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Standardbred racing owners feeling financial pinch in Ohio

By DOUG GRAVES
Ohio Correspondent

GERMANTOWN, Ohio — My Leisure Farm on state Route 123 between Carlisle and Germantown is a 65-acre paradise for local horsemen.

With 17 miles of adjacent riding trails for Saddlebreds, a half-mile track for Standardbreds and picture-perfect stables, horsemen in Warren County, Preble County and Montgomery County have all the amenities that any horseman would desire. But the stables at this farm, which has been in existence for more than 30 years, aren’t as busy as they have been in recent years, and there are more feral cats on the premise than horses.

A sign of the times? Not really. Horsemen at the stable simply blame a recent failed levy for not allowing casinos in Ohio. “If the slots came in we’d be doing well,” said Leisure Farm manager Rick Gehron. “If we had casinos we’d have more horses, bigger purses and more people.”

Gehron, a harness driver and trainer, occasionally takes his horses to Lebanon Raceway, but more often takes his stable out of Ohio where the purses are bigger.

“Years ago Lebanon Raceway used to charge people to park and charge for admission to the grandstands, but simulcast racing did away with all that, and when simulcast racing came in horsemen thought they’d get a cut of the pie, but not much of that money is going to the horsemen.”

Last fall Ohioans voted down a levy which would have allowed casinos in the state. One such casino (and horse track) was projected to be build in Monroe.

“Racehorse owners just can’t make ends meet nowadays,” Gehron said. “Purses are at the same level they were 15 years ago. It’s pitiful. And because of the low purses, people won’t bring good horses to Ohio.”

Gehron works from dawn to dusk each day. He tends to a stable of five, though he has as many as 22 in his care. Last season Gehron earned $14,000 in purse money in Ohio, but earned $176,000 racing in Illinois.

His top pacer has earned $25,000 in 13 starts. “In 13 starts at Lebanon Raceway I’d be lucky to made $3,000,” Gehron said. “We’re dying around here and something needs to be done about it. All Ohio horsemen are feeling the pinch.”

Bill Sizemore echoes Gehron’s sentiments, feeling his pinch mostly when it comes time to feed horses in his stable.

“Horse feed costs are out of hand,” Sizemore said. “A ton of corn used to cost about $168 but now it’s up to $286 a ton. Corn prices have nearly doubled because corn is used in the production of ethanol and there are two ethanol plants in the area. I don’t see how beef producers stay in business.”

Standardbred ownership is anything but cheap. Stud fees can cost up to $3,500 and owners often spend another $2,000 the first year long before a horse hits the track. Veterinarian fees can be quite expensive ($200 per visit as an average), as can farrier fees ($70 per shoe). Other fees include stable and feed costs.

“I’ve seen better times for the horse industry,” said George Martin, 74, of Germantown. “I started breeding horses in Illinois in the 80s. I used to race at Lebanon Raceway, but now I head to Indiana Downs and Hoosier Park in Indiana. And you can’t sell an Ohio-bred racehorse nowadays, there’s just no money in the state.”

According to Gehron, younger people aren’t getting into the Standardbred racing business in Ohio. Difficult times are keeping young people away and keeping better horses out of the state as well.

“We need the casinos in this state, that’s all there is to it,” Gehron said. “Until then most horsemen will head to other states.”

This farm news was published in the March 28, 2007 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.

3/28/2007