Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Virginia's breeding business: Chickens and goose eggs

Virginia might be for lovers, but these days it's hardly for thoroughbred breeders.

That sad state of affairs -- particularly appalling to those who appreciate the Old Dominion's equine history -- is readily discernible in the numbers. I've harped on it before, but it bears at least summarizing again: Since 1991, the oldest records available online from The Jockey Club, Virginia's stallion numbers have declined from 154 resident sires serving 837 mares to a mere 41 stallions covering 123 mares in 2008.

In 1991, Virginia's number of registered thoroughbred foals totaled 747. By 1997, the number of foals registered in Virginia had plummeted to 517, and a decade later had fallen another 22 percent to 401.

It's abundantly clear where the business has gone; it's close by in neighboring states. From 1997 to 2007, West Virginia's foal crop ballooned 237 percent, from a paltry 194 registered foals to 654. Pennsylvania's crop swelled by 38.5 percent, from a solid 898 all the way to 1,244. (In the same period, Maryland, which is in the process of fouling up its own breeding and racing industry, has slipped 32 percent, from 1,186 foals to 837.)

I've recommended trying to spur a Virginia recovery by establishing a slate of stakes events -- a Virginia Stallion Champions Day, as it were -- open only to Virginia-sired horses, regardless of their state of foaling.

My post was in response to a post by Glenn Petty, executive director of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association, on the VTA's blog. Petty mused that perhaps it's time to abolish the Grand Slam of Grass and direct the money that Jeff Jacobs, owner of Colonial Downs, has been spending on that four-race turf series for 3-year-olds on a major turf stakes race for older horses. Petty responded at length to my post right here at the Fugue, and also wrote to me at even greater length via e-mail, sharing not only his personal thoughts but considerable background information and insights on the state of breeding and racing in Virginia.

Petty says the problem has become a chicken-and-egg dilemma: How can Virginia rebuild its stallion industry with such a greatly diminished broodmare band; yet with such a short meeting at Colonial each summer and a comparatively small annual Breeders' Fund of $1 million, how can the incentives for stallion owners be increased without depleting the kitty that rewards the mare owners?

"If you talk to folks like Debbie Easter, Larry Johnson or Donna Hayes who have recently stood stallions in VA, they will tell you there isn't a sufficient mare population to support Virginia stallions. That's the chicken," Petty writes.

"The egg is that our Breeders' Fund is so small and our race meet so short, we can't create enough financial incentives to motivate breeders to breed here or to support local stallions. If we put 50 percent of the Breeders' Fund into stallion awards and a program like the one you advocate, more folks would be motivated to stand a stallion. But how will they fill their books with a declining population of mares, a third of which are owned by commercial breeders looking to KY for big-name stallions?

"That would leave $500,000 for Breeders' Awards to motivate the folks who own the mares. Heck, if we put the whole $1 million in a stallion program, I don't know if it would move the ball."

The good news is, the suggestion I made wouldn't require an extra nickel from the $1 million Breeders' Awards fund.

And to start the ball rolling on rebuilding Virginia's stallion and breeding industry, the key isn't to find some gimmick that moves the ball the whole length of the field in one play. It's to stop the ball's inexorable tumble downhill long enough that we can even start moving it back in a positive direction.

The stallion series idea I floated was spurred by Petty's call for Jacobs to funnel $200,000 to $250,000 away from the Grand Slam of Grass and into the Kitten's Joy Stakes, an open race for older horses, making that race a $250,000 to $300,000 purse. (And, I would presume, likely earning it at least Grade 3 status eventually.)

I say that if Jacobs and Colonial Downs drop the Grand Slam and are willing to toss up to a quarter-million bucks at some other project, it's money better-spent on Virginia horses -- specifically, Virginia-sired horses. Plus, this season, a day's race-card at Colonial carried at least a total purse of $125,000 to $150,000. Put one day's purse money with the hypothetical extra quarter-million from the defunct Grand Slam and you have $400,000 in purse money for an eight-race, all-stakes Virginia Stallion Champions Day without ever touching the $1 million Breeders' Fund.

But what of the mare situation?

Petty is right (how could he miss it?) that the numbers are slim and still on a diet; 401 registered foals of 2007 and reportedly around 350 VA foalings in 2008. And he's most likely correct that at least third of those mares are owned by "commercial" interests who are looking to Kentucky instead of Virginia regardless what kind of quality regional sires the Old Dominion might boast. After all, Edward P. Evans alone keeps a reported 90 mares at his sprawling Spring Hill Farm near Casanova, Va., and owns an interest in several KY-based stallions.

If I'm a Virginia stallion owner -- and I am, just one -- Mr. Evans won't be using my horse's services. But that's O.K.; I don't really need for him to.

With around 123 mares being covered in Virginia in 2008 but around 350 foaling there, some roundabout math suggests that around 225 mares are being covered outside Virginia and are returning home to foal. "Ned" Evans and those with the money to go wherever they wish are probably accounting for about half of those "nomadic" mares.

Job 1 for Virginia is to take back the other half.

I know it doesn't sound like much. It isn't, if you're trying to stand four or five stallions, advertising them heavily, carrying any significant staff on the property and needing to pull in 12 to 20 (or more) mares per stud just to stay in business. But there's pretty much nobody like that in Virginia anymore.

There are some beautiful properties and some dedicated horsemen and horsewomen in Virginia; people working very hard every day to keep the Old Dominion's equine business alive -- Mortgage Hall Farm (where racehorses also are broken and trained), Mid-Atlantic Stallion Station at Ravenwood Plantation (where there are also Arabians and Percherons), Moon Star Farm near Emporia, Griffinsburg Equine (which also runs a transport service), and Hilltop Farm VA, where my stallion and mares reside, among others. But few are trying to make it by standing thoroughbred racing stallions alone.

That's bad news in a way. But it can also be taken on the bright side. It won't require much positive change to be noticed and appreciated, and probably to raise the quality of in-state stallions, which has predictably declined with the mare population.

The average Virginia stallion's book in 2008 was just 2.9 mares. In 1991, when there were 837 mares covered in Virginia, the job was done by 154 stallions -- still an average book of only 5.4 per sire. With just 40 or 50 stallions still in the state, simply reclaiming half of Virginia's small, "nomadic" mare population (around 100 to 125 more VA-covered mares annually) could increase the average Virginia stallion's book to 4.9 or 5.9 mares.

Those figures aren't the dozen or more mares that a farm would like to see as the least any of its stallions serve. But essentially doubling the market almost overnight could hardly be a negative.

Petty noted in an e-mail to me that Virginia-bred and Virginia-sired foals share most of the same racing incentives at Colonial Downs. I'm not sure whether he meant that as a plus, but it's actually a drawback -- if you own a stallion. It allows Virginia mare owners to breed anywhere so long as they foal at home and it provides no real race-earnings incentive either for VA-based mares to stay at home nor for outside mares to use a Virginia stallion and retreat to their own state to foal. Yes, a VA-sired West Virginia-bred can run in a VA-restricted stakes race at Colonial, but so can one of Ned Evans' uber-bluebloods, if he decides to aim so "low."

This year's mixed-gender Jamestown Stakes for 2-year-old VA-breds at Colonial saw as its top three finishers horses sired in Kentucky (first and third) and West Virginia. The 2008 running was a sweep by KY-sired fillies, by Mr. Greeley (presently $75,000 fee), Marquetry and Smoke Glacken. In the inaugural Jamestown of 2007, the winner was by Posse ($20K for 2009 in Kentucky) while the place- and show-horses were by Housebuster (now deceased) and Black Tie Affair (just pensioned) in their Old Dominion swan song seasons of 2004, before relocating to West Virginia.

Petty says the problem is that the competition is just too well-financed.

"Simply put, people make much more money breeding horses in MD, WV or PA than they can make in VA. That's why the mare, stallion and foal numbers have shrunk so dramatically," Petty writes. "Horse racing and breeding used to be a sport, now it's a business, and no sensible business-minded person would participate in a $1 million program when there are two $4 million programs right next door."

Again, Petty's absolutely right -- from a major stud farm standpoint. There's just not enough economic incentive right now to stand a whole slate of stallions on a big stud farm in Virginia. And with a short season at Colonial and a comparatively small Breeders' Fund (which would be augmented considerably if the legislature ever allowed slots in Northern Virginia) there's not a lot that can be done right away for big-ticket businesses and breeders.

So if Virginia's breeding business is ever again going to see the light of day and be even moderately viable -- let's say, half a shadow of what it once was, rather than stuck in total darkness -- then the state will have to start small.

I know the breeder of one of those Kentucky-sired Jamestown Stakes-placed fillies. She owns a smaller farm and I believe she'd like to stay in Virginia more often with her mares, were the stallion options and racing incentives even a little bit more attractive.

Another small Virginia farm with which I'm familiar might have sent two mares to our stallion this year, but was lured away to Kentucky by recession-provoked discounts. Her pair returned with only one of the mares in foal, and toting a stack of transport and vet bills that by themselves would've paid a decent Virginia stallion's stud fee several seasons over. ... A serious financial setback that ranks high among the perils of shipping to Kentucky for a small Virginia breeder, many of whom have decided they have almost no other choice if they want to raise a viable racehorse on their farm at all.

Virginia needs to give these breeders, the mom and pop farms that make up roughly half of the "nomadic" mare population, something for their babies to run at: A Virginia Stallion Champions Day. I think many of them would keep their mares at home, most of the time. And because West Virginia statebred rules are perhaps the most generous in America, I think you might attract a few of that state's mares, too, from owners who realize they can take a shot at the new slate of Virginia stakes races without losing any of their rights to race among restricted company at Charles Town and Mountaineer.

And while I appreciate the Grand Slam of Grass, if Jeff Jacobs decided to take Petty's thought-provoking advice and spike that series (and act generously toward the state's stallion owners), there might be money to start a Virginia Stallion Champions Day without raiding the Breeders' Fund at all.

Coming soon: Glenn Petty has an idea for improving Virginia's stallion offerings, too, and nobody can say he's thinking small.


  1. This is an amazingly viable and accurate discussion of the VA breeding scene. One burning question inevitably arises: Do members of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association, including the executive director, own any interests in KY, MD, PA, or WV stallions?

  2. The exec dir (me) doesn't own any interests in any horses in KY, MD, PA, WV, FL, NY, NJ, Canada -- you name it. But, certainly many members do. When nicking a mare, breeders look at horses in multiple states, and most breeders are reluctant to breed the same mare to the same stallion year after year. Conformation, pedigree and stud fee can often trump geography.

    Glenn C, you make some great points, but don't forget to factor in conception and live foal rates. In VA, that runs around 50%, so it may take twice as many mares as you think to card 8/9 races of Va-breds on your VA Stallion Day.

    Let's go with 8 horses in 8 races on the one day...That's 64 Va-sired foals, sound and race ready on a given day. I'm not sure what type of "core population" you would need to get 64 Va-sired horses in one place at one time...?

    You/we/us/them may have to start with two races and expand as the population grows.

    Just another variable in the equation!

  3. I haven't done the research, but by unscientific methods, its seems to me that the whole model of thoroughbred breeding has changed in the last 20 years. Have you noticed how few stallions Kentucky farms are standing now adays?

    Look at the stallion ads in Bloodhorse in the 1980s. It was not uncommon for some of these Kentucky farms to be standing 20 to 25 stallions. Now they are standing 12 at most. What they are now doing, I think, is making the book for each stallion bigger. It used to be that the book was 40 to 50 mares. Now they brag about a stallion breeding 100 to 120 mares.

  4. Glenn,

    I actually think that might be exactly how you'd have to start, with only a couple of races. Right now there aren't enough VA-sired horses ready to run in an eight-race slate.

    The extra funds for the first couple of years could be socked away and earn a little interest, perhaps, as a nest egg for the program.

    But, you might be able to card a race (or two, either split them male/female or turf/dirt open to both genders) in the early going.

    The champions day would really get under way and build steam when the first crop of 2-year-olds reaches the track AFTER the announcement is made and the series is funded reaches the track.

    If the money were there now, for instance -- which it isn't -- and breeders could be convinced that the series was a commitment the state's racing industry fully intended to keep, then breeding decisions might be changed at least slightly in 2010 for the foals of 2011. So your first 2-year-old races would be in 2013.

    Most likely I would recommend a 2-year-old dirt race and a 2-year-old turf race, neither restricted to fillies because I just don't think there'll be enough bodies. Separating colts and fillies, turf and dirt would be great, but from my perspective, I'd rather have open turf and open dirt than, say, fillies only but perhaps not on the right surface.

    That's the kind of thing that is certainly open to discussion.

    If the recent foal crops (that is, live foals) of around 350 to 400 could be split between half VA-sired and half not, then there would be 175 to 200 sire-series-eligible foals in each crop. Considering historic averages, roughly 15 percent of all registered thoroughbreds will race as 2-year-olds. If that were the case in a 200-foal VA-sired crop, it gives you 60 horses that will make at least one start sometime at age 2, and hopefully you'd have at least 15 to 20 or 30 of them running by July or early August of the Colonial meet.

    Granted, 15 is barely enough to fully fill one race, let alone two. Getting 30 would be a lot better.

    But it all starts somewhere.


I welcome comments, including criticism and debate. But jerks and the vulgar will not be tolerated.