There was less Thoroughbred breeding activity in Kentucky this year for the fourth straight year, but the state's dominant hold in the market still seems solid for now, according to The Jockey Club.
Nationally, 2011 marked the fifth year in a row of contraction; in August, The Jockey Club predicted next year will see the smallest foal crop in 40 years.
The Thoroughbred registry on Thursday released annual figures for the number of mares bred, based on reports received so far from stud farms. (The numbers used for comparison are from last year's reports received at the same point in the season; based on previous years, 3,500 to 4,000 more reports are expected to be received.)
During the 2011 breeding season, 1,935 stallions covered 36,504 mares in North America; in Kentucky, 15,714 mares were bred, 43 percent of the total.
Although the number of mares bred in the state has dropped by more than 6,000 since 2007, the state's share of all mares bred has increased from 35 percent to 43 percent.
"That's because there's less stallions," said Marc McLean, manager of Crestwood Farm in Lexington and president of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers Club. "The most popular horses are still doing well, is what it comes down to."
As the Thoroughbred breeding industry contracts, fewer stallions are covering more mares. According to The Jockey Club, the number of stallions breeding to 100 or more mares increased from 82 last year to 84 this year, and the vast majority of them stand in Kentucky.
The registry also noted there was a 2.5 percent increase in mares bred to those high-number stallions, while all other categories declined.
The busiest stallion of the year was Vinery's Congrats, who covered 205 mares at a stud fee of $15,000.
The number of stallions in Kentucky declined by 14.3 percent, from 266 to 228, while the number nationally fell by 11.5 percent from 2,186.
Nationally, the number of mares bred fell by 10 percent, from 40,576, while in Kentucky the number fell by 9.2 percent from 17,303.
Kentucky breeders worry that stallions are leaving for states with gambling to fuel bigger purses for state-bred horses and incentives for stallions and mares.
"When the studs start leaving, the whole business starts leaving," McLean said.
But the figures released Thursday by The Jockey Club show all the top breeding states in pretty much the same leaky boat.
Despite gambling-boosted purses and incentives, Pennsylvania — which in recent years had lured hundreds more mares and two dozen new stallions to breed there — showed the sharpest decline this year. In 2011, 20 stallions left that state, a 20.6 percent drop, and there were 354 fewer mares bred there, a 23 percent decline.
Two other slots states, Louisiana and Indiana, saw double-digit percentage decreases in both stallions and mares this year.
Ontario, Canada, which also has expanded gambling at tracks, was the only place to show any increase: The number of mares was up a meager 0.8 percent.
"It's kind of perplexing. It's not surprising with the overall numbers declining but look at some of the slots states," said Dan Metzger, executive director of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. Pennsylvania jumped out, he said, as did Louisiana and Indiana.
"You could make a case that the health of the industry is not always tied to expanded gaming," Metzer said. "Why (the declines) in these slots-filled states?"
Jeff Cannizzo, executive director of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders, has some ideas about why.
Pennsylvania's program lost revenue when the state diverted slots revenue into the state's coffers and that "left people with a bad taste," he said. But more than that, sales of Pennsylvania-bred horses have not caught on in the commercial market, he said.
New York doesn't have that problem: At this year's New York-breds Fasig-Tipton sale, prices were up 40 percent and the casino hasn't even opened yet.
That will happen at 1 p.m. Oct. 28, when Resorts World New York will open at Aqueduct in Queens with 2,485 video lottery terminals and electronic table games (that number will double by Jan. 1). Next year, New York purses will be $30 million richer and the breeders are already feeling flush.
"Next year's mares bred will definitely be a spike from the last two to four years," Cannizzo said. Farms such as Vinery, WinStar, Adena Springs and Spendthrift have already invested in New York operations and announced stallions who are moving north.
"Stay tuned," Cannizzo said. "Other major commercial operations are looking to come in as well."