Ontario on the Brink of a Revival?

A new $2 million owner bonus and a deal that could provide nearly $2.2 billion in funding from the provincial government over the next 22 years have breeders and consignors optimistic that Sunday’s Forest City Yearling Sale will post strong numbers.

by Dave Briggs

Ontario’s horse racing industry appears to be on the brink of a revival and Ann Straatman said the timing could not be better with the Forest City Yearling Sale set for Sunday afternoon (Oct. 23) at Western Fair’s Metroland Media Agriplex in London, ON.

Straatman, the sale manager — and also one of the principals at her family’s Seelster Farms in Lucan, ON that will sell some 40 of the 138 yearlings — said Thursday she is cautiously optimistic the sale would exceed the strong numbers it posted a year ago for three main reasons:

1. Confirmation this week from Ontario Racing that details are being finalized on a proposal that could provide nearly $100 million in annual funding from the provincial government to Ontario’s horse racing industry through at least the next 12 years and possibly an additional 10 years to bring the total deal – counting the current $700 million, seven-year deal that expires in 2021 — to some $2.2 billion over 22 years.

2. A new owner bonus with a total pool of $2 million for owners of Ontario Sired and/or Ontario Bred horses that begins in 2017 for qualified horses that race in the province.

3. A supply shortage of Ontario Sired horses – due to lower numbers being bred in the wake of the cancellation of the Slots At Racetracks Program (SARP) in 2013 — that should drive demand.

Straatman said a record Lexington Selected Yearling Sale is also a positive sign for this year’s Forest City Yearling Sale.

“I would I’m cautiously optimistic given the success of the Lexington sale and reports from a lot of the Ontario buyers that they were not able to get (an Ontario Sired yearling), or one that they wanted in particular there. There’s a lot of people still shopping, so we’re pretty excited,” she said.

“I think the new owner bonus gives something more and rewards those that purchase Ontario Sired, Ontario Bred. The long-term commitment from government would create some stability in the industry where people can feel confident making this purchases knowing that there is going to be a program going forward, not that year-to-year uncertainty. We were wondering what was going to happen after the (current) five-year deal (ends in 2021) and now with some plan for the future, we can all plan for the future.”

Stonebridge Farms in Arva, ON will sell eight yearlings at the sale. The farm is operated by Angie Stiller and owned by Stiller and her husband, Dr. Cal Stiller. He said both the owner bonus and the extension of provincial funding, “are positive things. The question is, has that penetrated? Have the buyers really understood that we’re into a stable situation in Ontario?… When that settles in, I think that will really have a significant effect. But I suspect that’s going to be next year,” Stiller said. “The issue of the extra $2 million, I don’t think people understand it.”

He said the owner bonus would be easier to understand if there was a concrete example of how much bonus money a horse owner might be able to collect, but that’s difficult because the payouts are determined by how many total horses make the races and qualify to be in the bonus pool.

Stiller, who is well connected provincially, said he has high confidence in the stability of the industry in Ontario because he knows the people under current premier Kathleen Wynne involved with trying to correct the damage caused when SARP was canceled by her predecessor and fellow Liberal Dalton McGuinty.

“This premier said, ‘Correct it. Correct it right and don’t put a Band-Aid on it. Sew up the wound and let’s get on with things.’ I had full confidence in the people involved. So, to some extent, none of this is a surprise to me,” Stiller said of Ontario’s revival. “What amazes me is how much skepticism remains out there. People have felt the pain and, for some, the permanent disruption of what happened with SARP and what was, I thought, the inept attempt to try and correct it to begin with. So, people have this huge skepticism with respect to government… Until it’s signed and people know that it’s a permanent program, I suspect some will continue to discount whatever is said. But, you know, we’ve got a program in Ontario that is arguably the best in North America — both for the breeder and for the buyer. My hope would be that they would come to this sale and be full of optimism.”

Winbak Farms will sell some 50 yearlings Sunday at the Forest City Sale. Winbak owner Joe Thomson said Thursday, “this business is one of confidence” and the new bonus program for owners, as well as the proposed long-term extension in funding, should help instill confidence.

“As far as breeders are concerned it’s not what we’re going to do this year or next year, you’re trying to think about what we’re going to do three years from now. So, I think putting that program together has helped put a bit of confidence in everybody — owners and breeders alike. It showed a lot of strength this year,” Thomson said.

Straatman said one of the prime selling points in Ontario is the strength of the Ontario Sires Stakes (OSS) program.

“I think the Ontario Sires Stakes program is one of the strongest in North America. It’s very consistent with two levels — good purses at the Grassroots level and great purses at the Gold level. It’s very competitive, as we saw at the Super Finals last weekend. I think it’s a great place to be and a great place to have an Ontario Sired horse, said Straatman.

Thomson said he’s such a strong believer in the OSS program that he continued to breed horses in Ontario even after the lucrative SARP program collapsed.

“What is that deal about the squirrel? Even a blind squirrel finds a acorn every once in awhile. Dumb luck is better than being brilliant any time,” Thomson said, laughing. “But I’m optimistic about it paying off.

“Since we’ve had a farm (in Ontario) we’ve always been a big supporter of the Ontario program.”

Winbak Canada currently stands 10 stallions on the site of the former Armstrong Bros. farm in Inglewood, ON.

Thomson said considerable credit needs to go to those in Ontario that fought hard after SARP ended to convince the government of the jobs and economic benefits of the province’s horse racing industry.

“I think those people that put that program together (in Ontario) and have been fighting for it, it just shows you that you can’t give up. You have to continually fight the good fight and, sooner or later, the good guys win and you’re able to convince the Ontario government that agriculture and horses being part of agriculture is certainly an important piece of what goes on in the province of Ontario.”

Consignors are hoping Sunday’s sale may be an early indication that hard work is starting to pay off.