Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Virginia's 'vanishing' breeding biz

I've alluded to this fact in a prior blog, and The Washington Post caught up to the story for Tuesday's editions. (You'll need a free logon I.D. to read.)

Thoroughbred race-breeding farms in Virginia are becoming very few and quite far between. From my limited experience as a budding horseman in my neighboring state -- plus evidence that continues to pile up -- it has a lot to do with the men and women in Virginia's government not really caring enough about the industry enough to cultivate it. And the fact that a significant percentage of the general public neither appreciates, nor understands horse racing.

Virginia has a fine racing venue in Colonial Downs. I happen to like the location, a rural setting near Interstate 64 on the way from Richmond to Virginia Beach, but apparently it isn't closer to bigger markets because of the NIMBY factor -- Not in My Back Yard. (Dear North Carolina: Feel free to build a racetrack in my actual back yard.)

But other than horsemen themselves, Virginians' minds are consumed by visions of the venue, off-track betting and the controversial notion of slots or other gaming to augment revenues.

Witness the immediate response of Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine when asked by a radio show host to comment on the Post's story about the loss of farms. Kaine can't get his mind off the gambling: "We have a track," he said, "we have a lottery and that's enough for me." It took multiple attempts for the program's moderator to get Kaine merely to understand that the question was about raising horses, not racing them or, the logical leap in the mind of the governor, the subject of gambling on those horses.

Kaine goes on to say that Virginia has "a number of good raising opportunities," though he admits to not being an expert on the race scene. That lack of expertise is clear, for when it comes to breeding and raising racers, the Virginia horse business could be on its last legs.

Despite the superb track that Kaine touts, Virginia's breeding, foaling and horse-development businesses are tanking. In the 1960s, Virginia was home to around 1,400 new thoroughbred foals a year; now that figure is closer to 350. As I've blogged before, the Virginia stallion scene has wilted from 154 studs serving 837 mares in 1991, to 41 stallions serving just 123 Virginia mares in 2008. I suspect the numbers will be worse again in 2009.

How many millions of dollars in Virginia income (and taxes) are lost in that decline? How many hundreds or thousands of jobs have disappeared? How many farms are folded, their green spaces paved over for a Super Wal-Mart parking lot or turned into cookie-cutter houses?

It's all but certain Tim Kaine isn't aware of those figures; nor are most members of Virginia's legislature. Perhaps it's equally likely that they don't care. That's both wrongheaded and sad.

Racing is, or should be, a key element of any thriving Virginia equine industry, particularly since the state does maintain a racing venue. And that equine industry is bigtime business for Virginia. The law firm of Sands, Anderson, Marks & Miller, which numbers equine law among its specialties, cites the horse biz as a $1.65 billion annual industry for the state, in some fashion still supporting up to 20,000 jobs. If virtually any other industry that helped employ 20,000 in the Old Dominion were struggling, you can bet Tim Kaine and the legislature would take note, and try to do something to help.

Meanwhile, many laymen simply consider horse racing, and the gambling that surrounds it, a vice that Virginia would be better off without. They figure a track and nine OTBs are more than enough, even if there doesn't happen to be a wagering facility anywhere near most of the 3.5 million who live in Northern Virginia, losing an estimated $100 million in wagering annually to neighboring states. And there's no way these opponents of horseplaying want slots or other gaming approved for the state.

Fully detailing all the present challenges about the breeding business in Virginia, and all the potential fixes, would be better-suited for a future post. (Or a book.) Suffice to say that while 100 percent owner's bonuses paid at Colonial Downs last year were great, they do little or nothing for the breeder who sold that foal to the racing connections. And with a brilliant but brief Colonial meeting that completely lacks a Virginia stallion series (like successful models in New York, Louisiana and elsewhere, stakes races for which only foals sired in Virginia would be eligible), there's almost no point in standing a sire in Virginia.

The numbers don't lie. If action isn't taken soon, the race-breeding business in Virginia will die.

Of course, then it won't cost much at all to fund 100 percent owner's bonuses for VA-breds running among open company at Colonial.

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