much track money we put up to sponsor our lead races compared to the amount of track money that gets put up by some of the other tracks. One of the things we look at every year is what is the value proposition of our stakes program relative to value proposition of the staking program run by the competitors, and our value proposition is undeniably the best. The North America Cup starters reflect that value in terms of the breadth of owners, trainers, and geographies represented.
HRU: Are you saying WEG’s harness racing stakes program is better than New Jersey’s, Indiana’s, Pennsylvania’s and New York’s?
CH: There are a lot of very good staking programs and obviously the viability of competitive staking programs has increased over the last several years with the advent of slots money in some of the of those other jurisdictions. That said, the combination of WEG’s general staking program and the value of the Sire Stakes program in Ontario makes Ontario far and away the best jurisdiction in which to race young horses. You can race 12 or 13 open and OSS Gold Stakes at two and never leave home.
HRU: Myron Bell, who wears many hats in the standardbred industry as an owner, breeder and advisor to Brittany Farms, indicated in last week’s HRU that he was working on a plan to create a Triple Crown for both gaits to build up publicity in the harness racing industry in the same way the thoroughbred industry does with its Triple Crown. In his opinion, harness racing’s Triple Crowns have become a “wandering minstrel show.” His concept is to group together the Canadian Trotting Classic, the Hambletonian, Kentucky Futurity and Breeders Crown, and to group five pacing races together: the North America Cup, the Meadowlands Pace, the Little Brown Jug, a new race at the Red Mile and the Breeders Crown. Each race would be worth $1 million and anyone who sweeps all four or five would be entitled to a bonus of at least $1 million. What are your thoughts?
CH: I think it’s a fantastic idea and would be hugely beneficial within limits. It’s not going to compete with the thoroughbred Triple Crown from an allure point of view in terms of history, the people in the industry and the pomp and circumstance, but it would be hugely advantageous. But we have to keep things in perspective. If you look at things, one could not think of a racing phenomenon that has been more important to the standardbred industry than Somebeachsomewhere – a Triple Crown horse in every sense of the word. We got a lot of mileage out of that. It’s interesting to speculate that for all of Somebeachsomewhere’s undeniable greatness would it have been more valuable to the standardbred industry if he was owned by Americans just because of the hype machine and the breadth of that interest? I’m obviously thrilled he was owned by Canadians (headed by trainer Brent McGrath of Nova Scotia) and we got to see him race as much in Canada as we did. It’s pretty difficult to think of a standardbred horse having more of an impact on the industry than Somebeachsomewhere. And if you had a series of $1 million races for Somebeachsomewhere it would be additive. I think Myron’s idea in terms of attracting new ownership is a very important thing. I don’t think we should get carried away with it in terms of how significant a palliative it would be. I’m totally in favor of it. I’m a huge supporter, but within perspective.
HRU: Just so we don’t understand, you’re not saying because Somebeachsomewhere was owned by some people from Nova Scotia, Canada as opposed to some ownership group that could have been from the Catskills it mattered less?
HRU: Not to get Brent’s nose out of joint because he did a phenomenal job with the horse and it was a great story in terms of the ownership group, but that said if you had an ownership group in Chicago that could have attracted greater and broader American interest in the story. Not in a way that would have moved the scale really materially, it’s just Americans are interested in American things. There’s
nothing wrong with that, it’s just fact.
HRU: What are your thoughts about the possibility that the Meadowlands may get a casino if New Jersey State lawmakers agree on an amendment that would allow casino gambling in the state beyond the city limits of Atlantic City? Meadowlands owner Jeff Gural unveiled a prototype for a lavish casino on his property last week with in partnership with the Hard Rock Company. What impact would a casino have on WEG given that when the Meadowlands was in trouble financially, many top horsemen left New Jersey to come to Ontario to take advantage of the healthy purses?
CH: Woodbine benefits hugely by having a very successful Meadowlands. Having multiple, attractive wagering opportunities for our customers is really important. So at WEG we have an interest in the success of the Meadowlands. Jeff’s own comments suggest the deal that would be available in New Jersey would be a good deal, but not one that he says is going to result in a huge expansion in the number of days of racing. One of the huge advantages we have at WEG and one of the huge contributions we make to the sport is having year-round racing with 200-plus racing days with big purses, so people can base an operation here and do very well as horsemen and owners. That said, everything that makes the Meadowlands successful is a good thing and we’re completely supportive of it, and what Jeff has personally done in terms of his support of racing at the Meadowlands and the maintenance of their stakes program without any external gaming support is truly amazing. While at times Jeff editorializes in a way that sometimes he may think better of afterwards, I get extraordinarily irritated with people who go on about being critical of Jeff Gural. What he has done with his own money for the sport is unprecedented in the modern history of the sport.
HRU: So heading into the NA Cup, we have Wiggle It Jiggleit, the star in the winter who still continues to race some amazing miles, and Artspeak, last year’s two-year-old champion who has been brilliant in his return. They are in separate elimination races. If both make it to the final, it will be the first time they’ve faced one another. As a horse fan, are you looking to see how good Wiggle It Jiggleit is against the best of last year’s top two-year-olds?
CH: Oh, yeah, absolutely. It’s a wonderful contrast. It’s the unfashionably-bred horse – the sort of George Teague do it yourself operation – against the big-owner elite partnership model which Myron Bell represents, and that makes for a classic story. It’s always attractive if you have a really good Canadian contender in the North America Cup, but the idea of a contest between two horses that have never met and are totally intriguing in different ways is highly, highly attractive. I can’t think of it ever happening before. We’ve had horses like Artspeak before, but never had a Wiggle It Jiggleit before.
HRU: Would it almost be better if in the long run Wiggle It Jiggleit becomes the more dominant of the two because he is a gelding and could potentially carry the industry on his back for a long time if he’s good enough, whereas Artspeak would be retired to the breeding shed after his four-year-old season?
CH: I think you have to be careful in terms of not getting carried away about the potential for a three-year-old to go on and become dominant as an aged horse. One of the interesting questions is can you race a three-year-old a lot and hope that they will continue to be strong and dominant going forward? George Teague has managed some fantastic horses and you only have to think back to 2004 Horse of the Year Rainbow Blue, who was an unbelievably phenomenal horse. Having stars of longevity is hugely valuable.
HRU: Are you looking forward to seeing Split The House, who is owned by a group that includes your brother, Scott, and will go into the elims undefeated in four career starts, all as a three-year-old? He is in the third elimination race, which includes Artspeak, last year’s Breeders Crown winner Traceur Hanover and Pierce Hanover, who is undefeated in two starts this year after a decent two-year-old campaign winning four of 11 and more than $100,000.
CH: I think it’s really tough proposition. The idea that you could race four times in condition races and go into the North America Cup is historically improbable. Given that I know the history of the horse and the incredible confidence that Scott and trainer James (Friday) Dean have had with him all along that adds to the intrigue. Who knows whether he’s good enough or not? He’s a very, very good horse. It’s tough to win these races if you’re not seasoned. I’ve had seven horses that have raced in the North America Cup, and I think back through to all them and their history. We had one favorite, Mattduff, in 1996, and he didn’t win (finishing fourth by 4¼ lengths after setting the pace and leading into the stretch). Of all the horses we’ve had he probably was the most talented. He was an absolute brilliant prodigy who just got lame two weeks before the North America Cup. He won the Burlington Stakes by four lengths and looked like a couple of million dollars, and lo and behold the next day he had a puss pocket and Stew Firlotte, who trained him, had to manage him through the elimination and the final. It just shows how tough this is.
HRU: Did it break your heart?
CH: I always wanted to win the Little Brown Jug more than the North America Cup as a result of growing up and always hearing about it. The first several North America Cup races in which we had a horse took so much out of me emotionally I would literally lie on the bed all day Sunday and my wife would say, “What are you going to do today?” And I would say, “I’m not going to do anything.” And she’d say, “What do you mean you’re not going to do anything? You didn’t do anything yesterday while you were getting ready for that race.” I’d say, “You have no idea how much this took out of me.” After a while you get better at managing it and apply some perspective. Every one of them had a mark of 1:52 as a two-year-old. Although those seven North America Cups were fantastic, for one reason or another we weren’t good enough. Mattduff didn’t break my heart because I didn’t identify with him. The one that broke my heart was Doonbeg in 2006 (he broke stride at the start after winning his elimination). He was tiny and could fly by anyone in the stretch. It was such an unbelievable and improbable story and to this day I believe with a couple more weeks of training and maybe a couple more starts as a three-year-old he would have won and that would have been fun and exciting. Moreover, just because of what he was as a story it would have been so unbelievable. That was a fantastic year of Ontario-bred colts that included Mr. Feelgood and Mister Big, but Doonbeg showed the heart and desire of a champion, which makes for improbable but lovable champions.
HRU: Did your wife ever say to you, “if it takes that much out of you, why don’t you just get out of it?”
CH: My wife has said that to me a lot of times, but she knows how much I love it and I’ve gotten better over time in dealing with it as well. David Willmot and I have a three-year-old filly, Solar Sister, who is a daughter of world champion Cabrini Hanover and is undefeated in four starts this year (after winning two of 13 last year and more than $200,000). She’s not JK She’salady, but she finished second to her in the eliminations and final of the Three Diamonds. The Fan Hanover is a fantastic race, but what it takes out of you compared to the North America Cup, it’s like one-twentieth the amount.
HRU: JK She’salady became such a huge story last year because she was undefeated last year in 12 starts and is trained by Nancy Johansson, the daughter of Jimmy Takter. Could JK She’salady become to harness racing what Zenyatta became to thoroughbred racing?
CH: See You At Peelers was a phenomenal story as well, winning 22 in a row, but that’s just another example of Jimmy Takter being the best standardbred trainer in the world. But if you asked me what’s a better story Jimmy Takter or Nancy Johansson, well, Nancy Johansson is a different story being a young woman who becomes a star trainer. It resonates beyond the harness racing community. If JK She’salady were to continue to go undefeated as the season goes along, that’ll become a huge, huge story. That will be a Zenyatta type of story with an added twist. Of course, part of the Zenyatta allure is that she went on and raced as an aged performer.