[cleeng_content id="383796147" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]CHARLES TOWN – It’s late January at O’Sullivan Farms and the thoroughbred-breeding season is about to shift from a canter to a gallop. In a few weeks time comes an all-out sprint.
Barren mares have been spending several hours a day the past few weeks under lamps trying to induce hormonal manipulation to trigger an early estrus. Other mares, namely those in foal from a meeting with a stallion last year, are awaiting the approximate 11-month gestation period to run its course as they welcome the next generation thoroughbred into the world beginning any day now.
Meanwhile, their suitors, and those of many other mares from farms across the mid-Atlantic and the United States, have been spending the afternoon being bathed and primped for an open house scheduled the following day to showcase O’Sullivan Farms’ resident stallions.
Owner Randy Funkhouser and his son, John, who represents the fourth generation as manager of this 160-acre farm located near Tuscawilla, have assembled a cast of seven stallions to stand stud in 2014, and tomorrow those horses were to be paraded one-by-one before prospective breeders.
Over the course of the next several months, hundreds of mares will visit breeding operations like this one across West Virginia, where owners will spend anywhere from $500 to $3,500 to mate with a stallion, mostly former racehorses themselves, for the chance to harness the finer points of their pedigrees and the opportunity to cash a ticket with tomorrow’s promising racetrack talent. Among those available for duty at O’Sullivan Farms is the reigning leading sire in West Virginia, a 13-year-old chestnut named Limehouse who was a graded stakes winner at ages 2, 3 and 4 and who earned more than $1.1 million in purses.
Limehouse, who will stand his second season in West Virginia for $3,500 for a live foal, had progeny earnings – racing money won by his offspring – of more than $2.7 million in 2013. “Horses will blow hot and horses will blow cold,” Randy Funkhouser said. “A horse like Limehouse, he’s very popular right now.
Normally, people here tend to like new studs that come in. If they are a good looking horse with a good race record and a good pedigree, they’ll tend to breed.” In a given year, stallions at O’Sullivan Farms will service between 150 and 200 mares, with as many as 325 coming through the stalls during the height of the local industry’s activities in the mid-2000s – before the onset of the global economic recession and the adverse financial impact on West Virginia racing from expanding gambling competition in neighboring states.
The number of mares bred in West Virginia hit an all-time high with 1,207 in 2005, according to figures prepared by The Jockey Club, the breed registry organization for North American thoroughbreds. In recent years, that number has fallen to 653 in 2012. Along the same lines, the annual West Virginia registered foal crop reached a high of 671 in 2007, but had fallen to 504 in 2012, according to The Jockey Club.
Nevertheless, with West Virginia purses themselves infused with money from slot machines and table games, as well as supplemental purse earnings awarded to in-state owners, breeders and stallion owners through programs such as the state’s “10-10-10” system, breeding and racing can prove successful and lucrative given the right circumstances. “I think everybody has been in the mode of cutting down on the number of mares bred and the number of stallions, and getting higher quality because that’s where the market leads,” Funkhouser said.
“But I see the numbers in the recent sales have been out of sight. The horse industry is bouncing back like the rest of the economy. People are investing and they’re investing big time money.” O’Sullivan Farms will open its breeding shed Feb. 15 and continue breeding mares until its normal cutoff date of July 1. The farm also foals an average of 90 to 100 newborns each year, each weighing between 75 and 150 pounds. “Every year we have a few mares we breed as late as July 10 because someone wants to breed them that year,” Funkhouser said.
“It starts getting really hot, which is not good for the stallions. And if mares haven’t caught by that time, after several breedings, chances are they’re probably not going to catch on the last one. “We’ve had two foals so far, and we’ll probably have eight to 10 more before the end of January,” Funkhouser added. “And it will continue to foal up until sometimes as late as June. People prefer the earlier horses because they have an advantage, particularly at 2. It diminishes at 3 and definitely at 4. But a lot of people who like 2-year-old racing want early foals.”
Susan Wantz, who owns the 21-acre Copperville Farm across the state line in Taneytown, Md., has been breeding her mares to West Virginia stallions at O’Sullivan Farms for the past few years. Wantz said of her eight broodmares, she expects to breed between two and four of them this season to studs at the West Virginia farm.
Wantz, who campaigned Kentucky-bred Eclipse Award finalist Dance to Bristol to a nomination last year for champion female sprinter, said she and her husband, David, were originally attracted to West Virginia because of its improving standing in overall national racing and the potential windfall to be earned through supplemental purse awards for breeders who race state-bred horses. “For us in Maryland, Maryland racing was really good and then things started to go south quickly,” she said. “The stallions were leaving, so were the opportunities to race.
“I know Randy Funkhouser worked very hard with the legislation to make sure there were West Virginia-bred races on every card (at West Virginia tracks.) Then the breeders program, no matter where they finish from first to 10th, you get a percentage. Whatever the horse wins at whatever level you get a percentage. It’s a very lucrative program for a small breeder like ourselves compared to some of the other states.”
With Maryland racing now receiving a cut from the state’s own casino operations, Wantz knows it’s only a matter of time before racing and breeding there rebound. But with those inflated purse offerings will come talented outside horses shipping in from New York and elsewhere, meaning competition will increase as well. Meanwhile, Wantz said the West Virginia program continues to offer her good opportunities just a short distance away, something she is keen to expand upon. “We mostly breed to race,” she said. “And (West Virginia) has some pretty good sires now.
I think you’re going to be able to see that some of the West Virginia-bred horses are going to be able to compete on the national stage as well. That’s why we’re here. “We certainly like Limehouse, we’re going to breed to him this year,” Wantz added. “We like Hunt Crossing, he’s got a lot of class. We’ve bred to him, too.” That is good news to Dell Ennis. Ennis owns the bay 5-year-old Hunt Crossing, who is entering his third season at stud at O’Sullivan Farms after being recognized as a precocious stakes winner and one of the fastest 2-year-olds in training in 2011.
Conditioned by Eclipse Award winning trainer Todd Pletcher, Hunt Crossing was one of the morning line favorites for the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint prior to being injured just before the race. After surgery, the young colt was retired to stud and now stands for $1,500 for a live foal at O’Sullivan Farms. “I thought at the time that breeding here allows him the best venue to get started,” Ennis said. “It had a lot to do with logistics and the quality of this farm. These are horse people going back generations and I need that cushion under Hunt Crossing.
That had a lot of the drive behind it, and then their facility is first-class.” Ennis said Hunt Crossing was well-received during his first season in 2012 and then surpassed even his expectations by breeding 60 mares last year. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we continue to keep getting good books to him,” he said.
“But this time next year I want to be telling people about his 2-year-olds in training. We should already have had some trainers who have broken some of those horses and we should have some comments back from them about how his horses are doing.” Funkhouser said it’s difficult to get new stallions up to speed in the breeding industry, as it takes time and money for them to develop a reputation as their bloodstock comes to market and the racetrack.
But he said the quality of West Virginia breeding and racing is improving every year, and that that reputation is taking hold nationally. “We breed eight or 10 mares a year from Kentucky,” Funkhouser said. “We get some from Florida. We get some from Delaware and New Jersey and New York. Occasionally, I’ll get some from Colorado or Montana. But most come from West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. “The stallions here are better now than they ever have been,” he added. “Mr. Casey (at Taylor Mountain Farms) has a few that have done well. We’ve had a few that have done well. It’s getting better all the time.”[/cleeng_content]