Greater Expectations - by Evan Hammonds

(Originally published in the February 16, 2013 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

By Evan Hammonds - @BH_EHammonds on Twitter

By Evan Hammonds The Donn Handicap (gr. I) brought together its typically strong cast for Gulfstream Park’s signature race for the older male division Feb. 9. With the 7-year-olds Flat Out and Ducduc mixing it up with 6-year-old Citrus Kid and 8-year-old Pool Play, it brought to mind the 1990 boxing match between an aged George Foreman and Gerry Cooney that was dubbed the “Geezers at Caesars.” Foreman dropped Cooney twice during the exhibition’s second round—the fight lasting just a little longer than it took to run the nine-furlong Donn.

While the geezers were upstaged in the Donn by 4-year-olds sweeping the trifecta—Graydar, Bourbon Courage, and Take Charge Indy—it is encouraging to see so much experience in this year’s handicap division.

Most grade I-caliber males at their age have moved on to the breeding shed, where the start of the 2013 season in North America also got started over the weekend.
In Kentucky there is anticipation and some growing expectations heading into the breeding season on the heels of several years of double-digit percentage drops reported by The Jockey Club in its Report of Mares Bred. At WinStar Farm near Versailles, Ky., a brand-spanking-new stallion complex has a no vacancy sign (see page 10).

“The horses have settled in well,” said Elliott Walden, president and CEO of WinStar. “That was something of a concern. Distorted Humor hadn’t been out of his paddock in 10 years. It was nice to see him settle in.”

Ten years ago WinStar stood just three stallions: Distorted Humor, Tiznow, and Victory Gallop. With the recent addition of the Vinery Kentucky stallions, the farm’s 22-stallion roster has already outstripped its new 18-stall complex. A second barn has been remodeled for stallion use.

“Stallions have evolved to be the focus of our operation,” Walden said. “There have been a few things that have contributed to that. One is our racing program has produced a few of them (Colonel John, Drosselmeyer, and Super Saver come quickly to mind). The other thing has been the addition of (leading juvenile sire) Harlan’s Holiday and the four horses from Pauls Mill. The focus has been on trying to have a stronger presence in the stallion market.”

As for the coming season, Walden is mildly bullish.

“We got a lot of calls early on the horses and that’s typically a sign people are encouraged with the business,” he said. “We got calls in October and November and the past few years it had gotten a little later before we got those calls. We have quite a few of our stallions that have full books. People’s appetite for thinking about the breeding season and actually setting their mating plans has been sooner this year, which has been a positive.”

The breeding season could offer up a technical knockout in New York, where purses and state-bred award programs have ballooned since the opening of the Resorts World Casino New York City at Aqueduct in 2011. At least 10 new stallions are being added to the mix for 2013 in a market that has seen a sizable influx of mares over the past two years.

“There is a lot of competition, which is good, because the more stallions we have, the more mares we are going to get into the state,” said Becky Thomas of Sequel Stallions.

“With the money from slot revenue, you’ve got guys like Darley participating,” she said. “They have mares coming here that are in foal to their stallions—two are in foal to Bernardini—that will be here to support their stallion Girolamo.”

Kentucky’s major farms are now players in New York. Among those coming to the New York arena this year are Kentucky stallions that previously stood at Darley, Hill ‘n’ Dale, Lane’s End, and Pin Oak with exciting newcomers such as Boys At Tosconova, Rule, Smart Bid, and Soaring Empire.

Over the last few years the industry has proved it knows how to take a punch. During the coming breeding season we may see several stallions deliver some.

Watch Evan recap the Donn Handicap:

[brightcove videoid="2155835233001"]

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