By Art Petrosemolo
Thoroughbred breeders working to keep industry viable in N.J.
Spring is a special time for thoroughbred owners. Mares and their foals play in the paddocks of breeding farms across the country and a new class of racehorses begins the long road to the track.
“Now, they’re happy to be just horses,” says Janet Laszlo, a New Jersey breeder and horse owner, “because, although they don’t know it, there isn’t much playtime for thoroughbred race horses.” Lazlo, owner of Hunters Run Farm in Wall, foaled 22 horses this winter for her stable and clients. Hunters Run is a working farm that also handles layups, horses recuperating from injury, and does some on-site training of hunters and jumpers. Lazlo also has horses competing on the track.
“After several months, a foal is weaned from its mother and begins a one year-plus growing process (colts with colts and fillies with fillies) playing, developing muscle strength and learning not to be fearful of humans,” Laszlo says with a smile. At Hunters Run, the babies are handled daily. “We want them not to be afraid of human contact and feel it makes the training process easier.”
While mares nurse their foals on these farms, other broodmares are shipped to be bred with stallions in Kentucky, New York, Maryland, Delaware and other states. Broodmares are bred in early spring so they foal the following January to May, explains John Mazza. Mazza and Rosemarie Shockley manage Vincent Annarella’s Holly Crest Farm in Locust. He also trains Holly Crest thoroughbreds to race at New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York tracks.
All thoroughbreds celebrate a birthday Jan. 1, so just before they turn 2, the yearlings are sent to be trained to be racehorses or as the breeders describe it, they are “broken.” Usually within just a couple of months, these horses return from the training farms and go right to the racetrack and a trainer. Then the process of seeing whether they have what it takes to win on the track begins.
From breeding to racing, it can take three-plus years, a significant time to wait to see if it was a successful mating, if the gene pool is right to support a strong thoroughbred racehorse, and most important, if the horse has the class to win. “Not many people are in this to make big money,” Laszlo says. “Owners, breeders and trainers have a passion for the sport. It is a labor of love.”
New Jersey foals are called Jersey Bred and the farms that have broodmares and raise racehorses are fiercely proud of this heritage. It’s not Kentucky but New Jersey breeders say the state has some of the best grass in the country, which is a horse’s natural food and thoroughbreds thrive on it.
But the New Jersey breeding industry is shrinking, much to the chagrin of all concerned. In 2000, there were nearly 400 registered thoroughbred foals from 98 farms and 105 breeders in the state. Ten years later, there were only 171 Jersey bred foals from 45 farms. In 2012, near the end of the season, 111 foals have been registered from 33 farms.
Breeding farms come in all sizes. John and Joan Bowers at Roseland, a small mom-and-pop operation in Colts Neck, have four mares that will foal early in 2013. The Bowers also have a small group of horses running this season at Monmouth Park. They own thistyranthasclass, a successful thoroughbred that finished fifth in the $1 million 2000 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in 2000.
Mazza had seven foals at Holly Crest Farm this season. He has had as many as 17 foals in one year. Mazza also has yearlings on the farm, horses in training as well as horses at Monmouth Park for the current racing season. “We’re like a horse nursery,” he says.
New Jersey breeders, owners and trainers worry about the future of thoroughbred racing and breeding in the state. Fewer racetracks and fewer racing days mean less incentive for Jersey breeders to take the time, money and effort to breed racing thoroughbreds. At one time, New Jersey had active thoroughbred tracks in Atlantic City, Cherry Hill, the Meadowlands as well as Monmouth Park with racing dates that went from Monmouth Park in the summer to Atlantic City the following spring. Both Lazlo and Mazza say the state needs “a longer racing season” so they can make some of their money back.
Mike Campbell, executive director of the Thoroughbred Breeders Association of New Jersey for the past nine years, has witnessed this loss of thoroughbred breeding farms firsthand and he too says it parallels the closing of thoroughbred tracks and the loss of racing days in the state.
Today, there are a little more than 70 thoroughbred racing days at three tracks in the state, the majority at Monmouth Park in Oceanport. Monmouth Park is a jewel of a facility and has brought racing fans and tourists to the shore community for more than a century. It supports the local economy with on-site jobs as well as trickledown support for vendors and suppliers.
During the past year, in a controversy that grabbed the attention of all racing fans, Monmouth Park nearly closed when an arrangement for a private enterprise to take over park management fell through. Only a last-minute deal between the state, which had been the park’s owner and operator since 1986, and the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association (NJTHA) saved the license and assured thoroughbred racing for the next several years.
If Monmouth Park had closed, horses bred in New Jersey and trained at Monmouth Park would have had to be raced at tracks in New York, Pennsylvania, and other Eastern states, an added expense in a business that already is close to being on life-support.
The loss of racing days already has hit Jersey breeders and owners in the wallet in a more direct way. Under a long-term arrangement with the state to encourage thoroughbred farms and the open space they encompass, special, enhanced purses are paid in Jersey Bred-only races or when Jersey Bred horses win open races. “For an operation like Holly Crest Farm,” says Mazza, “it could mean $60,000. That pays stud fees, feed and more. It is a big help.”
Now that Monmouth Park is no longer under state control, a management group, working for the NJTHA, is renewing marketing efforts. A New Jersey Racing Hall of Fame ceremony with four inductees will happen later in the meet and special events and groups have been booked to help make the venue attractive to a wider audience.
Monmouth Park’s graded Haskell Stakes – the first weekend in August – always has been a draw with upward of 40,000 fans in attendance watching Jersey Bred and triple-crown stakes-winners vie for the $1 million purse but it’s just one day in a season.
Nona Baladan, president of the New Jersey Breeders Association, and a breeder herself with first-time broodmare, Amazing Ariel, has been lobbying at the state level to remind all what Jersey breeders bring to the state in open space and add to the economy. “These farms employ grooms, trainers, blacksmiths, jockeys and exercise riders. They work closely with veterinarians, feed companies, bedding and hay supplies, horse moving companies and tack suppliers,” she says.
“It’s not just the ushers, waiters and grounds people at Monmouth Park who are hurt by a loss of racing days,” she says. “It’s everyone.”
In recent years, some Jersey thoroughbred farms have been sold to conservation groups so they remain open space. Others, however, have been sold to developers who have built large, suburban homes next to older farms. “Everyone wants to live next to a horse farm,” Baladan says, “but they end up living, instead, in a development named after a horse farm.”
The jury is still out on whether thoroughbred racing and breeding in New Jersey is viable long-term industry. For the thoroughbred owners, breeders, farm owners, trainers, jockeys and all who make their livelihood off the sport of kings, they hope for the best but prepare for the worst. The clock is ticking.
Art Petrosemolo is a writer-photographer from Shrewsbury, who has a love of thoroughbreds. He is the
assistant to the president at New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson University.