Sire Stakes blossom in the Garden State

by Debbie Little

It takes time for things to grow, but perhaps you have an edge when you’re doing it in the Garden State.

Tonight (June 2) at The Meadowlands there are two New Jersey Sire Stakes (NJSS) finals with full 10-horse fields of 3-year-old male and female trotters each with a purse of $240,000, the same amount their pacing counterparts raced for a week ago.

Quite the turnaround when you consider the disarray that the program was in less than 10 years ago.

This rebound did not come overnight and, indeed, took a village, or at least an administration, to get it done, according to Mike Gulotta, chairman of the NJSS board of trustees.

“It’s growing rather quickly thanks to the governor [of New Jersey, Phil Murphy] and the senate president [Nicholas Scutari] and the legislators and the speaker of the assembly [Craig Coughlin],” Gulotta said.

According to Gulotta — chief executive officer of Deo Volente Farms in Flemington, NJ — the statistics in what he refers to as the “one pager,” put together by Al Ochsner, executive administrator for the Standardbred Breeders & Owners Association of New Jersey (SBOANJ), is all you need to see to know how well things are going.

Ochsner’s document states: “New Jersey Sire Stakes purses rose to almost $2.8 million in 2021. Interest in these programs is evident in the huge increase in the number of yearlings bred to New Jersey stallions who are eligible to these programs. In 2016, there were 38 yearlings nominated to the NJ Sire Stakes program. In 2021, that number soared to 605.

“In 2016, there were 1,164 total horses residing in New Jersey broodmare facilities. 209 broodmares were bred to the state’s five stallions. In 2021, these totals grew to 1,800 horses, with 727 broodmares bred. Resident stallions more than doubled to 13, and included some of the top stallions in the country.”

Numbers for 2022 are not yet available and it should be noted that the information in Ochsner’s document is based upon a report commissioned by the Standardbred Breeders and Owners of New Jersey, The New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, Meadowlands Racing and Entertainment, Freehold Raceway, Monmouth Park, and the New Jersey Sire Stakes program, who commissioned Econsult Solutions, Inc. to produce the report.

With many lucrative sire stakes programs across North America, how does a program on the rebound compete? Easy. With top notch stallions and good purses.

The stallions that currently stand in New Jersey read like a who’s who of champions on the track, and in most cases, the breeding shed.

“We’ve got four world-class stallions who breed a full book every year, because they’re the best stallions in the world,” said Mike Klau, syndicate manager for Southwind Farms in Pennington, NJ. “Muscle Hill’s been the dominant horse over the last 10 years. And now we have Walner, who looks like he’s going to dominate. Tactical Landing’s an up-and-coming sire with his first crop of 3-year-olds this year. He’s got really nice 3-year-olds and a very good crop of 2-year-olds coming up.”

Just like Gulotta, Klau wears multiple hats in New Jersey and is also chairman of the SBOANJ Breeders Committee.

Ecurie D DK is Klau’s newest recruit to his top team of trotting stallions.

“We added Ecurie D and that to me was a surprise addition because, we didn’t go out and pitch them, they came to us,” Klau said. “They wanted to stand the horse in New Jersey.”

Klau said that people have asked him why would a top trotting stallion want to come to New Jersey that already has Muscle Hill, Walner, Tactical Landing and Six Pack?

“The owners of the [Ecurie D] were adamant about standing the horse in New Jersey,” Klau said. “The Meadowlands remains the key to the state. People want to race at The Meadowlands. It’s the showcase. The handle is up; entries are up. People want to race on a mile track. And talking about the owners of Ecurie D, these are European owners and The Meadowlands is king to the Europeans.

Klau also pointed out that just because Southwind currently doesn’t have one, he’s not opposed to the right pacer joining their ranks.

“If somebody wants to bring another world-class pacer to New Jersey and they want to go to Southwind, we’d be happy to have them,” Klau said.

Klau also said that in addition to Deo Volente and Southwind, Walnridge Farm in Cream Ridge, NJ has a couple of stallions standing this year: Southwind Ozzi and Alrajah One IT. Southwind Ozzi is currently racing while Alrajah One IT is expected to return to the track at some point this season.

“Walnridge has been the place, and this is a testament to Dr. [Richard] Meirs [president/general manager at Walnridge], where people stand horses and race them,” said Klau. “Bettor’s Wish was there. Father Patrick was there.

“So, they do a great job with those horses where they can go back and forth from training to breeding. That’s kind of been their niche.”

Whereas the trotting side of the breeding ledger is strong, the pacing side has room to grow. The presence of Lazarus N resurrected New Jersey’s pacing program, but attracting more would be good for the future.

“We need more [pacing] stallions, there’s no question about it,” Klau said. “Lazarus was the first major pacing horse to come and then Perfect Sting followed. [Perfect Sting’s first crop is due to hit the track in 2025].

“One of the key things for New Jersey is how it fits in with the Kentucky program, because a lot of these horses, including the trotters, especially the Walners, Tactical Landings and Muscle Hills, are dual eligible. So, they’ll start their careers in New Jersey and then when The Meadowlands meet closes in August, it shifts down to the Red Mile. So that has been a great tie-in between New Jersey and Kentucky.”

Much of New Jersey’s renaissance can be tied to the 2019 passage of a bill which resulted in an appropriation of $20 million, divided evenly between thoroughbred racing and standardbred racing, for five fiscal years to aid purse accounts.

Those five years are up in 2023. However, according to Gulotta, who met with Gov. Murphy several weeks ago, there is a one-year appropriation in the current budget.

“We do still need to get the legislators to agree to it and we don’t take anything for granted, so fingers crossed that we’ll stay in the budget,” Gulotta said.

The budget is supposed to be passed before July 1, so it won’t be long before New Jersey knows its fate. Moving forward, Klau would like to see the appropriation written as it originally was, for a five-year span, assuring some stability to those choosing to breed in the state.

But for now, they will revel in the homegrown talent that is competing at The Big M.

On the pacing side last week, Ucandoit Blue Chip won the $240,000 NJSS 3-year-old filly final while Voukefalas destroyed the field in the colt final.

Tonight, trotting colts Oh Well, Ari Ferrari J and Air Power will fight it out, while Walner Payton will look to upset Special Way in the filly final.

“There’s a renaissance going on in New Jersey,” Gulotta said. “So, look at New Jersey; you’ve got Ecurie D, Alrajah One, Muscle Hill, Walner, Tactical Landing and Six Pack. It’s the cream of the crop. You can’t do better. And now, on the pacing side, you have Perfect Sting, who’s the first [back-to-back] 2- and 3-year-old Breeders Crown champion in 20-something years. And Lazarus is producing stakes horses.

“We’ve got the cream of the crop in New Jersey on the trotting side and I think on the pacing side as well.”