For Kentuckians in the horse business, the coming two weeks are the best of the year. Spring’s warmth has provided every tree with its own natural infill project. The grass is green and lush. A drive down any country lane and one can see this year’s crop of foals kicking and running as if they are in the middle of their first ballet lesson. There is plenty of blue sky—if one can overcome the pollen—as the clock ticks toward the first Saturday in May.
As the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) nears, it’s unlikely less than 20 horses will start, based on the chart of contenders provided by Churchill Downs. Unbeaten juvenile champion Nyquist hasn’t scared anybody off.
And Songbird’s departure from this year’s Longines Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) field will likely mean a rail-to-outside-fence, 14-horse cast of 3-year-old fillies.
The full gates in America’s most important races are not indicative of the racing industry, of course. We’re all too familiar with starting gates that are half-filled, and four-, five-, and six-horse fields are commonplace in graded stakes.
Even Keeneland, offering some of the highest purses in the country, isn’t immune from a lack of supply. On the final Saturday of the spring meet—April 23—the track offered a pair of races with six-horse fields and two with seven-horse fields.
Perhaps there is hope of a coming increase in the foal crop so that we can reverse the trend of short fields. Certainly races such as the Derby have not felt the decrease in field size based on smaller foal crops.
In 1977 Seattle Slew—also an unbeaten juvenile champion—faced 14 sophomores in the Run for the Roses. The 1974 foal crop was 27,586. The following year when Affirmed and Alydar towered over the crowd, nine other 3-year-olds met the Derby starter from a foal crop of 28,271. Nine was the same number that faced 3-5 Spectacular Bid in the 1979 Derby from a foal crop of 28,809.
Even as the foal crop peaked at a now mind-blowing 51,296 in 1986—a model of overproduction in the “go-go ’80s”—only 15 faced the starter on May 6, 1989, as Sunday Silence bobbed and weaved through the stretch under the Twin Spires.
The Jockey Club’s estimate for the 2015 foal crop is a “steady as she goes” 20,300—the same figure projected for the 2014 crop. The foal crop has not ebbed this low since 1966.
We’re hopeful the foal crop has seen its nadir. While TJC likes to wait until late summer to release the Report of Mares Bred, a very unscientific poll of Kentucky breeders, stallion managers, and veterinarians suggests they are a bit busier this year, which bodes well for the 2017 crop.
“There is a faith in the system,” said Chauncey Morris, executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association/Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders. “Attendance at the Kentucky Derby (last year) was the highest ever with higher viewership on television. The Breeders’ Cup attendance was the best it has been since the early 1990s. Purses are growing (in Kentucky). Things are pretty darn good.”
There is also the American Pharoah effect. Last year’s Triple Crown winner piqued interest in the sport. People once on the edge of entering the game are putting their toes in the water.
A healthier stock market—that tumbled in 2007-08 to prick the foal crop balloon to begin with—gives some investors more options as they wonder where to put some disposable income.
A rise in the foal crop would be a welcomed addition. We all know it’s not an overnight process. A mare being bred this spring means a 3-year-old prospect in 2020. Seems like a long time off, but hope springs eternal…especially here in Kentucky.