Industry Trends: Summing It Up

Staking services play a definite role in today’s version of the game

story by Jay Wolf

Harness racing is full of old adages, including “No hoof, no horse” and “Four white feet, go without him,” but the most important phrase may be “You can’t win it, unless you are in it.”

Thanks to an increasingly arduous world of dual eligibilities, late nominations and supplemental declarations, a vast majority of owners and trainers are turning to staking services to protect their investments.

The ‘Big Three’

Last year, the combined nominations of the “big three” staking services—Bluegrass Staking Service, Joanne’s Staking Service and Chapman’s Staking Service—were behind 91 of the 101 horses eligible to the Hambletonian, and also accounted for 95 percent of the entrants in the Breeders Crown for sophomore colt and gelding pacers.

Bluegrass Staking Service, the largest of the three, was established in 1984 by Teena and Mike Freibert.

Teena worked with the Tattersalls Sale Company and Red Mile and decided it would be better for her soon-to-be family if she found something she could do from home.

“Marie Monahan had the largest staking service (Marie Monahan Staking Service) at the time,” she said. “Her parents worked at Red Mile and they took me under their wing and showed me the ins and outs of staking. I learned about the value of stakes through pedigree research at Tattersalls.

“In July of 1984, we had our first child and two weeks later, I met with an attorney to incorporate the business.”

Over the next 35 years, Bluegrass Staking Service grew to five full-time employees and one part-time employee, handling about 5,000 racehorses and yearlings a year.

Joanne’s Staking Service was founded 38 years ago by Joanne Wray. Wray started by staking for a couple of friends, and as others discovered her talents they asked for her help. Her business snowballed from there.

Brothers-in-law Jim Inglis and Chris Mowat took the reins from Wray last year and now own the Ontario-based service.

Inglis started in the harness game as a groom at Greenwood Raceway when he was 14 years old.

“I knew Joanne and her husband, Jerry,” Inglis said. “She was looking to retire and cut back. She wanted to find someone who knew the horse business and would take care of her clients. I worked with Joanne for about three years.”

Joanne’s Staking Service now stakes 1,500 horses a year, with more than 80 percent hailing from Canada.

“We have some stateside clients as well,” Inglis said. “We also have a couple of clients in England.”

Cindy Chapman-Koch established Chapman’s Staking Service more than a decade ago. Chapman-Koch is the daughter of John Chapman, a member of both the U.S. and Canadian halls of fame. Her grandfather, Clifford Chapman, is a 1989 member of the Canadian Hall of Fame.

Chapman-Koch spent time with Buffalo Raceway and the Hambletonian Society before launching her business.

Protecting Investments

With yearling prices increasing in many jurisdictions, paying close attention to the various nomination and sustaining deadlines could be the difference between profits and losses for breeders and owners.

Staking services will make recommendations to breeders when it comes to yearling staking, as their experience tells them what the yearling buyers are looking for.

The staking process starts with a schedule of all the available stakes a horse is eligible for across North America and—sometimes with select trotters—Sweden. With the calendar, owners and trainers can map out their horses’ 2- and 3-year-old seasons.

Staking can become a costly venture for the connections.

“We’ll help the owner get the most bang for their buck,” Inglis said. “When it comes to racehorses, those decisions need to be made by the owner and the trainer. My job is to not blow our clients’ money. We want to advise them wisely as to what is out there.

“Most of our trainers want nothing to do with the staking. It is a big headache and takes a lot of time. If you miss a payment, you are in big trouble and must explain to the owners who spent $200,000 on a colt and can’t race in stakes races.”

Freibert has her own outlook on what staking services should offer.

“Our job is to give all the information that they will need to make an intelligent decision,” she said. “We’ll keep an eye out for our client’s selections and if we see an obvious mistake, we will be sure to let them know.

“For the information and services we provide, $250-$270 is the best deal in harness racing. It is a really good way to protect your investment.”

Communication Is Key

Communication between the staking services and their clients is essential for optimal results.

“It is really important for our clients to have open lines of communication,” Freibert said. “Everything that we do is on such a tight schedule.”

An increasing challenge for staking services is receiving information from racetracks and sponsors for any changes in their schedules. On many occasions, staking services are left to their own devices to determine alterations in conditions or race dates.

With an Eye to the Future

For owners who purchased yearlings at last fall’s yearling sales, the first of several sustaining payments must be made before their horses can start racing.

For a yearling colt pacer to participate in the 2021 pacing Triple Crown, the connections will need to pony up $1,200 in 2-year-old sustaining fees. Add the Meadowlands Pace to the agenda and that is an additional $400.

“It is tough for these owners to stake these horses in February,” Inglis said. “You have yearlings from the fall sales but come February, you don’t know what kind of horse you have yet.”

“The payment schedule used to be a standard schedule, mostly February and March,” Freibert said. “But all that went out the window with the creation of the big 2-year-old events at The Meadowlands. The concept of the escalating payments—February, March, April and May—and racing those events as an early closer, that was the beginning of the de-standardization. Thirty-five years ago, you never saw payments due in the summer and fall. We now have payments leaving here every month.”

While the business model for staking companies is based on the future, these companies also keep a close eye on the foal numbers.

“Whether the horse population numbers overall are up or not, the sales numbers seem to be pretty steady as for the number of horses in sales,” Inglis said. “We need to keep people breeding horses.”

The increasing opportunities for dual sire-stakes eligibility, while a boon for owners, can complicate staking.

To help alleviate any confusion, Freibert and her staff have created a stallion database to simplify the process. The company is also working on a dam database so no dual eligibility opportunities are missed.

Friendly Competition

“Cindy, Teena and Mike are great people. We all get along; we work together,” Inglis said. “We don’t go after each other’s business. There is lots to go around and we need each other to share information. I think the world of all three of them . . . When we took over from Joanne, they were really welcoming and great people to work with.”

While amicable with each other, the services do pay close attention to race results and year-end awards. Obviously, they root for their clients.

Many clients of Bluegrass Staking Service were on the list of top earners of 2019—Shartin N, Manchego, Greenshoe, Bettor’s Wish, Tall Drink Hanover and Papi Rob Hanover.

Chapman patrons included Caviart Ally and Real Cool Sam.

Top older pacers McWicked (2018 Horse of the Year) and Jimmy Freight were a couple of Inglis’ favorites.

“McWicked has been a horse of ours since day one. It was sad to see him retire,” Inglis said. “To watch McWicked all those years was fun. We had Forbidden Trade win the Hambletonian. You want all your clients to do well, that is for sure.”

Jay Wolf is the publicity director for the Little Brown Jug in Delaware, Ohio. To comment on this story, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.

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