Under the Sun - by Dan Liebman

Unless you stand a stallion in Florida, regularly breed and/or race in the state, or stable at Calder Race Course, you probably didn’t pay much attention to a news release regarding juvenile racing at the South Florida track and the Florida Stallion Stakes series.

But you should pay attention, because the Feb. 13 announcement shows what can be accomplished in a fragmented industry when members of various interest groups sit down and decide to find a way to benefit everyone at the table.

Increasing purses for juvenile races at Calder and boosting a series that rewards the offspring of the state’s stallions helps every segment of the industry in Florida. In a recessionary time, some of Florida’s leaders have come up with their own stimulus package.

Thirty years ago this spring, Ocala, Fla., farm owner and breeder Dan Lasater approached then Calder president Kenny Noe Jr. with an idea to promote the stallions at his farm. Track management expanded the idea, and the Florida Stallion Stakes was born.

Stallion owners would pay an annual fee of $2,500, which would allow their foals to be made eligible to the series of races. Foals would be made eligible through subsequent payments by their owners. That first year, 101 stallions were nominated, and by the time those foals were ready to compete at Calder in 1982, 400 juveniles were eligible. This year, more than 1,500 progeny of 140 stallions are eligible. (The final number could change, since payments are still due for the 2-year-olds.)

The Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association (FTBOA), Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (FHBPA), and Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI), which owns Calder, each will contribute $100,000 to the purse structure of the series starting this year. In addition, an agreement was reached to increase the purses for 2-year-old maiden races at the track, and possibly allowance races as well.

The agreement also will change the dates of the three legs of the Stallion Stakes, something that has been needed for some time. As it is,
the final races in the series are run too close to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships to allow a horse to compete in both, essentially penalizing Florida-sired horses. Having paid their nomination fees over a year and a half, horsemen of course want to participate in the Stallion Series, but then are not given enough time to turn around and compete on racing’s biggest stage. Now, the final races will be three weeks prior to the Breeders’ Cup.

The Stallion Stakes series has only two requirements, that the sire stand in Florida and that the nomination fees be current. The foal need not be born in Florida, and there are no supplemental entries. So, an owner may buy a Florida-sired horse at auction or purchase a mare carrying a Florida-sired horse and have a runner eligible to the program.

The timing of the announcement was critical, coming just days prior to the start of the juvenile sale season in Florida. The state has always been known for its many training centers, 2-year-olds in training auctions, and juvenile racing. Certainly giving buyers more reasons to consider Florida-sired sale horses will strengthen confidence in the product during uncertain economic times.

Florida has always been an excellent place to breed, raise, and race a horse (and not just because of its weather). The state, with about 600 farms and training centers, ranks second each year to Kentucky in number of foals, has produced the second-highest number of Breeders’ Cup winners, and is the birthplace of six Horses of the Year and a dozen Hall of Fame members.

As part of the recent agreement, an eight-member committee will be appointed—two members each from stallion owners, the FTBOA, FHBPA, and Calder—to continue examining ways to improve the Stallion Series and the overall product.

Leaders should lead or get out of the way. Florida’s leaders are leading.

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