By T. D. Thornton
A proposed mandate by The Jockey Club to cap at 140 the number of mares a stallion may breed in a season was met with a hazy mixture of consternation and support within the United States bloodstock community when it was announced on Friday.
Citing the significant, decades-long decline in the North American foal crop and concerns “with the narrowing of the diversity of the Thoroughbred gene pool,” The Jockey Club, via press release, said Sep. 6 that its board of stewards is considering a per-stallion breeding limit that would be phased in over three years starting with the 2021 season.
Although some of the initial reactions to The Jockey Club’s unprecedented proposal included predictions that any implementation of a mandated cap would be challenged in federal court on the basis of interstate trade being unfairly restricted, James Gagliano, The Jockey Club’s president and chief operating officer, wrote in an emailed response to a TDN query that “We neither expect nor see a basis for a legal challenge.”
Asked if he had concerns that industry participants would object to a stallion cap on the basis that the idea goes against the capitalist concept of an open market, Gagliano wrote that “We cannot predict the economic effects of a limitation because of the complexity of the interactions among participants in the breeding and selling markets. We believe the health and welfare of the breed, on which the industry depends, is paramount and provides the fullest support for considering efforts to forestall harm.”
The Jockey Club announced in August that the 2020 foal crop is expected to dip to 20,500. The 2019 crop is currently estimated at 20,800. The high mark for the continent’s crop was in 1986, when 51,296 Thoroughbreds were foaled.
“In 2007, 37 stallions reported in excess of 140 mares bred each from a total of 3,865 stallions,” The Jockey Club’s release stated. “By 2010, that number had declined to 24. Since then, the number has nearly doubled to 43 stallions reporting 140 or more mares bred from a population of stallions that now stands at less than one-half that of 2007.
“On the mare side, in 2007, 5,894 mares (9.5% of the total) were bred by stallions that covered more than 140 mares. By 2019, 7,415 mares (27% of the total) were covered by stallions with books of more than 140, a threefold increase.
“The combination of these changes has resulted in a substantial increase in the percentage of foals produced by a discreet segment of stallions—signaling a worrisome concentration of the gene pool,” the press release stated.
The Jockey Club’s proposed phase-in was outlined as follows:
- Stallions entering stud service for the first time in 2020 would be exempt from the 140 limit through the 2023 season
• Stallions that entered stud service in 2019 would be exempt through the 2022 season.
• Stallions that entered stud service in 2018 would be exempt through the 2021 season.
• Stallions that entered service in 2017 or prior would be subject to the 140 cap as of January 1, 2021.
The proposal is not etched in stone though, and both Gagliano’s email and The Jockey Club’s release underscored that the organization will be soliciting industry input before deciding if the rule should go into effect or be tweaked prior to implementation.
Ned Toffey, the general manager of Spendthrift Farm, said that Spendthrift would, indeed, be letting The Jockey Club know its position. In 2018, for the second consecutive year, Spendthrift’s Into Mischief (Harlan’s Holiday) led the continent in terms of individual covers, with 245. In 2017, he covered 235 mares.
“We’re disappointed that The Jockey Club is thinking about going in this direction,” Toffey told TDN. “They will certainly hear from us. What’s next, do they start saying which stallions are allowed to stand at stud? I think it’s a slippery slope. It’s un-American. I think it’s restraint of trade. We’re big believers that you let the market decide what they want to breed to.
But Craig Bernick, president of Glen Hill Farm, said that from a breeder’s perspective, a cap would be beneficial.
“I think if they can get it through it will be very positive for the business as a whole,” Bernick told TDN. “With the declining foal crop and racetracks closing and handle going down, we need to find ways for horses to stay around longer, and [to] breed sounder horses for the racetrack instead of just the sales ring. So many of the horses who’ve bred more than 140 mares are completely unproven as breeding stallions. As a breeder, if you want to breed to a $20,000 or $40,000 type of horse because that’s the level of mare you have, there aren’t a lot of proven options. I also think this will keep a lot of the [in-training] horses around that are useful, so personally I’m all for it.”
Headley Bell, the managing partner at Mill Ridge Farm, offered a split perspective on the idea of a cap. Over the past several years, Mill Ridge has been known as primarily a high-end nursery. But in 2019, Mill Ridge returned to the business of standing stallions, starting with Oscar Performance (Kitten’s Joy).
“For our syndicate with Oscar Performance, we actually wrote into it that we were going to limit him to 140 mares,” Bell told TDN. “So we believe in that [theory]. But personally, I believe in free markets, and markets should really direct and dictate things.
“I appreciate what The Jockey Club and a number of farms are trying to do, but I think it needs to be up to individuals to [establish stallion limits],” Bell continued. “Rather than coming as a doctrine from The Jockey Club, it should be up to the industry and farms to declare that. Let the breeder make that choice whether they want to support [limits] or not. But for me to tell the entire industry to do that, that’s a little more restrictive than I think our economy should be.”
Bret Jones, who is in charge of bloodstock services at Airdrie Stud, said that in the months to come, industry-wide discussion about the cap proposal will likely generate perspectives on the issue that aren’t evident at first blush.
“We cap our stallions at around 150, so that’s not too far off what’s being proposed,” Jones told TDN. “We’ve really been subscribing to that model as long as we’ve been in business. I can understand where The Jockey Club is coming from if their pursuit is the betterment of the breed. But I think a period of comments and questioning are a very healthy way to look into this. I think you’re going to hear a lot of different opinions, and I think you’re going to hear a lot of things that might not [come up] in first reactions to this.
“Everyone has their own philosophies on what they think is the correct book size,” Jones continued. “Ours is not very different from this proposal, but at the same time I can understand why somebody would want to discredit our opinion on it—it’s because we’re not going to have to make the sacrifice that others might have to. But that said, I think for the betterment of the breed it’s absolutely worth asking questions and investigating.”
According to statistics released by The Jockey Club in 2018, for the fourth consecutive year, and for the 12th time in 13 years, the number of reported mares bred in North America declined. Last year the number of mares bred dipped to less than half of what the year-end report was for 1991 (the oldest date for which The Jockey Club publishes online statistics), when 63,479 mares were bred.
The number of active stallions also fell. According to the 2018 Report of Mares Bred, the 2017 to 2018 active stallion drop was 9.5%. The 2016 to 2017 decline was 5.7%. The number of active stallions on the continent has now declined in every single year since at least 1991, when The Jockey Club reported 6,696 stallions—more than five times the current number.
In terms of higher-volume horses, last year the number of stallions covering 125 or more mares increased slightly, from 60 in 2017 to 62 in 2018. Click here to view The Jockey Club’s list of stallions and the number of mares they bred in 2018.
Toffey, at Spendthrift, said “We obviously breed substantial numbers, so this would affect the way we do things. I don’t think that it’s as simple as limiting a stallion’s book to solve the problems with the gene pool. The effect that I would see this as having is it would make a handful of horses really, really expensive.
“While Into Mischief may be out of a lot of people’s price range, if you limit his book we’ve got to make up that [lost stud fee revenue] by putting him up to $300,000-plus [stud fee],” Toffey continued. “And we’d have to do that across the board with a lot of our horses. That would be hard on a lot of breeders, and it makes it that much harder to make sense of all of this stuff.”
But Bernick, of Glen Hill, said that “the sought-after stallions, [if] they have a limited book, I’m sure that their stud fees will go up.” But, he added, the “trickle-down effect” could boost the profiles of mid-range, more affordable stallions.
“There are people for [a cap] for good reason, and frankly, plenty of people against it for good reasons pertaining to their businesses that they’ve invested tons of money in,” Bernick said. “They have a model to make money, and they’d have to change it.”
Yet Toffey said that “If you’re concerned about diversity in the gene pool, we offer that too—we’ve got 26 stallions. We’re out here giving as many horses a chance as we can. I think that’s how you handle genetic diversity, not by saying you can only do so much business.”
Toffey was asked if the announcement had come as a surprise to Spendthrift.
“We’ve been hearing some rumblings about this,” Toffey said, “although nobody from The Jockey Club has approached us about it. Nobody has ever made an attempt to sit down and have any kind of meaningful conversation with us. And I think it’s disappointing that they would start floating an idea like this without having spoken to us.”
Asked to explain the debate process that went into The Jockey Club’s proposed cap, Gagliano wrote in his email that “This subject has been in front of the stewards over multiple meetings and has received a considerable amount of discussion. As a matter of course The Jockey Club regularly communicates with members of the industry and is using this media advisory to solicit comments. The stewards then decided to put a proposal out for comment.”
Asked how The Jockey Club determined its cap number, Gagliano wrote that “The number 140 was selected for the proposed rule after a review of relevant data from the registry and with input from industry participants.” He added that the stewards were unanimous in their support for the proposal.
As far as a timetable for potential implementation after fielding comments from industry participants, Gagliano wrote that “It is possible we will make an announcement before the end of the year.”