Making racehorse ownership affordable for more Islanders
'I see people owning a little bit of a horse and having a lot of fun with it'
Islanders can now buy as little as a one per cent share in a harness racing horse.
These "fractional shares" are a recent trend that are being touted as a way of adding life to the fading industry, getting more people interested in the animals and going to racetracks.
It could be the way of the future for harness racing if we're to survive.— Marc Campbell
"It may seem from the outside to be a little difficult to become part of the community, but actually when you do get involved the community ... are one large family," said Ray MacPherson, co-founder of new website mystandardbred.com, which offers fractional shares.
"We feel that the experience is even more important than the racing itself, because you make so many great friends."
Driver, trainer and owner Marc Campbell, who's been dubbed the "king" of P.E.I. harness racing, is also offering shares of five to 10 per cent in his first fractional or "syndicate" horse, Streakazana.
"I see people owning a little bit of a horse and having a lot of fun with it," Campbell said. "It could be the way of the future for harness racing if we're to survive."
'You can talk to the horse'
Both are following the lead of Anthony MacDonald in Ontario, who runs popular platform TheStable.ca. It currently offers shares in about 130 horses starting at around $100 for one per cent.
Group ownership has been happening for several decades. That's when a group of four or five friends or businesspeople share ownership of a horse.
Fractional shares spread the financial burden and risk — and MacPherson argues, also spread the pleasure of ownership.
"They really are therapeutic, just being around them," he said. "You can talk to the horse and it will listen and it won't talk back."
Mystandardbred.com began offering fractional shares this summer in its first horse, The Fox, for about $360 for one per cent.
So far about 60 per cent of The Fox's shares are sold to a dozen different owners, who get regular video updates on the horse's progress on the website.
The site is also seeking other owners and breeders who want to offer shares in their horses.
'A good system'
"You can't keep all them," said The Fox's original owner, Alby Curran.
Curran and his family have been involved in harness racing for years. His friend, legendary Island horseman Joe Smallwood (whose nickname was The Fox) was selling his farm and gave Curran a mare called J.K. Luck, whose mother was the record-smashing champion J.K. Beauty. Curran bred the mare to Ameripan Gigolo, who had sired some champions, and in April 2017 The Fox was born.
The Fox was supposed to be a fun project for Curran and Smallwood to raise together, but when Smallwood died this past June, Curran decided to team up with MacPherson's platform and offer shares in the horse instead.
"It's a good system," said Curran, who already sold a filly through TheStable.ca in Ontario. "It gets more people into it who can't afford to own a horse or don't want to own a horse by themselves."
The Fox's owners are diverse, including a doctor and an avid racing fan whom they gave a one per cent share as a gift. He plans to keep a few shares of The Fox himself, Curran said.
"I don't think it's any different if you own one per cent of a racehorse or you own it all — when he or she wins a race you get that feeling, you don't get one per cent of the great feeling!"
'Not going to get extremely rich'
Although there are no guarantees, a horse's breeding offers some predictability of his future success, the owners say.
Fractional owners in The Fox sign an agreement up front about the animal's care and training, while Campbell's arrangements are more informal.
Like many old-timers, Curran grew up on a farm and loves harness racing, so he'd love to see the sport continue. He thinks fractional ownership could really help so he is welcoming hobbyists — and their money.
We really feel that once you're in, it'll become a lifelong love.— Ray MacPherson
"Today, people need a pick me up," he said, "Something to keep your mind off your troubles.
"You're not going to get extremely rich and you're not going to go bankrupt over it either," Curran added.
For most people fractional ownership in a P.E.I. horse will be a hobby rather than a moneymaker, said MacPherson, because every year only five or six horses dominate and win most of the money. Others will pay for themselves, while others run at a loss.
"But it's probably going to be one of the most enjoyable hobbies that anybody will ever have, and the cost will be similar or less," MacPherson maintains.
Getting newcomers interested
Demographics on P.E.I. are changing, MacPherson said, which is why he has given presentations on fractional ownership to groups of Island newcomers.
"Because this is part of P.E.I.'s culture for the past 150 years," he said. "The newcomers are looking to become part of our society and they want to be involved and included."
Getting youth involved is important too, he said.
"In today's generation, most people are not exposed to horses, and in my opinion that's the most important part of getting people involved in harness racing is being around the horse physically," he said. Once people fall in love with their horse, they'll want to get more involved in the industry, he said.
"We really feel that once you're in, it'll become a lifelong love," MacPherson said.
Harness racing desperately needs new blood soon, he said.
"If we don't do something and grow this industry, this industry is going to die. There's an urgency there, in my opinion, to do something now," MacPherson said.
'Really good experience'
Shares in Streakazana sold so quickly that Campbell said he's already eager to sell fractional shares in more horses next year.
"Everybody was pretty quick with the five per cent, and some people bought ten," Campbell said. "It's been a really good experience for me."
All the owners are welcome to drop by the track and visit the animals, which Curran and Campbell say hasn't been a problem so far.
One woman who owns five per cent of Streakazana comes by her barn at Red Shores daily to feed her carrots.
"It's nice to see that part of horse racing as well," Campbell said, adding she sometimes brings cookies for the trainers too.
Why it even matters
What difference does it make if P.E.I.'s harness racing dies a natural death?
It pumps tens of millions of dollars into the P.E.I. economy, MacPherson said, so people should care about it.
"This may just seem like a sport to some — it's actually an occupation and a huge driver for economic prosperity of Prince Edward Island," he said.
"The province itself actually benefits from having horse racing around, even if they have to invest some themselves into the industry."
Kent Oakes is on the board of Standardbred Canada and is the civil servant in charge of the harness racing file for the provincial government. He says group and fractional ownership are major trends that are good for the industry.
"It certainly brings out a lot more people to the events to follow every horse, and I think we're going to see a lot more of it," he said.
"In the last two years on Prince Edward Island, we have 105 new memberships in Standardbred Canada," Oakes said, many of whom are involved in group ownership.