The number of Thoroughbred foals born this year in Kentucky was down 5.2 percent from last year — a total of 783 fewer foals — according to figures released Thursday by The Jockey Club, the industry's official registry.
The drop is the biggest since the state was hit by a wave of foal deaths known as mare reproductive loss syndrome that affected the 2001 and 2002 foal crops.
Matt Koch, president of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers Club, said the economy is largely to blame, although previous overproduction and competition from other state breeding programs also are factors in Kentucky's shift.
"There were a lot of mares out there that didn't need to be bred. ... To be brutally honest, those mares didn't deserve to be bred. In the Thoroughbred industry, we need to clean up our breeding. We have too many cheap horses out there," Koch said. "I do not believe that (the drop) is completely bad. To help us get out of this slump, we need fewer horses."
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Kentucky is the state whose foals declined by the largest number, but Kentucky's comparatively large volume means that the state's 5.2 percent decline is still less severe than the nationwide decline of 8.2 percent. Nationally, the foal crop now is projected at 34,000 for 2009, with Kentucky reporting 14,257.
This is the first year since 2001 that Kentucky's foal numbers have dropped, but it is the fourth year in a row that the national crop has gotten smaller. The crop has dropped more than 14 percent since hitting 37,025 in 2005.
"Although breeding activity has been in decline for several years, the rate of decline accelerated in both the 2008 and 2009 breeding seasons, so we will see fewer live foals born next year as well," Matt Iuliano, of The Jockey Club, said in the press release.
So far, 31,727 live foals have been reported; the numbers are preliminary, based on reports submitted through Sept. 9, and not all of the foals born will go on to be registered.
Kentucky-based stallions sired almost 45 percent of those foals.
Other states also saw major decreases:
■ Florida, down 701 to 2,892, a 19.5 percent drop.
■ California, down 476 to 2,528, a 15.8 percent drop.
■ Louisiana, down 113 to 1,896, a 5.6 percent drop.
■ New Mexico, down 128 to 783, a 14.1 percent drop.
■ Maryland, down 147 to 664, an 18.1 percent drop.
A few states bucked the trend. Pennsylvania's foal crop is up 159, to 692, a 29.8 percent increase.
Kentucky breeders have expressed concern that horses are leaving the state, lured to places such as Pennsylvania by higher incentives for stallions and mares, but Kentucky's drop isn't necessarily another state's gain.
Dan Metzger, president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, a national organization based in Lexington, said that Pennsylvania has become known as a hotbed of the Thoroughbred industry because of lucrative purses and breeders' incentives, both fueled by expanded gambling.
But Metzger said that the sales market is still the ultimate test for most breeders, and with this week's plunge at Keeneland's September yearling sale, the trend of fewer foals is likely to continue.
"I think when people are not selling horses, or getting such low returns, the breeding program's not going to turn their minds around," Metzger said. "The money that a horse brings in the sales ring at Keeneland or Fasig-Tipton, I would think, is a lot more significant in their decision process."