Saturday, June 6, 2009

Charitable Man bears Virginia's banner in Belmont, belies state's breeding weakness

Horsepeople in the Old Dominion were thrilled this winter and early spring when a Virginia-bred seemed a serious threat to become the fifth horse born in the state to win the Kentucky Derby.

That horse was Florida Derby-winner Quality Road, but his Derby trail ended with a nagging quarter crack. Commendably, his connections, including breeder and owner Edward P. Evans, decided they were willing to wait on a good horse, and he's being slowly brought back around to racing form for a summer campaign.

Virginia enthusiasts are excited, then, that another VA-bred has stepped in at the end of the Triple Crown Trail: Charitable Man. Coming in off a win in the track's Peter Pan S.-G2, he has a real shot to upset Mine That Bird this afternoon in the Belmont Stakes.

But, both he and Quality Road are evidence of just how far Virginia's breeding game has slumped.

While Charitable Man is owned and campaigned by Mr. and Mrs. William K. Warren, he, too, was born on Evans' expansive Spring Hill Farm near Casanova, Va. More and more, it seems, if you see a high-class Virginia-bred, it really ought to carry the "state tag" (EV), instead: Evans-bred.

This is not a knock on Mr. Evans. In fact, Virginia horse racing should be thanking God for "Ned" Evans. If it weren't for the love of his farm and his willingness to continue foaling mares there in spite of the presumed financial impracticality of the arrangement, Virginia thoroughbred breeding would have almost nothing. Evans keeps an estimated 90 mares at Spring Hill; the whole state of Virginia only foaled around 350 thoroughbreds in 2008.

Evans is the son of the late Thomas Mellon Evans, who owned Buckland Farm and was a noted horseman, breeding champion Pleasant Colony among many others. "Ned" Evans graduated with a degree in economics from Yale and an MBA from Havard, which pretty much punches a man's ticket in the business world. His chosen field was publishing, and while he maintains a residence in New York, as well, the 3,000-acre farm he bought many years ago in Virginia apparently still has a strong tug on his heartstrings.

That's apparent because Evans -- who is a member of the Jockey Club, owns an interest in numerous Kentucky stallions and could probably afford to buy a different farm or to board his mares anywhere -- keeps bringing them home to Spring Hill to live and to foal.

That likely isn't the most economical way to run a horse business, though I know others who take a stab at it, even smaller breeders. But ideally -- no, not ideally, rather necessarily -- if Virginia is going to save its thoroughbred breeding business, it needs a thriving, or at least surviving, stallion colony to do it.

Talk in Virginia Thoroughbred Association circles swirls around getting more off-track betting locations, particularly in Northern Virginia, which is a completely unserved population of around 3.5 million. Indeed, that is a big Step 1 to improving the lot of racing at Colonial Downs, and boosting the awards paid to breeders of winning foals; bonuses relied upon for ongoing income by those who make their living by selling a horse into racing hands. And the VTA makes a compelling case for the OTB expansion, including this pointed letter to Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine.

But unless the OTB revenues are also funneled into a stallion-specific bonus program -- specifically a VA-sired stakes program at Colonial Downs -- there will still be no incentive to choose a Virginia-based stallion. Breeders will continue to be much better off shipping out of state to quality stallions and returning to foal in Virginia, as Mr. Evans has chosen.

The alarming statistics showing the demise of Virginia's stallion ranks just keep piling up.

As I've already reported, of the 22 horses entered in this weekend's pair of VA-bred stakes races at Colonial Downs, 17 were sired outside Virginia and none of them -- though they're just 3- and 4-year-olds -- were sired by a stallion still standing in Virginia.

I've noted that Virginia's stallion and foaling businesses have plummeted just within the past 20 years. The number of Virginia stallions in service has dropped from 154 studs serving 837 mares in 1991, to 41 stallions serving just 123 Virginia mares in 2008. I have predicted that the numbers will be worse again in 2009.

On opening night at Colonial (scratch-filled, with the turf races moved to the muddy dirt track), there were but 18 VA-breds entered out of 83 horses in eight races. Of those 18, just one was sired by a stallion still alive and known to be standing in Virginia: If Its Meant To Be, by One Tuff Oop. Four others were sired by a quartet of stallions that once were at Virginia Tech University's MARE Center, but that facility was giving away many of its mares earlier this year and shows little evidence that its stallions, such as the capable Fred Astaire, are still in service. The others sired in Virginia, not just born there, were by horses now moved to other states (such as the accomplished runner and sire Black Tie Affair, now in West Virginia) or that have since died.

The signs of Virginia's breeding demise are almost entirely negative, and undeniable.

Virginia thoroughbred farms have produced the third-largest number of Triple Crown race-winners in history. Charitable Man could add to that number today.

But, almost by himself, Ned Evans can't keep Virginia-breds on the map forever.

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