Pick up any Ontario thoroughbred horse sale catalogue from the last 40 years and you will find at least one page dedicated to the benefits of breeding and racing in the province through incentives and rewards developed to preserve and improve the local breed.

In 1974, the Thoroughbred Improvement Program (TIP) was created with the province’s breeders in mind. The program was developed by the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society – Ontario, mandated by the Ontario Racing Commission (ORC) and funded by a percentage of monies retained by the Ontario Provincial government from pari-mutuel wagering.

What started off as a program worth $2 million has risen to a $17 million package in 2015 that doles out bonuses for Canadian foaled, Ontario bred, Ontario sired horses that have success at Ontario tracks. It is a program that has, for many years, been the envy of other racing circuits with similar programs throughout North America

While there have been many up and downs in the Ontario horse breeding and racing sectors in those 40 years – no ‘down’ bigger than the abrupt cancellation of the slots-at-racetracks revenue sharing program in 2013 – the preservation of these thoroughbred programs remains vital.

However, the recent decision by Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG) to eliminate some categories of Ontario Sired races, in order to allow for more races for ‘open’ horses, has received significant backlash from many breeders in the province.


The Beginnings

Since 1956, thoroughbred racing has been held in Ontario at two tracks: Woodbine, built by E.P. Taylor and Fort Erie, originally run by the Ontario Jockey Club (OJC).

The Articles of Incorporation of the OJC, a not-for-profit organization, included almost a dozen items including “to provide programmes to improve horse-breeding and horse-breeding stock” and it is from there that incentive programs were soon developed.

In the early years of TIP (which is now under the umbrella of the Horse Improvement Program (HIP), breeder’s awards were paid out to “Canadian-bred money winners competing in Open Stakes” (1978, TIP), “Canadian-bred money winners competing in Class 1 Allowance races” and to “all money winners in the existing 32 Canadian-bred Stakes plus eight Ontario Sires Stakes.”

At that time, stallions in the province included Vice Regent, whose stud fee climbed to $75,000 (CDN), and was one of a collection of sires standing at Windfields Farm. In a brochure published by the farm in 1982, Taylor’s emphasis on boosting Canadian bloodlines was noted:

“Infusion of new blood into a breeding band is a must to achieve viability and longevity.” This mantra has been a key point in the building of Ontario Bred and Ontario Sired program.

The newly-created horse racing association Ontario Racing now administers the programs with the absorption of the ORC by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission this spring. The OR website states “HIP’s mandate is to reward excellence. Each breed group has an Industry Advisory Group that is instrumental in developing programs that support a strong and sustainable live racing product in Ontario with quality horses and competitive fields.”

Frank DiGiulio Jr., who has been an owner and breeder in Ontario for decades following his late father Frank, is also a board member of the CTHS.

“(The Ontario Sires program) expanded about 10 years ago,” said DiGiulio Jr. “It gave value to the OS horses and an opportunity to run protected for a few races before you had to go for claiming.”

Before 2013, breeders and owners and trainers (the latter represented by the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association) shared in wagered dollars, tax breaks and slots revenue. The horsemen’s share, through the HBPA, would go into overnight purses without any specific allocation.

After 2013, when the program money had to be re-structured due to the loss of slots revenue, horsemen funds were then directed to restricted racing.

“I remember racing a horse in an Ontario sired maiden allowance at a route distance for $66,000, $60,000 at a sprint distance,” said DiGiulio. “Now those races are each worth $45,000.”

The province’s breeding and racing program was so popular that Frank Stronach sent half a dozen of his stallions to Gardiner Farms in Caledon from Florida where that state’s waning breeding program was not doing justice to horses such as Grade 1 winner Milwaukee Brew. Stronach has since built a new stallion barn at Adena Springs North in Aurora where he stands many of Ontario’s top sires.

In 2015, $4.5 million of the $17 million TIP program was allocated for restricted races, $4.2 million to Woodbine and $300,000 to Fort Erie. If one calculated, for example, how many $45,000 maiden allowance races for Ontario sired horses goes into that $4.2 million, the answer would be 93. But in 2015, there were 291 Ontario sired races thus WEG had putting more money into those races than has been allocated.


Changes on the Way

The Ontario Bred and Sired breeders’ awards offered by the CTHS and the conditions of races for these horses have been tinkered with and tweaked in recent years.

Breeders’ awards expanded to the point where they are now handed out for horses that win bottom-level claiming races at Woodbine and Fort Erie, all the way up to the stakes class. A win in an $8,000 claiming race at Woodbine will give the breeder of an Ontario sired horse a bonus of $840.

A few years ago, WEG tried an experimental stint with $25,000 maiden claiming races for Ontario Sired horses, races that attracted modest, and often small, fields. Those were eliminated.

In 2015, the OS purse bonus for high-level races was upped to 40 per cent, a move that lasted just one year when WEG announced changes in March.

Citing shrinking field size and horse population throughout North America, as well as a large overpayment in the OS program, WEG ordered the latest changes in the racing book: “The OS bonus will be reduced to 30 per cent in allowance races and maiden special weight (MSW) races and 20 per cent for all other eligible races. In addition, several races have been eliminated:

• Maiden allowance OS races for three-year-olds and older will be eliminated. MSW OS races for three-year-olds will be offered only until Aug. 1 and continue all season for the two-year-olds.

• In 2015, Woodbine dropped the non-winners of three races lifetime, OS category, but added an optional claiming to the NW3 $20,000 and $40,000 claiming. For 2016, the optional portion will be dropped leaving the races as NW3 for both the $20,000 level and the $40,000 level.

“The bonus projection was tabbed at $2 million, but because the Ontario sired horses regularly won open races over their American counterparts, the purse bonus paid was $3.6 million in 2014 and $4.4 million in 2015,” said a letter to horsemen issued by WEG’s director of racing, Steve Lym. “Based on projections, the forecast for the OS bonus in 2016 is $3,094,110.”

These changes, some of which were issued by WEG without any notice to breeders or owners/trainers, have caused significant backlash from breeders who are upset at not being included in the decision making process and for the eliminated races themselves.

“The only changes I could see coming was the reduction in percentage from 40 to 30 per cent,” said DiGiulio, Jr. “The rest I had no idea about.”

DiGiulio said the elimination of maiden allowance races for three-year-olds and up does not make sense for horses that are late developers.

“If you have a late developing OS horse that did not race at two and three – and he will probably want to go a long distance – there won’t be many of those opportunities before August 1st and none after,” he said.

Jeff Begg, chief steward of the Jockey Club of Canada and an owner/breeder, believes the changes are necessary while admitting the process of the move was questionable.

“Ontario sired horses became less relevant because they don’t have to run against anybody other than other OSS horses. There have been some good Ontario sired horses: Domasca Dan, Pender Harbour, etc. and if you have an OS horse win a maiden allowance, a NW2 and NW 3, then maybe place or win an OSS stakes, soon you have $200,000 in the bank from that horse. Breeder’s awards and bonuses are there for people to re-invest, maybe buy a better mare, sell one or two and get a better one, but people have not invested in their mares.”

The process of the decision to alter the condition book and the future of the Ontario Sired program is what has most breeders unsettled.

“Breeders plans are done by years, not months,” said DiGiulio Jr. “Of course, improving your mares makes sense, but not everyone can afford to do that.”

Begg agrees that it would be in the best interest of the local industry if the three groups — WEG, CTHS and HBPA — can agree on a three-year plan this year so breeders know what to expect in the future.

“It was a shot in the gut, no question,” said Begg. “But when you have a consignment at our yearling sale and one of five is Ontario sired and people only want to look at that one, that’s a problem.”

Owner and trainer Reade Baker does not believe the OS program has done what it was supposed to do when it was developed.

“We have only developed a breed of horse that can win at one racetrack in the world,” said Baker. “Why wouldn’t you want to breed better?”

Baker does disagree, however, with the cuts that were made to the condition book since he trains several older Ontario Sired maidens this year and suggests that dropping the maiden allowance purses to $30,000 (from $45,000) is a better solution.

“If people think their horse is good enough, run for the $45,000 purse against open company,” he said.

Baker also suggested that perhaps a good way to showcase the Ontario bred and sired runners is to have one big day of racing for the locals such as the Maryland Million or California Cup.

With the Ontario and Canadian foal crop numbers reaching all new lows, there are more questions than answers on how to fill races, necessary to keep wagering strong.

Former Woodbine president and CEO David Willmot, who still races horses under Kinghaven Farms and stood stallions at his farm, said a bonus system for OS horses is not enough to keep the breeders in business.

“The fact that Ontario is a fairly isolated racing jurisdiction means that fostering a local breeding industry is critical in order to provide an adequate horse population for what is a lengthy racing season. Field size is imperative for healthy wagering pools and hoping that American breeding jurisdictions will supply us with enough horses is unrealistic. Those horses need racing opportunities so as to earn income for their breeder/owners or owners who buy OSS yearlings.”

The consensus from most breeders, owners and trainers is that finding the right recipe for races to offer full fields must be a continued conversation between all groups.

“No horse is more important than the next one,” said DiGiulio Jr. “Every horse deserves a chance to run.”

In 2015, the TIP was the following:

Registered Canadian-Bred Stakes $1,090,000
Registered Ontario-Bred Stakes $360,000
Sales Stakes $575,000
Ontario Sires Stake $1,975,000
Premier Breeders Awards $5,000,000
Sales Credit & Fort Erie Allowance Bonus Programs $80,000
Stallion Awards Program $320,000
Marketing $164,000
Registered Ontario-Bred Purse Bonus $2,800,000
Restricted Overnight Racing Program $4,500,000
Other $300,000 ________
TOTAL $17,164,000

Following is a summary of responses to the CTHS survey about how changes to the restricted racing opportunities for Ontario sired horses will impact members’ breeding business.

Selections Offered/Total # Respondents/Percentage of Total Respondents
Help Significantly/4/3.60%
Help a Little/27/24.32%
No Impact/7/6.31%
Hurt a Little/3/2.70%
Hurt Significantly/65/58.56%
No Selection Made/5/4.50%