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ihype
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What a steal on a closed deal worth @$20M.
Fabled Armbro falls into capable hands
Dave Perkins -The Toronto Star

AS BRAND names go, Armbro is either the Coke or the Pepsi of harness racing.

The giant Canadian trotting nursery, founded by brothers Ted and Elgin Armstrong nearly 50 years ago, remains a world leader in the production of young racehorses, all of which at least leave the Inglewood, Ont., farm bearing the name Armbro Thisorthat. (Only the mighty Hanovers are as recognizable among the sulky set.) Soon, though, comes a significant change: The Armstrongs are out of Armbro.

Ted and Elgin long ago passed away, son Charlie is an octogenarian and his children and grandchildren have splintered the asset into small ownership pieces. It was time to pull it all back together and a pair of Toronto investors, brothers Paul and John Simmonds, have done that. In a deal scheduled to close later this month, possibly worth something approaching $20 million, although no one will say the number out loud, they purchased the 1,100-acre farm, breeding and racing stock and, more importantly, the brand name.

Happily, the farm will remain as a cornerstone of the again healthy Canadian harness racing industry, a game given a monumental bump by the introduction of slot machines less than two years ago.

"It has been the leader and hopefully we'll continue operating it the same way,'' Paul Simmonds said yesterday. "We may streamline it a little bit. We may reduce the broodmare band (from 180) a little bit, but I don't know any numbers. We also would like to expand certain parts of the business.''

He said they would like to bump up both the frozen semen business — it's allowed now, taking chilled essence of stallion to a mare in, say, Europe — and the embryo transfer end, part of the planned parenthood for racehorses that has become so scientific, but always rests on the worthy old advice of breeding the best to the best and hoping for the best.

That name, though: Simmonds. If it rings a golfing bell, it should. Another brother, Bruce Simmonds, runs Club- Link, where Paul Simmonds used to work, and if that broodmare band gets cut down and someone were to wedge a little golf course on to a corner of those 1,100 acres, well, who would be truly surprised?

The land, up Highway 10, is zoned green and when everything went on the block almost a year ago, developers who began to mentally measure the land for condos were told neither they nor their children would live long enough to see houses on the land where some fabulous trotting and pacing champions were born and raised.

The Simmonds brothers have been in harness racing for about 15 years. The first trotter they bred and raced was Westgate Crown, winner of more than $2.5 million. They plan to keep the Armbro racing operations going — currently 14 young horses — and they'll maintain the stallions and most of the mares and, with farm president Dr. Moira Gunn staying on, they hope they'll keep the status quo. They've bought a legendary name in Canadian sports here, so that entails responsibility, too. Good luck to them.

"I just love the business. We're excited,'' Simmonds said — and this was before the Woodbine Entertainment Group revealed its 2001 bottom line for wagering. The former Ontario Jockey Club reports betting on harness and thoroughbred racing in 2001, including simulcasting, jumped 11 per cent to $1.357 billion, up from $1.22 billion in 2000. More importantly, the hugely hyped slot machines, a popular wagering alternative at racetracks across Ontario, did not take business away form the ponies, which increased substantially.

Plus, the purses fattened by the slots' arrival have bettered the quality of racing, which leads to more betting from abroad via simulcasting, which means better purses, etc. It's therefore a very positive cycle again and a few miles away up Highway 10, a new set of owners of a Canadian sports institution is banking it stays that way.


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