The start of breeding season represents the ultimate sign of promise in the Thoroughbred industry as every trip to the shed could result in the birth of racing's newest star.
Nowhere is that feeling more prominent than in the self-proclaimed Horse Capital of the World.
But with the 2010 season beginning in the Bluegrass, the departure of many of Kentucky's vessels of hope has sparked an undercurrent of concern throughout the breeding community.
More than 25 stallions that stood in Kentucky during the 2009 breeding season will stand elsewhere this year, including a handful of sires that were sold to operations overseas.
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The past 18 months have been particularly trying for the Thoroughbred industry as economic woes have wreaked havoc on everything from stud fees to race purses.
Because few aspects of the business have been immune to the current economic climate, several breeders have chosen to move their stallions and mares out of Kentucky in hopes of cashing in on more lucrative regional programs — many of which are fueled by slots revenue.
Though a certain amount of shifting occurs each year among the less popular sires, the decision by many breeders to pull back in their participation has made garnering support for stallions harder than ever.
"I'm not sure if the number of stallions leaving is more than it has been in past years, but it sure feels like it," said Ro Parra, owner of Lexington-based Millennium Farms, which formed an alliance with Moon Lake Farm in Louisiana and sent stallions Woke Up Dreamin and Scrimshaw there, as well as 30 mares.
"In our case I can tell you that a clear factor was the Louisiana program is far stronger than the Kentucky program, and that's pretty frustrating, at least to me," Parra said. "It made sense to have them and those mares in that regional market because the market here — especially for the sub-$10,000 stallion — is not as strong as it once was."
Proven sires and first-year stallions remain a solid draw among breeders in Kentucky, but third- and fourth-year stallions have struggled as the market waits for their offspring to rise or fall.
Though it might be financially sound for owners to ship such stallions to smaller markets that can offer them more popularity, there is the risk the next diamond-in-the-rough sire could end up in another state.
"Third- and fourth-year horses, you can basically put them in storage right now," said Ben Taylor of Taylor Made Farm, which moved three stallions out of state for 2010. That's why Taylor sent the stallion Half Ours to Louisiana. "They offered up more money upfront than we could have made standing him here — and we've been telling the legislature that would happen without extra revenue from expanded gaming."
"Here's a horse that brought over $6 million at public auction, and you get in the second and third year and there is nobody who will breed to them. Think about one of the great stallions like Distorted Humor. If this had happened earlier in his career, he might have been gone."
Considering a stallion could always return to Kentucky should he succeed out of state, the number of mares heading out of the Bluegrass might be a more troubling trend.
Not only has the Kentucky's Breeders' Incentive Fund paid out less money in recent years compared to similar programs in Pennsylvania and Louisiana, but some of its stringent rules — like requiring broodmares to remain in the state from cover until foaling to be eligible for such awards — have prompted owners to take their mares elsewhere.
"Last year we lost about 35 percent of our mare population on the farm that either went to Illinois or Pennsylvania or even stayed in the owner's home state," said Suzi Shoemaker of Lantern Hill Farm. "Not only have we not seen them come back, but we've had additional defections this year. It's a smaller number coming back our way."
The more horses that leave Kentucky in favor of other regional incentive programs, the more this state's chances of encouraging breeders to stay here suffer.
Kentucky's Breeders' Incentive Fund is financed by the sales tax paid on stud fees. With the number of mares bred already down 10.6 percent for 2009, the loss of revenue is being felt even among industry stalwarts.
"I think between 1,000 and 2,000 mares left before Oct. 1, and you think of that loss to our economy," said Doug Cauthen, president of WinStar Farm. "Our revenues are down almost 50 percent and ... we've cut our workforce probably in our office by about 15 percent and on the farm it's probably down 20 percent.
"The state of Kentucky needs to recognize that this industry will leave. Every one of those studs is like a little Kroger or a Wal-Mart, and that seems to be lost on people."
While the departure of Kentucky's bloodstock might be more pronounced recently, there is a potential upside to that trend.
Some argue that many of the stallions that have been relocated were not commercial enough to be in Kentucky to begin with.
And even though the reduction in revenue is painful for the farms, any steps that help the Thoroughbred industry overcome its long-running overproduction problems can been seen as a positive.
"A lot of the things happening now are things that needed to happen," Shoemaker said. "We shouldn't be rewarded for breeding to every freshman sire that comes down the pike, and the market has been rewarding those people for some time.
"The regional programs are good for certain buyers, but very few people come from overseas just looking to buy Pennsylvania-breds. There is still value for Kentucky-breds, and unless we lose our stallion population to a greater extent, I think that will still be the case."
The problems facing Kentucky's breeding industry are not unique to the Bluegrass. Pennsylvania was the only state in the top 10 last year to see an increase in the number of stallions and of mares bred.
Even those benefitting from Kentucky's current situation recognize the need for the state's signature industry to remain just that.
"The reality is we need Kentucky to pass something similar to what we have," said Dr. Jim Ward, general manager of Louisiana's Moon Lake Farm. "Because our purses and breeders rewards are supplemented with gaming revenue, there is just more money to run at here. But the whole industry needs Kentucky to be strong."