Reined in by fuel costs

Trainers pinched by soaring expense of shipping thoroughbreds


June 24, 2008|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN REPORTER

Gasoline prices are going up, and trainer Dane Kobiskie thinks they're going to stay up. Because of that, he signed up for eight stalls at Colonial Downs this summer and is considering buying his own van to be able to ship his horses more cheaply.

There is nothing cheap now about shipping costs or any other costs associated with thoroughbred racing.

"I thought if I could stable the horses that run most often at Colonial, it would save money," said Kobiskie, a former jockey who began his training career in mid-February. "And I thought if I ship out of town 40 times over two months this summer at a cost of from $800 to $900 and a van costs $30,000, it would almost pay for itself, and then I'd still have the van afterward."

With no racing in Maryland again for two months this summer, the state's horsemen are hitting the road as gas prices continue to top $4 a gallon.

"Transportation costs are going up; everything we're buying now is costing more," trainer Hamilton Smith said. "Hay, straw, grain. Like human consumption, it's all going up, and fuel has something to do with that. Most of the [vendors] now want to be paid on delivery, too. That has to do with fuel costs. It makes it pretty hard."

Not everyone sees the increased expense in the same light. Trainer Richard Small acknowledges the increase, pointing out that when he took a large truckload of horses from Pimlico to South Carolina and back last week, the fuel for his truck cost as much as he used to charge his owners for the entire trip, $500.

"The cost of fuel is hurting everyone, not just horsemen," he said. "But it is hard to feel sorry for us when we're getting free stables. This stable area shouldn't be open. We're not racing, and at most tracks when racing season is over, the barns are closed. But here [the Maryland Jockey Club] is keeping three stable areas open for nothing. We should be thanking our lucky stars, not complaining about the cost of gas."

Still, there is no doubt the pinch of gas prices is hurting, and everyone is trying to cover increased costs. Some trainers include the cost of shipping in the fees they charge horse owners. Others pass the vanning bills directly to the owner. Either way, the owner isn't happy.

"Owners pay the shipping costs," trainer Ben Feliciano said. "But when they're unhappy, it trickles down to me. All the van drivers have had to raise their rates."

Paul Plymire, who operates four trucks under the name Equine Transportation, said fuel prices have risen 75 percent in the past two years.

"To try to keep up and not go broke, I've raised my rates 15 percent, even though my cost has gone from about $2.50 a gallon to almost $5 in some areas," he said. "I'm not raising it fast enough to keep up with what the fuel companies are doing."

Plymire said he tried adding a fuel charge to his bills but got so many complaints that he simply raised his rates.

"But I've put a note in with the bills asking people to be patient," he said. "If the fuel prices come down, so will my bills."

Equine Transportation charges $900 to take one horse to Colonial Downs from Pimlico, Laurel or Bowie, and $500 apiece for two.

Last year, a trainer could have shipped his horses to Colonial Downs from Pimlico and Laurel for free if he took the van provided by the Virginia track. This year, there is no free van.

The van service to Colonial Downs, which started as a shared expense between the track and the Maryland Jockey Club when the Jockey Club also managed Colonial, had continued as a Colonial Downs service until this year.

"When we came under different management, MJC rightly declined to continue to share the cost, and we kept the van going as a way to ease the transition and get more horses here," Colonial Downs general manager Iain Woolnough said. "But my vanning costs last year were $157,000. This year, with fuel costs doubling and tripling, it would not have been feasible to keep running it."

Because of the discontinued service and because of the increase in fuel prices, some trainers are taking their horses to Charles Town, W.Va. ($375), and Delaware Park ($425), where the trip is shorter and less expensive, and the purses are bigger.

"If you're racing at, say, Colonial Downs, you've got to make $500 just to pay your shipping costs, and if you're running cheap, that gets pretty hard if you're not the winner," said Jay Stone, who owns Taking Risks Stables in Westminster.

"If you're running in a $10,000 race at Colonial and win, you get 57 percent of the purse, $5,700. Out of that, you pay 10 percent to the jock, 10 percent to the trainer. That's over a grand. Then you have your shipping costs, $500, and clearly you better win, because you're only getting $2,000 for second, and when you make those same deductions from $2,000, you see it isn't economically feasible."

If they were running for purses of $100,000 or so, owners wouldn't feel the pain of higher shipping costs as much. A few trainers who will ship to Presque Isle Downs, near Erie, Pa., this summer to run for bigger purses will pay shipping fees of $1,000 to $1,400.

Trainer Dale Capuano said that no matter where a trainer takes a horse these days, he wants to be confident that he'll finish in the money.

"I definitely go more to Charles Town and Delaware than Virginia or Presque Isle," Capuano said. "Last year, I ran 18 horses in Virginia. This year, so far, one, and I probably will run only six or eight the rest of the year.

"What happens when the vanning is significantly higher is when you put a horse in a race out of town, you watch to see how the field fills, and if you don't think your horse will finish well, you scratch. It's just not worth it to make the trip."

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