LUCAN, ONT.—Finale Seelster meets the world two front hooves first.
The foal’s mother, an older brood mare of 18, is worn out from two days of labour. It takes two people and a forceful tug of the colt’s lanky front legs to pull him out onto a fresh pile of hay.
For 10 seconds, the heap of matted grey fur lies there under fluorescent barn lights, lifeless. Then, a tiny breath. Then, two.
Just like that, the aptly named Finale is born. A horse bred to kick up the dirt on local racetracks now facing closure, and maybe become the next best thing on a circuit now under siege.
The fact is, Finale’s career, and quite possibly his life, may be over before either really begins.
Horse racing in Ontario is in crisis. Earlier this year, the provincial government announced plans to scrap its slots-at-racetrack program by spring 2013. Since 1998, the industry has received a 20 per cent cut of the money made from government-owned slots at 17 tracks — $345 million per year. Those dollars, say the Liberals, will be filtered to health care or education.
Last week, Windsor Raceway announced its likely closure, having already lost its slots. The suspicion is that many more rural tracks will follow, with race dates dropping by at least a third.
Horse people, as they call themselves, say the industry contributes $1.1 billion to the economy and employs 60,000 people, from hot walkers and jockeys toiling on the backstretch to veterinarians and breeders. Many will lose their jobs.
Other people feel it’s time for racing in Ontario to reinvent itself and become self-sufficient, just like other professional sports.
On a typical day at Woodbine’s track, the mecca of Canadian racing, aging fans are sprinkled through the stands. A half century ago, crowds roared alongside thundering hooves. Today, the sport’s popularity has been surpassed by ultimate fighting, and its wagering has been siphoned off by slots and casinos.
With the larger industry threatened, there are thousands of horses that have already been born — this year’s and last year’s foals, in particular — that are facing a dire future.
Thoroughbred owners, whose horses race at Woodbine and Fort Erie tracks, are feeling pressure. But the standardbreds, like Finale — harness-racing horses whose jar-shaped heads have earned them the nickname “jugheads” — are poised to take the hardest hit. Three thousand standardbred horses will be born this season alone.
There are rumours that breeders are already euthanizing their foals to avoid paying hefty stud fees — due after a foal is born — for horses that have little hope of returning their owners’ investment. There are fears horse people will soon be forced to choose between feeding their families and feeding their animals.
Ronda Markle, 57, a trainer and owner with a small farm near Cobourg, Ont., thinks of the 15 standardbreds she’s raised for the last two decades as a part of her family. Feeling that she’ll be unable to keep up with the $1,700 per month it costs to feed them all, which doesn’t include veterinary bills, shoeing and property maintenance, she’s now considering destroying them.
“I almost think this would be more humane than what they have in store for them,” she writes in an email. With animals that now have “no future as a racehorse,” Markle says she will have to make decisions that “I do not know how I will be able to live with.”
Finale was conceived last May by way of artificial insemination, was gestated the expected 11 months and four days to term, then was nearly another three weeks overdue. He is the son of Finesse Seelster, who has a world champion in her bloodline, and Santana Blue Chip, a 3-year-old stallion that retired with more than $1.6 million in winnings.
At Seelster Farms in Lucan, Ont., a bucolic stretch of rolling fields dotted with white barns, breeding is painstakingly planned. It takes three years to create an equine athlete. The process begins with matching mares to stallions, includes the lengthy gestation time, then the additional time it takes to grow a foal into a yearling ready to be trained for the tracks, owner and manager Ann Straatman says.
The cost of that process per horse ranges from $20,000 to $21,000. About 150 foals are born at Seelster each season. Their yearlings have typically sold for an average of $26,000 at fall auction, for a profit of $4,000 per horse.
That was before the guillotine fell.
The Ontario Sire Stakes racing program is the cornerstone of standardbred breeding and racing in the province. It redistributes an estimated $20 million in purses to winning Ontario-bred horses and hands out awards to local breeders. As a result, the program has encouraged the breeding of horses for racing within the province’s borders.
Sire Stakes purses range from $24,000 at the grassroots level to a $300,000 super final.
Half the money for the program, however, comes from the slots, putting its future in peril.
Finale is considered a mid-priced horse and likely would not be fast enough to race the Grand Circuit — harness racing’s Olympic equivalent that takes place in the United States, says Straatman. Finale was bred for the province’s Sire Stakes, at tracks like Clinton Raceway, Georgian Downs or Mohawk Racetrack. All are facing possible closure.
Risk comes with the business. If a horse breaks a leg, she’s finished. But if a horse has no opportunity to race, to make back the money doled out to purchase, train and feed it, Straatman questions, who would take that risk?
The provincial government has said it is considering an agreement to help ease a transition, but has yet to say what that would look like.
“Without a commitment to the Ontario Sire Stakes, it’s hard to wait,” says Straatman. “Every day costs money to keep and feed these young horses.”
The commercial breeder, 46, says she’s open to change. She could sell a slice of her farm if there’s less demand for horses. The government, she says, gave too little notice and no plan to help bridge the gap between the old and new way of racing.
“It was never our intention to create unwanted horses,” says Straatman, adding that Finale’s future changed, in an instant, from “wide open and full of potential to not sure where we would go.”
Just a few minutes after Finale’s birth, the foal tries to push his skinny legs up underneath him, crashing down on his soft bed. Within two hours, though, he is up walking around his pen. After one day, he is running through the pasture, just as he was bred to do.
If the foal born to race in Ontario can not run, “I don’t know in all honesty that there is another option for (Finale),” says Straatman.
The U.S. market likely wouldn’t be interested in him, she says, adding adoption programs in Canada and across the border are already overburdened.
The best scenario, says Straatman, would be for the Mennonites in St. Jacobs to take him as a buggy horse, or for a family to adopt him as a riding horse. Both paths mean a massive financial loss for the breeder, and the number of unwanted standardbreds is likely to flood potential demand anyway.
That leaves the slaughterhouse, an option Straatman refuses to consider, although she admits owners of smaller farms may feel forced to sell their horses for their meat price. That sits at just under $700 per animal.
Straatman’s grandfather bought his first horse after immigrating to Canada from Holland. Her father took up the business, “a hobby that got out of hand.”
“No one ever wants to slaughter their horse or euthanize their horse,” Straatman says. “That is absolutely the very last, most desperate decision that anyone could make. But it is, in some cases, the kindest thing you can do for them . . . An uncared-for horse is the worst kind of fate you could ever want, for any animal.”
It may come to the point, she says, where Finale is costing money the farm doesn’t have.
“And, as much of an emotional attachment we have to our animals, we have to make a business decision as well. . .
“We don’t know and hope that we’re never faced with that. It’s never been so real for us as it is right now, that those decisions would have to be made. We would have never ever fathomed that this could even be a possibility.”