Pandemic-infused 2020 has put most American workers in one of two camps. The first includes the most unfortunate: those who are unemployed and those who are underemployed “non-essential” types. The second group is COVID-be-damned and busier than they’ve ever been. Luckily, those in the Thoroughbred business are more than likely in the latter group.
While the foal crop continues to shrink according to both The Jockey Club’s “Live Foal Report” and “Report of Mares Bred,” the breeding industry appeared pretty active this year during the early days of COVID-19. It was business as usual as breeding sheds remained in service, albeit under stricter health guidelines than in years past. Sales of 2-year-olds, yearlings, and lastly weanlings and broodmares were all off 2019 figures, but, lo and behold, there are more incoming stallions for 2021 than for last year. For 2020 there were 17 new prospects in Central Kentucky; this year there are 22. The same can be said for the regional markets, where there are six new guys in Florida, five in Indiana, and four in New York.
“It almost seems counterintuitive, but here we are,” said Pope McLean Jr., whose family’s Crestwood Farm near Lexington unveils Runhappy Travers Stakes (G1) runner-up Caracaro and Chiefswood Stables’ Canadian sprint star Yorkton to Central Kentucky breeders.
“It is always challenging, but we have people who have been breeding to our stallions for quite awhile, and we try to stand stallions where the partners we have are also going to support the horse. It’s so hard. Both are nice physicals…you have to be tough on the physical. They have to like the horse when they come out to see it or it doesn’t work.
“We have a lot of things come together, but we feel like we can get enough mares to a stallion to give him a chance to hit.”
Support is important at any level of the market but especially so to young stallions that aren’t at the tip-top of the market or perceived commercially to be the next big thing.
The O’Farrell family’s Ocala Stud in Central Florida has three new stallions for 2021, and all three will be backed with mares from their breeders/owners. David O’Farrell notes Charles Fipke will support his homebred Seeking the Soul, and Kentucky’s Airdrie Stud has partnered on both Win Win Win and Dak Attack.
“It’s been a tough year, but you have to keep your head up and plow forward,” O’Farrell said.
Adding to the lead, O’Farrell said: “We are fortunate that we are up from last year. A lot of clients haven’t wavered and might even have a few more horses than last year. Perhaps they found opportunities at the sales this year. The sales were down, but we are plenty busy with the boarding and breaking right now.”
O’Farrell advised that Ocala Stud had more horses than last year to break and to get started toward 2021 campaigns, while Florida breeders have a little different timetable than Kentuckians.
“It’s slow to get people to think about whom they are going to breed to here. They’ll call and want to get a stallion season and then say, ‘Oh, by the way, I need to book her for this afternoon,’ ” he said with a laugh.
Life at Crestwood is a little different without a breaking and training element, but they, too, appear poised toward the future.
“I thought that it held up pretty well under the circumstances we are facing,” McLean said of the farm’s 2020 business. “Other than having a lot of clients—whom we love to see—not coming to the farm and the (Keeneland) spring meet being canceled, life didn’t change very much. As for how it will affect us, we won’t know. The sales obviously were down, but they weren’t as down as they could have been.
“We were buying some mares, but it was tougher than we thought it was going to be, and that’s good. There were 800 fewer horses in the Keeneland sale, and that reduced supply had to help the sale,” he said. “We usually sell about 10 weanlings every year, and we only put three in this year and got two of them sold. We were anticipating the weanling market being soft.”
As busy as everyone has been this year, horsemen still only have one way to go: full speed ahead.
“Overall, I have to be optimistic…but I’m not blindly optimistic,” McLean told us. “I feel good going forward. Once we get the COVID situation behind us, we’ll be OK.”