As Jay Mossbarger walks through the stallion barn at Ohio’s largest standardbred breeding farm, he makes a special stop in front of the stall holding Big Bad John.
The horse is a former winner of the Little Brown Jug and a much sought-after sire.
In years past, top breeding horses such as Big Bad John and Pet Rock — a world record-holder — avoided Ohio because the racing industry was drying up and owners, trainers, jockeys and drivers were fleeing the state for bigger paydays elsewhere.
But not anymore.
Thanks to big dollars being pumped into the sport by slots-like video lottery terminals (VLTs) at the state’s horse tracks, the Ohio horse racing industry is rebounding after at least a decade on the wane.
And that’s welcome news not just for horse owners and those who work at the tracks, but also for breeding farms, veterinarians, farmers and others who rely on a healthy racing industry for a living.
“It’s put a hope in the business,” said Mossbarger, co-owner of the family-run Midland Acres in Bloomingburg, about 45 minutes southwest of Columbus. “Now everybody wants to come to Ohio. Canada is running to Ohio. Indiana is running to Ohio. Illinois is coming to Ohio. You’re going to have an influx of a lot of out-of-state money coming to Ohio.”
Ten years ago, Ohio was breeding the most standardbred mares — those used in harness racing — in the nation.
But surrounding states expanded gambling and funneled more money into purses at racetracks.
The best that Ohio had to offer packed up and left, or at least split their time in another state.
Why race for $2,000 here when you could race for $10,000 or more elsewhere?
Even Midland Acres, pessimistic that Ohio’s horse industry would ever recover, opened a farm in Indiana and took its best mares there.
“We either had to do that or we had to fold up shop,” said Dr. John Mossbarger, Jay’s brother, a veterinarian, board trustee with the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation and a director with the U.S. Trotting Association.
In 2003, Ohio had bred 2,591 mares. By 2010, the number fell to 688 and the state ranked sixth.
Then Gov. John Kasich struck a deal in 2011 to allow VLTs at the racetracks and the number of mares bred skyrocketed.
They hit about 2,200 last year, and Ohio climbed up to second in the nation, behind only Pennsylvania.
Jerry Knappenberger, general manager of the Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association in Columbus, recalled the group’s stallion directory being about 40 pages two years ago. This year, it’s packed with breeding stallions and advertisements, and is 128 pages.
Follow the money
The reason for the increase is obvious: money.
The purses at Scioto Downs in Columbus were $2,000 to $5,000 a race before the track added VLTs.
Now, they are $5,000 to $25,000, Knappenberger said.
The track owners are required to funnel anywhere from 9 percent to 11 percent of the VLT revenue to the race purses.
“We’ve seen the infancy of the turnaround,” said Dave Basler, executive director of the Grove City-based Ohio Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents owners and trainers at the thoroughbred tracks.
The significance of the horse racing industry may be lost on generations removed from the state’s agricultural base.
But the more horses racing, whether it’s standardbred or thoroughbred, mean more hay, straw, grain and corn sales for Ohio farmers — not to mention the veterinary services, supplies sold at tack shops, and trucks and trailers purchased to haul around those horses.
A 2005 study — the most up to date available — by Deloitte Consulting LLP for the American Horse Council estimated that the Ohio horse industry produces goods and services valued at $1.4 billion. It also said there were 307,000 horses in the state, with 70 percent involved in racing and recreation.
“The first thing the public thinks of is huge corporations that own the racetracks, which is for the most part true, and wealthy horse owners ...,” Knappenberger said.
“They don’t look at the jobs. Trainers. Drivers. The caretakers who groom. Veterinarians. Blacksmiths. Tack dealers. The race secretary. ... Horse racing isn’t just the sport of kings, so to speak. It is a very big contributor to Ohio agriculture.”
When Dr. Michael Latessa graduated from Ohio State University in 2008 and started his career as a veterinarian, he admitted he was concerned about his future in Ohio.
He watched as horsemen and even his fellow veterinarians left the state.
But now, he said it’d be silly for him to go anywhere.
He spends anywhere from 50 to 80 hours a week at the Northfield Park harness track treating horses, working out of the mobile office in his Ford Super Duty 350 pickup.
“It’s going to have a huge effect for the agriculture community in Ohio, which in turn will help the economy,” said Latessa, a veterinarian with Cleveland Equine Clinic in Ravenna. “As far as our business, we’ll be busier as vets obviously because there will be more horses coming in.”
In past years, horse owners reduced the number of their horses to trim costs and some even cut corners when it came to veterinary care, said Dr. Scott Shell of Shell Equine Services in Chagrin Falls, who works at both Northfield Park and the ThistleDown thoroughbred track in North Randall.
It’s not that owners wanted to cut back, he added.
“The problem is the ability to pay your bills,” he said. “Most of us go to sleep at night hoping we can pay our bills and the purse structure was such, with feed and the cost of training, that you can’t afford to make ends meet.”
Coming to Ohio
Horse owners, breeders and trainers have taken notice of Ohio’s comeback — specifically how much horses are selling for now.
A quality weanling sold for $5,000 in Ohio four or five years ago can now go for $30,000.
“That tells you where the industry is going and nationally what people are thinking about as far as Ohio is concerned,” said Dr. Robert Gorham, a veterinarian who runs a thoroughbred farm and training center outside Kalamazoo, Mich. “You talk to people in neighboring states and they are considering and planning on bringing horses into Ohio to foal.”
Gorham owns about 110 horses of racing age and he will race about a third of them at ThistleDown.
He said he wouldn’t be as active in Ohio without the revenue provided by VLTs.
Meanwhile, Jeff Conger of Hudson is one of those owners who has split his time between Ohio and another state.
He races two horses at Northfield Park and two at The Meadows in Washington, Pa.
Once the purses increase at Northfield Park, he won’t go to Pennsylvania anymore.
“It seems to have helped in other states,” Conger said about racinos. “The biggest thing is it just costs so much to do this anymore and our purses are at a lower level than they were in the ’70s and everything costs four times, five times as much.”
The bottom line is that Ohio soon will have a higher quality of race horses, John Mossbarger said.
“I would warn the horsemen in Ohio and the breeders in Ohio that they’re going to upgrade their stock,” he said. “They’re going to have to get better race horses and they are going to have to get better mares because people out of the state that have good horses are going to want to come to Ohio to compete ...
“The competition now? Think of it as ‘AA’ ball and in two years it’s going to be major league. The Tom Bradys will be here in two years. Right now the [Brandon] Weedens are racing.”
Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or email@example.com.