PARIS — Kentucky touts itself as the Horse Capital of the World, not just in quality but in quantity. The number of Thoroughbred horses born in the Bluegrass State this year will be at least three times as many as are born in any other state.
Ask fans to name famous horse farms, and the ones that leap to mind often are the biggest and stand the most expensive stallions.
But bigger doesn't necessarily mean better.
There is another side to the horse industry, one that is as important to the economic health of the overall business as multimillion-dollar megafarms.
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In June, all over the Bluegrass, small farms such as Runnymede Farm are blooming, rolling green fields that abound with robust babies and fecund mares.
At this time of year, after the last of the babies have been safely born and the mares have returned from their last stallion visits to sow the seeds of next year's crop, small farms take stock and feel proud of the crops they have brought to fruition, many through hands-on, day-to-day work.
According to a survey conducted last year by state government researchers, about two-thirds of Kentucky Thoroughbred farms are 250 acres or less, with 50 or fewer horses. The horses at those small farms account for about one-fourth of the total Thoroughbred population, which points to the symbiotic relationship between the big stallion operations and the small nurseries.
"They need our mares," said Brutus J. Clay III, president of Runnymede Farm in Paris. "If you lose the small farms, the large farms with the stallions don't have anybody to breed to."
'It's getting harder'
In existence for 145 years, Runnymede is the oldest continuously operated Thoroughbred farm in Kentucky. Although owned by the well-heeled descendants of Col. Ezekiel Clay, Runnymede must stand on its own financially, something that has become increasingly difficult in recent years for most farms.
"It's getting harder and harder to be a small farm," Clay said.
On small farms, instead of 300 mares, there are 30. And instead of having 100 or more foals to sort through and decide which to sell and which to keep and race, there are a dozen.
But, as Clay points out, a $200,000 horse eats just as much as one worth $20,000.
That puts pressure on every horse. Some yearlings must sell for six figures to pay the way for those that don't make a profit, or those that don't sell at all.
"If we go into the sales with 15 yearlings, one or two or three horses could represent over half of our revenue," Clay said.
Runnymede has had remarkable success, for a farm large or small. Two early hot prospects for the 2011 Kentucky Derby, Jaycito and Rogue Romance, were born at Runnymede.
But Runnymede has had an outsize footprint in the horse industry virtually from its start in 1867. Four Runnymede horses are in the racing Hall of Fame: Hanover, Roamer, Ben Brush and Miss Woodford. Three Runnymede horses have won the Kentucky Derby: Ben Brush, Agile and Count Turf. Runnymede-raised Angle Light beat the great Secretariat in the 1973 Wood Memorial. In more contemporary history, there is 2001 Japanese champion Agnes Digital.
"For our size and the price we pay for our mares, our breeding record is as strong as any operation out there," Clay said.
'Important for the region'
Small farms play a crucial role in the health of Central Kentucky's rural communities: Each one provides a slice of income for veterinarians, hay and feed providers, halter makers and local laborers.
"It's important to have a good base of mares here because it supports all the infrastructure and people in the industry," Clay said.
Runnymede employs as many as 18 people at certain times of the year, said Martin O'Dowd, vice president and general manager. "That's 18 people who would be drawing unemployment if we weren't here," he said. "That's important for the region."
Small operations have felt the pinch of the economic downturn differently. Every mare that isn't being bred in Kentucky now — and there are thousands either leaving production or being shipped elsewhere to breed — means a more significant portion of farm income lost.
O'Dowd said he doesn't think the incentives in other states threaten the top tier in the same way.
"You don't like to see the exodus of mares. But the main tier of stallions are here and will stay here," O'Dowd said.
In some respects, Runnymede is a typical small Kentucky Thoroughbred farm, but it has a big advantage over others: The Clay family has other financial resources.
"We're fortunate that when there are shortfalls (as after the market crash of the late 1980s), we can step in. But we don't have infinite resources and we can't keep doing that forever," Clay said. "What's really frightful are the farms where 'this is it.'"
For them, he said, "you go into debt and then you go out of business."
Many small farms have been hurt by the economic downturn, which cut the market for horses in half. The long lag time between investment in a broodmare and the racing of her first foals — four to five years — makes for an inefficient business model.
'It's a lifestyle'
Like most farmers, horse breeders must be in it for more than the money.
"I don't consider myself as working here," O'Dowd said. "It's a lifestyle. There's no such thing as 'hours.'"
Clay said it's a mistake to see the Thoroughbred industry just as a business.
"That's not why we do this," he said. "It's for the love of the sport, the horses and the connection to the land."
It's a love affair, a romance. And as pragmatic as it sounds, Clay said, that's what savvy horse farms need to market as much as their foals.
"The industry needs to be providing an experience, for people to fall in love with the sport. It isn't a mechanism to gamble," Clay said. "The tracks and the farms need to embrace that. They focus on the result; pari-mutuel wagering is really the result of successfully providing that experience. ... Give the owners something to feel very good about."
Clay cited another Kentucky industry that is enjoying a resurgence of popularity, thanks to the creation of a premium product with an experience worth paying more for: bourbon.
"We have lost our way over the years in thinking it's all about handle and getting people to bet more," Clay said. "We need to focus on the experience, and with the experience the handle will come."
Once a horse owner has seen a winner's circle and held a silver trophy, can the desire to breed the next champion, to hold that newborn foal be far behind?
"It's the connection to the cycle of life. You get a new chance every year," Clay said. "It's the excitement, the thrill of being able to create something with God's help. When you come up with something spectacular, that's the most rewarding thing."