TORONTO — Eugene Melnyk is back in the horse-racing business.
He no longer owns 500-plus quality thoroughbreds but the Ottawa Senators' owner has started rebuilding with a twist: he's breeding horses to sell, not race.
"I used to breed to race and hopefully a stallion would come out of that," Melnyk said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press. "I was successful with a few stallions but that market has changed.
"Used to be if you hit a good stallion you could get $15 million, which pays for a lot of sins. But you can't get that anymore. If you're lucky and have a champion you'll get $5 million and that doesn't pay for all the sins. I'm going to start off with four-to-six breeding this year."
Melnyk, 58, of Toronto, said three will go to Speightstown, the '04 Breeders' Cup sprint champion who's become a top stallion. The others will go to "strategic matches."
Speightstown was Melnyk's top horse — 10 wins, twice second, two thirds in 16 career starts — and remains his favourite. Four years ago Melnyk got out of racing and sold most of his stable but kept breeding rights to Speightstown, who stands at WinStar Farm in Kentucky for a fee of US$100,000.
"What I'm looking for is a Speightstown colt that I have to choose as a follow-up to Speightstown," he said. "I want to keep that bloodline directly and give myself a son out of Speightstown.
"I think I'll use my breeding rights myself. I'll do that for three years and it should give me nine more horses, maybe four or five colts, and I'll take a shot."
But one key to success is not getting attached to the horses, something Melnyk is finding is easier said than done. He currently has a yearling filly out of Shrewsbury Park, an eight-year-old sired by Speightstown, that Melnyk categorizes as "gorgeous."
"It's killing me because I have to be disciplined to sell because those are exactly the ones that feed the rest of your operation," he said. "But you fall in love with them and that's the big problem.
"It's, 'Oh, she's so cute,' and then my girls get into it and say, 'Why would you sell her dad?' and the next thing you know I'm owning and racing her. But that's not the plan."
Yet the battle of head and heart has Melnyk facing a dilemma, adding: "I may keep her to race."
For over two decades, Melnyk was a prominent figure in North American thoroughbred racing, his horses winning 62 graded stakes as well as two Barbados Gold Cups.
Melnyk captured all three legs of the Canadian Triple Crown with Archers Bay (1998 Queen's Plate, Prince of Wales), Lodge Hill (2000 Breeders' Stakes) and Marchfield (2007 Breeders' Stakes). He was the first owner to win the Triple Tiara — the Canadian Triple Crown for fillies — in '07 with temperamental Sealy Hill, Canada's horse of the year, champion grass mare and three-year-old filly.
And then there was Flower Alley, the '05 Grade 1 Travers Stakes winner who finished a game second to St. Liam in a stirring Breeders' Cup Classic. The five-time winner from 13 career starts also sired '12 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner I'll Have Another, owned by J. Paul Reddam of Windsor, Ont.
However, there's no horse more near and dear to Melnyk's heart than Speightstown.
"There were many horses I enjoyed but by far the most enjoyable was Speightstown," he said. "You could see when they pressed the gas on him at the far turn, it was over.
"He just passed everybody like they were standing."
Melnyk earned 12 Sovereign Awards, including top owner (2007, '09) and breeder ('09). Last summer, he was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.
Ironically, it was Sealy Hill's Tiara win that convinced Melnyk to leave racing.
"I was down to the last race of the Triple Tiara for Sealy Hill and my kids were calling me down by the pool," he said. "I was up watching this race with eight minutes to go and said, 'It's a race, I've got thousands of races under me,' and went to the pool.
"That told me it was time to go."
But Melnyk misses not having a stable of racers.
"The thrill of having a horse in a stakes race on a Saturday afternoon and being able to go there and watch it is something I'll always miss," Melnyk said. "But when it comes to the big races, the U.S. Triple Crown, that's when I miss it the most."
Melnyk, the founder and former chairman/CEO of pharmaceutical company Biovail Corp., developed his love of horses as a youngster. He often visited Greenwood Racetrack with his late uncle Leo. Later on came trips with friends to Buffalo, N.Y., before ultimately owning his own barn.
Decades later Melnyk is back, even if on a much smaller scale.
"If you break even or make a little money, that's great," he said. "At least you're kind of still in the game."
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press