Written by: Hayley Morrison
Anthony Bilotta feeling right at home in Alberta at Peaceful Valley Farm.
“He used to be my screensaver on my computer. Every day I would wake up, do real estate and I would see this horse run across the finish line winning the Derby Trial and there was Alydeed,” said Anthony Bilotta barely pausing to catch a breath as he gushed about the champion racehorse and stud. “Alydeed, who I call the great Alydeed, was a horse trained by Roger Attfield and owned by Woodbine’s chairman of the board at the time, the Willmots.”
Little did Bilotta know then, but the 1992 Queen’s Plate champ would inspire him to buy a thoroughbred breeding operation near Didsbury, AB.
In 2013, Bilotta was driving to visit his son at Olds College about a 15-20 minute drive from Peaceful Valley Farms (where Alydeed resides) when his wife Janice came up with an idea. “My wife said to me, ‘You know, Alydeed is right nearby. Why don’t we go visit and go get a picture of him?’ We decided to go see him and sure enough while we were there Linda Johnston says, ‘You want to see Alydeed? Come on, you can come see the big guy.’ She put the shank on him led him out of the barn. I was in awe of this particular horse. He was absolutely gorgeous.”
Jack and Linda Johnston who owned the farm at that time noted Bilotta’s interest in the stallion, especially his verve for the bloodline and threw out an idea to the real estate land assembler.
“Once I saw him, old farmer Jack said to me, ‘Well, you know we are interested in selling the farm. We would like to stay on and if you are interested we would be glad to stay here because we don’t want to go until he’s gone. We can’t leave Aly.’”
Immersed within the sport of kings from a young age including walking hots at Woodbine for Lou Cavalaris Jr. in the ‘60s and additionally working with standardbreds out west, Bilotta didn’t hesitate with his decision.
“The next thing you know we were back visiting, we did the deal between us and they are still on the farm to this day, Jack and Linda.”
For the last three years under the watchful eye of Bilotta, Peaceful Valley continues to be a tight knit family operation. The Johnstons manage daily operations, Bilotta’s wife tends to the bookkeeping and their son, Bryan Schoures, is the blacksmith for all the horses on the farm.
“We have one son who lives at the farm and oversees the horses’ progress with their young feet from babies to yearlings right into the sales. We are protected that way,” said Bilotta. “We have another co-worker of Brian’s who is also a blacksmith and our idea is to have good sound feet. You know the old adage, ‘no foot, no horse.’”
On top of healthy hooves, the vitality and well being of his breeding stock remains of the utmost importance to Bilotta who recently acquired the services of Gayle Cummings, a vet that specializes in reproduction.
At the heart of the operation are the horses. The 160-acre farm is home to approximately 70 thoroughbreds including a combination of several stallions, broodmares, weanlings and yearlings.
Last year, Bilotta purchased Gottcha Gold, another stallion to add to their roster.
“Gottcha Gold was a lovely purchase for his bloodlines and breeding. It couldn’t have been a better opportunity to have that blessing come upon us. His mother produced stakes horses and stakes-placed horses in the Big Apple especially with American Freedom being out of Gottcha Last.”
Bred by Centaur Farms, Gottcha Gold was a multiple graded stakes winner and finished second in the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. His breeding career began in 2009 and his leading prodigy so far is Deland a Grade 1 stakes winner in Puerto Rico.
The Grade 3 Florida-bred winner was an extremely attractive buy for Bilotta who noted the presence of Ribot in his bloodline. Bilotta’s father had instilled the importance of having a stallion like Ribot present in a horse’s lineage.
“He used to say, ‘If you are going to be in the breeding industry one of the best foundations are those two Italian stallions.’ Of course, Ribot was born in Great Britain, but he was trained by the great Tesio and was undefeated. And also Nearco was trained by the great Tesio and also undefeated. One was 14-for-14 and one was 16-for-16, and they became our foundation stallions in the North American continent, as a foundation point forward.”
Understanding the pivotal role a horse’s bloodline plays in determining how fast and how far his offspring will run also impacted Bilotta’s decision to purchase Florida bred stallion Omega Code.
“He was a speedball. He was a two-year-old track record setter as a sprinter and on the west coast we have what you call the bull-ring tracks, the smaller ring tracks at the time of the purchase. Now we are going to get our mile track finally being built in northern Alberta by the airport. They are finally going to build a beautiful racetrack and a chance for our horses to stretch out. But, in the meantime for most of our races that are on the west coast, we wanted a two-year-old (sprinter) that would produce a two-year old runner and that’s the original reason I bought Where’s The Ring and brought him out west.”
Where’s The Ring was part of Peaceful Valley’s stallion roster for a couple years before being shipped back east.
“There was an outcry for him to come back to Ontario and of course through Colebrook Farm and Bernard McCormack, we were able to broker the deal to bring him back home to be at Colebrook Farm with Mr. Burness and that would ‘ducktail’ the current band of stallions that he has. We have retained breeding rights to him till this day.”
With Where’s The Ring returning to Ontario, Bilotta went on to buy Omega Code, a dark bay son of Elusive Quality in Kentucky at the 2015 Keeneland November Sale. The 17-year-old stallion stood at Rockin Z Ranch in Oklahoma prior to the sale.
“(Omega Code) was one of the leading sires by Elusive Quality and had more U.S. runners than other horses. I learned that Rockin Z was having a dispersal sale. So, I guess they were finding good homes for these horses and that’s how we ended up with (Omega Code).”
Given the long trek from the U.S. to Alberta, Bilotta credits Linda for getting the horse to Peaceful Valley in one piece.
“Thanks to Linda Johnston, I believed she saved his life getting him out of Oklahoma, through the sale, arranging for us to get him out of Keeneland to Toronto and Toronto to the West Coast. It was quite a trip for him, but she fought hard to get him. She walked this horse at least a mile by herself every day up a hill… she got him so healthy he looks like a bull moose now.”
Bilotta is extremely pleased with the progress the stallion has made since coming to the farm.
“He looks like he is raring to go. He’s got flaring nostrils now, he comes out on his toes. He sweet talks to girls. He actually has a conversation with them before he breeds.”
Their third stallion and family member, the great Alydeed, has been at stud duty for the last two decades but remains a valuable asset to Bilotta’s business.
“He is active for our own personal use. If he is feeling like he wants to stretch his limbs and we have a mare that matches him, then we are going to bring them to him.”
The multiple graded stakes winner who turned 28 this year has also given direction to Bilotta’s breeding operation with the purchase of stakes-winning mare Shanali. A daughter of Alydeed out of Shaniah (by Regal Remark) Shanali will be Bilotta’s foundation mare and carry on Alydeed’s bloodline.
“Hopefully, this will help to improve the breeding in Alberta and service the improvement program for all stallions and all breeders in the province, so that we can all have an opportunity to come back and race in the Big Apple of Canada — which is Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack — and hopefully the eastern seaboard in the United States as well.”
Despite two recent additions to Peaceful Valley’s stallion roster and Bilotta’s enthusiasm on future breeding stock, Canada’s thoroughbred breeding industry continues to face a downward trend in sales at the auction block. Between 2015 and 2016 there was 27 per cent decrease in prices of yearlings purchased at the Alberta division of the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society (CTHS) sale.
More worrisome was the decrease in the average buying price for those yearlings. In 2015, the average price for a yearling was $11,369 and last year the average selling price dropped to $8,253.
Bilotta is concerned about the state of the breeding industry but offers a plausible solution for both seasoned buyers and newbies in the racing game.
“Get in early – get out early with your money. You don’t have to wait to three or four years of age to get your horses to the track – and that’s advantageous to a buyer new into the business. If they bought a nice baby out of a good stallion that produces two year-old runners – that would be a tell to look for when you are buying into the business.”
That is one of the reasons he bought stallions like Gottcha Gold and Omega Code.
“They can produce two-year-old runners and get started real early and they can sprint. And, of course, Gottcha Gold is a miler so I will have the best of short and getting up to the mile and a mile and sixteenth range real quick with those babies.” In terms of stud fees, Gottcha Gold will stand for $2,500 while Omega Code will stand for $2,000 this year.
In regards to the racing side of things, Bilotta also has some thoughts.
“Let’s get back to five days of racing at our grounds. Let’s increase the number of races per day. But we have to have a year where we say the following ‘folks we are going to increase the racing dates next year, get all the broodmares you can, start breeding and we need a cycle to get back to. You carry for 11 months, then you have the weanling year, then you have yearling year and then you have the two year old. You have three years to get through.’”
This year, Bilotta intends to send four yearlings to the Alberta division of the CTHS sale. His yearlings are out of Where’s The Ring and his crop of foals are out of Omega Code and Alydeed.
Although Bilotta remains full of purpose to reinvigorate the state of the industry he is also keenly aware that he must take it day by day.
“I think one of the things you learn as the farmer (Jack) said, ‘you don’t want to think you know everything Anthony.’ He said, ‘when you get into the business you have to go slow and weigh out all your options and know that you are the CEO of every horse’s move and that you have to really look ahead about his career and what is best for them. Some are just not built to run, some are meant to be in the shed and some need more time, especially when you are looking at knees that are still open and not closed.’ We want to make sure their knees are x-rayed, they have a healthy foot, they have a clear eye, a nice disposition and of course the bloodline is where it’s at.”
Falling into the business because he fell in love with one horse, Bilotta couldn’t be happier with his current hand in life.
“Life is what it is. You get pulled left, you get pulled right in many careers, but my passion always remains – that one day I would have a farm and I would have the opportunity to win the Kentucky Derby.”
The farm is a reality and the Derby may be a distant dream, but Bilotta remains steadfast about the future.
“I will win the Kentucky Derby one day with one of my own horses.”
When that time comes and his Derby horse arrives, you know what Bilotta’s next screen saver will be.