Kentucky horse breeders have been saying it for months: Fewer mares are breeding here. New numbers released Thursday by The Jockey Club confirm it: This year, at least 2,258 fewer mares were bred to Kentucky stallions, a 10.6 percent drop compared to last year.
The decline comes as the overall Thoroughbred breeding population contracted even more sharply this year. Nationally, the number of mares bred fell 13.5 percent (about 7,100 fewer mares), and the top five states experienced double-digit percentage decreases. Last year, that number fell by 4,000 nationally, with a drop of about 400 mares in Kentucky.
"My gut tells me we may not be at the bottom yet," said Dan Metzger, president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. "People who I respect in the industry tell me they think there's probably another year of pain for the industry to go through."
The loss of about 2,300 potential foals will have a significant economic impact on the state, Metzger said, with fewer jobs taking care of the mares, fewer feet to be shod, less feed bought and so on.
But there appears to be a silver lining for Kentucky: Although other states lost fewer horses, Kentucky continues to dominate the market. Looking at comparable year-to-date figures, in 2003, Kentucky's share was 34.1 percent; this year, Kentucky had 42.1 percent.
Kentucky breeders have long feared losing their economic edge to states such as Pennsylvania, which has used millions of dollars from expanded gambling to ramp up its incentives to attract mares and stallions.
Pennsylvania and Indiana managed to buck the national trend for a second year, picking up mares instead of losing them. The gains, however, were small: Pennsylvania added 366 mares; Indiana added 292 mares.
"Where did those mares come from? We won't know that until next year," when the foals are born and reported to The Jockey Club, said David Switzer, executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association. "This is the thing we've been telling legislators all along: There are horses moving out of state."
Other states with slots at racetracks — including Florida, Louisiana, New York and New Mexico — showed declines in mares and stallions.
Wayne Lyster, owner of Ashview Farm in Versailles, said he has seen the trend up close. At the end of September his farm and a neighbor's lost a combined 53 mares, all to Pennsylvania breeders and purse incentives.
"It's the most I've seen leave. It changed my labor force. I had to let some people go," Lyster said Thursday. "We're playing with a very fragile industry."
The impact on Kentucky might have been exacerbated by the number of stallions here that breed to large numbers of mares.
Matt Iuliano of The Jockey Club noted that the largest decline in breeding occurred at the top end of the market. The number of stallions covering 100 or more mares dropped for the fourth year in a row, to 85 in 2009 from 113 in 2008. All but 11 of those stallions stand in Kentucky.
The busiest stallions were Giant's Causeway, who stands at Coolmore's Ashford Stud for $125,000, and Medaglia d'Oro, who stands at Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum's Darley Stud for $60,000. Those two stallions covered 194 mares apiece.
Next was Candy Ride, who stood this year at John Sikura's Hill 'n' Dale for $12,500 and will stand at Lane's End next year for an undisclosed fee; he covered 182 mares.
Also in the top five: Ashford's Lion Heart, who at $20,000 covered 180 mares, and Gainesway's Corinthian, who at $30,000 covered 171 mares.
As the pool of mares gets smaller, the competition gets fiercer. Last year, stallions with 100 or more mares accounted for 28 percent of the total; this year, their share dropped to 24.6 percent.
Since 2006, Kentucky has lost about 75 stallions, according to Jockey Club figures. But nationally, there are almost 1,300 fewer stallions, and the average "book size" for Kentucky is still above 60 mares.
The statistics released Thursday are based on reports submitted through Oct. 13; an additional 4,000 to 5,000 reports probably will be received eventually, and there is some duplication because some mares are bred to more than one stallion.
For more on individual stallions, go to The Jockey Club's Web site, www.jockeyclub.com.