Melissa Keith, After the Wire

Melissa Keith

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Growing up, my father sometimes mentioned wanting to purchase a racehorse. As a Revenue Canada auditor and father of seven, however, he erred on the side of caution and never took the plunge. With the 2021 Atlantic Classic Yearling Sale coming up on October 8, I reached out to a 35-year Revenue Canada colleague of Dad’s, to ask about how he has managed to balance fiscal prudence with owning and racing Standardbreds in the Maritimes.  

Charlie Piper Jr. was at the PEI Colt Stakes last Saturday (September 18), when his three-year-old Stonebridge Terror gelding Tobins Native finished third in a Grassroots division. “That’s only the second time I’ve been to the Island in the last year-and-a-half. I wasn’t feeling myself two years ago, and the pandemic stopped me last year,” he tells Atlantic Post Calls. Although double-vaccinated, he wasn’t sure if he would attend this year’s Atlantic Classic Sale.

“That remains in question. My partners [Robert “Sonny” Siteman and William “Sandy” Shearer], I don’t think either one of them wants to buy a yearling. I bought the one last year on my own.” Tobins Reward is now shared with Darren Crowe’s young son, Brennan. “When [Darren] got her home last year, he looked at her and she looked pretty good. We trained her fast and she raced, but she’s got a problem with nerves. She stopped eating. It’s like stress to her. We’re hoping she outgrows it, because we trained her in 2:00 and Darren thought she’d go in :58 this year.”

“Last year, I liked Tobins Native. He’s a big, tall horse and he’s not filled out yet. I think he’s going to be a real strong four-year-old. That mare has produced three in 1:52 down in the States. They’ve sold them down the States and they've gone in :52.” 

Piper says “we just hit the wrong year” to campaign Tobins Native, the Tobago Cays filly’s older half-brother, in one of the toughest-ever three-year-old male pacing divisions in the region. “We wanted a colt that would go in :55. Well, he went in :55. Trouble is, everybody else was going :53 and :54!” he quips. 

The longtime owner says he may still consider a yearling, although dam Eternal Optimism does not have a sibling to Tobins Reward and Tobins Native in this year’s sale. “I might review the catalogue and see if I can get something I think is reasonable,” adds Piper. He prefers an Atlantic-eligible colt or filly to Ontario-eligible, due to the costs involved: “I don’t need that, because I don’t like paying Ontario Sires Stakes at $600 a throw. It’s about $3,000 a month, I guess. If you’re not winning money, you’re in trouble, unless you’ve got very deep pockets.”

Piper Jr. is a second-generation horse owner who prefers to watch his stock race at Truro and Inverness. He’s shared ownership of horses who have gone on to success outside the Maritimes, sometimes not even waiting to race them in local stakes. “You know that Something Reel that I had?” he asks. “Now she’s taken a record of 1:51 and got $150,000 or so on her card [p, 5, 1:51.4f; $169,835 US]. We figured she’d go in :54 here and that she might be the best three-year-old, but you know, a guy comes along with some money, and sometimes they’ve just got to go.” 

Crunching the numbers, it often makes sense to sell if a young horse captures early attention. “Darren [Crowe] says that by the time you enter everything and do all the trucking and pay all the board, to get what was offered to us, you’d have to earn maybe $75,000 or $80,000. Because you’ve got a lot of expenses when you’re trucking around with colts.”

Cost is not all that keeps new and younger buyers from investing in the Atlantic yearling market. “I think it’s a combination of things,” says Piper Jr. “I think that there’s no history for a lot of young people. They haven’t grown up around the horses and don’t know too much about it.” His father, Charles Piper Sr., had horses at Sackville Downs as far back as the late 1950s. “I went into the money-making end of it: I officiated for about four years. I was the presiding judge for the winter meets at Sackville Downs, in the late 60s-early 70s. Actually, I was doing two tracks [Sackville and Truro] for a while, which meant I was watching races like five nights a week.” 

While he is no longer a racing official, Piper Jr. stays involved with the sport from an owner’s perspective. “I like being around the horses and I like most of the horsemen,” he notes. “You don’t need to make money at everything. You can’t afford to do everything you’d like to do, but I’ve got things in hand as long as I have partners.” When it comes to buying yearlings, he follows and shares the following advice: “I always say to everybody, the price is the small part. It’s keeping them that’s expensive.” 

Piper has enjoyed success with many horses over the years, usually in partnerships. “I’ve had pretty good luck since Sonny and I started to partner, and then we picked up Sandy Shearer, and we’ve had several horses together, but they’re not going to buy yearlings this year.” He owned two broodmares, one of whom never produced a foal, and the other, Ohio-bred Total Time (p, 4, 2:09.3h; $2,192 US), who produced a three-year-old of the year “back in the day”: the Ricks Colt filly Im a Devil ( p,3, 2:08.3h; $12,473 US), foaled in 1975. 

One horse of special note for Piper was Spring Trust (p, 8, 2:04.4h; $9,274 US), a gelding he owned in the glory days of Sackville Downs and EPR. “I had horses before that, but Spring Trust is one we bought when Francis McIsaac was alive. He was Australian-bred and a guy from Australia had a bunch of horses that he left with Francis to sell. [...] Myself and Peter Foy ended up with the horse. He was a real nice horse, and Francis, before he died, was planning to take him to Montreal for the winter. He was the last horse that Francis finished a race on. He was killed in the next race.”

“Then we brought [Spring Trust] down and Dave Pinkney had him,” continues the Lower Sackville, NS resident, who still resides near the former site of Sackville Downs. “We had some guys up from New York and they wanted to buy him; they liked him. I won’t mention names, but a guy pulled off the rail right beside him and hit his front leg when it was planted and sprung his knee.” Despite efforts to resume racing, Piper says the injury prematurely ended Spring Trust’s racing career. “And we didn’t get any insurance out of it, because they said, ‘Well, you could use it as a riding horse!’ A $15,000 riding horse? So I’ve never insured another one since.”

The retired auditor has plenty of thoughts about succeeding as an owner in the racing game, which will continue in the next edition of APC. 

Note: Last edition, this column looked into the legalization of single-event sports wagering in Canada. The day that APC came out (August 27), Atlantic Lottery issued a media release stating that it would be offering single-event sport wagering to online and storefront Pro-Line players in PEI, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador. “Many Atlantic Canadians are already taking part in single-event sports wagering through the numerous unauthorized sports betting websites that are actively marketing in our region,” noted Patrick Daigle, Atlantic Lottery president and CEO, in the release. 

The document also notes that “Atlantic Lottery is working with its provincial shareholders on the next steps to be able to provide this option across Atlantic Canada.” Nova Scotia was not included among the provinces in the release. Sports betting under Bill C-218 became legal August 27, after Canadian Criminal Code amendments were passed in Parliament last June.

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