Paint By Numbers - by Dan Liebman

Based on Reports of Mares Bred, The Jockey Club recently announced its projection of the foal crop of 2009 as 35,400, which would represent a 3.3% decline from the estimated 36,600 foals of 2008.

Many believe the foal crop should be much smaller.

Consider this quote from pinhooker Eddie Woods, speaking at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co.’s yearling sale, which Aug. 18-21 suffered major declines in business: “Basically, we’re seeing the results of the overproduction of mediocre stock…there are too many mares (in production).”

The size of the Thoroughbred foal crop grew dramatically in the 1980s, when auction prices boomed and everyone wanted a piece of the action. There were 35,679 foals in the first year of the decade, but by 1985, the number had soared to 50,433, peaked at 51,296 in 1986, and was 50,917 in 1987. In just a few years, the crop size had jumped nearly 44%.

What followed was pure economics. With high supply and low demand, prices fell and many limited investors fled. The foal crop was back to 35,341 in 1994 and has remained around that number ever since.

During the decade of the ’80s, there were 463,827 registered foals, a number that fell 19% to 375,302 in the ’90s. Based on crop totals and estimates for the ’00s, the decade will see 371,633 foals registered, a drop from decade to decade of less than 1%.

What makes it tough for breeders to scale back is the emphasis on the commercial market and the solid average price for yearlings sold throughout North America. In 2007, there were 10,159 yearlings sold at public auction for an average of $55,306. At the world’s largest shopping venue, Keeneland September, the average has been more than $100,000 each of the past three years.

For its 2008 sale, Keeneland has cataloged a record 5,555 youngsters, about 14% of the entire estimated foal crop.

A year ago, 4,901 yearlings went through the Keeneland sale ring over the course of 15 days, with 3,799 listed as sold. But only 1,235 yearlings, 25%, were profitable, based on stud fee returns, according to Blood-Horse calculations.

This is not to say many breeders are not making a profit. If you send 10 through the ring and two or three sell for enough to carry the others, the bottom line can wind up being positive.

But now comes a year in which breeders have higher stud fees and pinhookers have larger investments in yearlings. Combine that with a struggling economy, and there is plenty of reason for concern.

Many breeders/consignors have expressed a belief that they expect the first week of the Keeneland sale, when most of the better pedigreed and conformed horses are cataloged, to remain healthy, while the rest of the sale could experience significant downturns. At the OBS sale, the number sold was down 20.5%, the gross dropped 34.6%, and the average was off 17.7%.

With mares currently carrying what will be the final crop of this decade, breeders should again assess the size of the crop as it relates to the economics of the game. The crops of 2000-09 will drop only about 1% because of larger books and fewer stallions. That fewer stallions are standing at stud may not be such a bad thing, but larger books have pushed catalogs to record sizes. One need only look at the list of freshman sires in the Keeneland sale and the number of offspring representing each to see this at work.

There were 4,513 active stallions in the United States in 1998, though obviously only a small number were considered truly commercial. By 2006, when this crop of yearlings was conceived, there were 3,682.

Fewer stallions and more broodmares. As Woods so succinctly said, the overproduction of mediocre stock does no one any good. 


Leave a Comment:


If your breeding to sell read this article very carefully. Do the math and see if you fit into that 25%.If you don't thats a wake up call big time.

26 Aug 2008 11:40 AM
The Colonel

My question is, how do we limit the number of breeding mares?

And slaughter is obviously not an option.

26 Aug 2008 9:26 PM

There's so many arguments that you could make about this point i'll just have to start with a question.

With fewer stallions and more mares what kind of long term damage is this going to have on the Diversity of our American breed ???   More and closer Inbreeding and less complete Outcrosses can't be a good thing ???

So once again i'll say...Wouldn't this be a good time to Import a successful stallion from Europe to help our American breed like the greats of yesteryear once did ???   I mean...Who wouldn't love to see a Montjeu or a Galileo standing in Kentucky if only for a season or 2 at a time ???

Just a thought !!!

26 Aug 2008 9:49 PM

Importing successful stallions from Europe worked when European stallions could sire racehorses suited to the American racing scene.  As long as we're breeding horses for six-furlong dirt sprints, Montjeu and Galileo are useless as stallion prospects in the United States.  Howerver, if we can find the next Dubai Millennium to import then we may have a point.

An additional factor to consider is that US breeders face more competition from around the world - measuring the size the foal crop and the number of active stallions in the US alone fails to give us an accurate picture of the status of the breed.  If anyone were to aggregate these numbers for European, Asian, Australian, North American and South American thoroughbreds I would wager that the story would look considerably different though I have no predictions as to how the narrative might change.  

27 Aug 2008 2:41 PM

Like Chris, I'd really rather have more diversity of choice in stallions -- and bloodlines -- than what we presently have. Breeding is so driven by the commercial market (which I am not so naive as to discount the reasons for) but it really is limiting the gene pool, and not in a good way.

Those mediocre mares are without a doubt from the very same "fashionable" bloodlines that all too many of the stallions at stud are from. And that's exactly why they're being bred: They have names in their pedigrees that sell.

27 Aug 2008 4:31 PM

Maybe the trick is not to limit the # of breeding mares, but more so to limit the # of foals that they have.

Much like the country of China who has a 1 child per family maximum Law because of their country's out of control population.   Maybe we should make a similar Law for all mares to "NOT" be bred every 3rd year or so ???   Or not to be allowed to have more than 3 foals in a 5 year time frame as a couple of examples ???

Or at least something along those lines so it's fair for all, even the smaller breeders.

Maybe it will even be a good thing in the long run for all of the mares overall health.   Especially for the mares who's owners never give them a year off...ya know ???

Just a thought !!!

27 Aug 2008 4:39 PM

Hello Dan....Interesting headline to your always insightful op-ed pieces....Personally what is transpiring in the breeding industry of this complex business is undoubtedly long overdue..its simply related to the laws of supply and demand..It doesn't take much intellect to observe what is happening in the overall racing industry...set aside the breeding component...the economy of scales have taken over the reins...just look at what is happening to the Magna Group...this is just the beginning w/an publicly held just reported the peril that Calder is now faced with...race tracks reducing their meet schedules..reduction in purses...not mentioning plummenting attendance at the races......the entire industry is in the throes of an there any light at the end of this tunnel? One doesn't have to look beyond the stock market...the overall economy... retail business and the big  box stores..just to much controlled store on every corner...analagous to an bank...This is no way to grow marketshare..The breeding business is no different...Now is the time to instead of articulating about breeding stronger and more durable thoroughbreds for the has to be realistic and start analyizing the industry overall and chart an model for the future..Just look at the sales auction numbers....Certainly not stellar...An suggestion for you Dan...let me couch this to you..perhaps THE BLOOD-HORSE can champion an panel of industry bellwhethers....w/you at the head of the table..bring them all together and close the doors and craft out an blueprint for the future..One cannot just address an issue as they surface...Thats just performing damage control...Now is the time to rally the players and start thinking constuctively...Take charge of this forthwith Dan..Become an crusader..the industry desperately needs it...Thank you always for your window..Steve Stone..East Hanover..New Jersey

28 Aug 2008 10:03 AM

I think it is the perfect time for all those in horseracing who truly love the sport and the horse to make their voices heard.  I see too many well meaning trainers and owners and track managers who hate the drugs, greed, and cheating in the industry but are too afraid of possible consequences to speak out, and feel it would do no good. Perhaps there is a way for these voices to band together and make horseracing what it can be.

29 Aug 2008 6:23 PM

I have been watching the market closely.  At the recent OBS sale, there were MANY no bids.  This is unusual for a yearling sale.  I feel that it is a sign that horse breeders need to pick and choose what they are breeding a little more closely.  The current market is down and looks like it will not improve anytime soon.  I believe in being a responsible breeder.  To me, this means limiting mares bred and choosing a marketable cross for your mare.  Having a mare does NOT mean that you have to breed her just because you can!  If you want to do that, you had better have the $$ to be able to race that horse yourself.

02 Sep 2008 12:16 PM

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