Ontario isn't exactly a tropical climate during the winter, but the harness racing program in the province is sizzling these days.
More and more breeders are seeking the services of Ontario stallions and more and more trainers and owners are willing to shell out serious money for Ontario-eligible yearlings. And more and more money is being bet at Ontario tracks; it was recently announced that bet- ting was up 11 percent last year.
If racing at the pari-mutuel plants like Mohawk and Wood- bine are the bread-and-butter of the provincial racing, the
Ontario Sires Stakes (OSS) are the icing on the cake. It gets very high marks from all corners.
The demand for Ontario-sired yearlings was very much in evidence at the major yearling sales in Lexington and Har- risburg. At the Harrisburg sale in November, for example, the 151 Ontario-sired yearlings averaged $31,255, ranking it second behind the Pennsylvania yearlings and ahead of New York, New Jersey and other jurisdictions.
At Harrisburg the trotting sire Kadabra had 10 yearlings go under the hammer and they averaged $63,800 while the 11 yearlings by Mach Three averaged $62,773. Badlands Hanover sent 21 sons and daughters through the ring for $34,857 average. The Camluck yearlings at Harrisburg fetched an average of $25,778.
If you combine the prices paid at both Harrisburg and Lexington, Kadabra was second to Donato Hanover in overall average for trotters. Two more Ontario stallions, Majestic Son and Angus Hall, ranked among the top 10.
On the pacing side of the ledger, Mach Three ranked second to his son Somebeachsomewhere among stallions with yearlings sold at Lexington and Harrisburg. Western Terror ranked fourth and Badlands Hanover finished in sixth place, giving Ontario half of the six top sires in sales average.
The Ontario breeding program gets a big boost this year when Bettor's Delight, the top sire in North America in 2011, takes up stud duty at Winbak of Canada. He joins Mach Three, Camluck, Modern Art and other established pacing stallions.
Sires stakes have become so important to the value of a sale yearling that commercial breeders often pick a program before picking a stallion.
A typical comment you might hear is, " [State A] has a good program now, but I'm a little worried that the politi- cians might take back some of the money now going into purses."
"[State B] has a good, solid program but the yearling market isn't that strong no matter how good your yearling might be," is another.
Ann Straatman is the reproductive manager at Seelster Farms in Ontario and she says that the strength of the OSS program is a great asset to the province's breeding farms. She notes that owners can earn a fast return on their investment in an Ontario-sired yearling.
"The best horses in the Gold and the Grass Roots series can earn well over six figures," she says. "The OSS hasn't changed over the years and owners of a top colt know that when they retire him off the track, he'll get a lot of mares and opportunity as a stallion in Ontario.”
She cited Seelster's rookie stallion Big Jim as appealing to breeders on both sides of the border, including Ameri- can farms such as Hanover and Blue Chip. In addition to Big Jim, Seelster is the home of Camluck, whose offspring have earned more than $173 million. The patriarch of the province is now 25 and served a book of 111 mares last season.
The OSS has an attractive broodmare residency program that gives Seelster and other Ontario-based breeders the opportunity to earn significant awards. It applies to mares that are in the province for 180 days.
"We only have room for our own mares at Seelster and some permanent boarders," Straatman says. "If an owner wants to leave a mare in Ontario to meet the residency requirement, we can recommend some very good farms in the area."
Straatman is clearly excited about the future for Seels