By T. D. Thornton
For the third consecutive year, and for the 11th time in 12 years, the number of reported mares bred (RMB) in North America has declined, according to year-to-date statistics through Oct. 17 released by The Jockey Club Wednesday.
The 31,863 covers reported thus far in 2017 represent a drop of 5.6% from the 33,746 RMBs received through the same calendar date last year.
For a broader historical perspective, using statistics contained in The Jockey Club's online fact book, the number of mares bred is now nearly half of what the year-end report was for 1991 (the oldest date for which The Jockey Club has published online statistics), when 63,479 mares were bred.
The number of active stallions on the continent continues to fall, having dropped in every single year since at least 1991, according to the online fact book.
To date for 2017, 1,342 stallions have been reported active, versus 1,423 reported at this time in 2016 (-5.7%).
In 1991, The Jockey Club reported 6,696 active stallions, nearly five times the current number.
The number of North American stallions covering 100 or more mares has also continued to decrease (105 in 2015; 100 in 2016; 91 in 2017).
Into Mischief (Harlan's Holiday), with 235 mares reported bred, vaulted into the top spot in terms of individual 2017 covers. Last year, he ranked fifth with 218.
“And the demand was far, far above the 235 that he bred,” said Ned Toffey, the general manager at Spendthrift Farm, where Into Mischief stands. “A while back, this was a horse that you could breed to for $6,500. Very quickly, I think breeders identified that this was a real up-and-coming horse, and at no time has this horse disappointed.
“Every year, he continues to meet and exceed breeders' expectations, to the point where I think now he's considered one of the hottest horses in the industry,” Toffey continued. “His stud fee has gone up again [from $75,000 to $100,000] and it hasn't slowed demand down a bit. In fact, he's already full for this [next] season. I do think it's very significant that Into Mischief is a horse with a tremendous libido and he's tremendously fertile. So for him to breed that number of mares, he's actually doing about the same amount of work as a stallion who breeds 150 mares. He's very, very easy on himself.”
The 2016 RMB leader, Uncle Mo (Indian Charlie), dropped from 253 to 204 to attain the fourth-place ranking. The only two other stallions to cover at least 200 mares were Dialed In (Mineshaft) at 231 and American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile) at 214.
John Phillips, the owner of Darby Dan Farm, which stands Dialed In, acknowledged that 231 covers is “a lot,” and even a touch uncharacteristic for a Darby Dan stallion. Like Toffey, Phillips emphasized that 200+ covers can only be reasonably achieved by a high-end stallion with prodigious libido and fertility.
“It's a trend moderated by capacity of that particular [type of] stallion,” Phillips said. “We know that the industry has been focusing toward the top end and wanting [A-list] types of horses [at the commercial sales], and the stallion market just reflects what is happening in the commercial market. The mistake, if I might say, is that people assume the stallion farms are really in control over what [price] the stallion stands for and the number of mares he'll bred. But that's only true to a very limited extent, because the market really will dictate most of that.”
As for the top 10-producing individual American states and Canadian provinces, Indiana soared above all other jurisdictions in terms of the increased percentage of both RMBs (+43.5%) and active stallions (+22.9%). In 2016, 48 Indiana stallions covered 386 mares. Thus far in 2017, 59 Indiana stallions have covered 554 mares.
Herb Likens, the president of the Indiana Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (ITOBA), credits three things for the boost in breeding interest: 1) A change in leadership in the Indiana Horse Racing Commission that “regained trust among our breeders that the program is going to stay stable”; 2) A “great working relationship” with Indiana Grand Race Course operator Centaur Gaming, and 3) Publicity efforts by the ITOBA to get the word out that the state's Thoroughbred incentives are on the upswing.
“I think there's some new blood and there's some movement [of breeders] from other states also,” Likens said. “Illinois's program is failing or maybe has failed, and of course we're in close proximity to Kentucky, so we've got some breeders from over there also. In the next few years, I think you'll see us move toward putting a little more money in the Indiana-sired races [that might] attract better stallions from Kentucky to move into the state.”
Only two other states within the top 10-producing list showed gains in covered mares: Pennsylvania was +15.1% in RMBs (despite a -12.2% active stallion decrease), while Ontario saw a +6.4% boost in RMBs (with zero change in stallion activity from 2016).
“I think the fact that we've paid out $30 million each and every year over the past five years attests to the consistency of the Pennsylvania program,” said Brian Sanfratello, the executive secretary of the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association. “That's what breeders and investors want to see. Over 400 restricted races annually and up to 40% breeder and owner awards have been a real catalyst.”
The only two top-10 states that had reported RMB gains at this time last year have both regressed thus far in 2017: Kentucky (-2.6% RMBs; +.8% active stallions) and Maryland (-15.8% RMBs; -6.2% active stallions).
Despite Kentucky's year-versus-year percentage downtick in RMBs, the Bluegrass State remains far and away the North American leader in Thoroughbred breeding activity. During 2017, Kentucky's 229 reported stallions covered 17,275 mares, or 54.2% of all of the mares reported bred in North America.
Among the top 10-producing jurisdictions, Florida showed the most precipitous decline in RMBs (-24.8%). New Mexico posted the largest drop in active stallions (-19.4%).
New York's RMBs declined (-12.1%) despite a slight uptick in active stallions (+5.4%).
Underscoring that the Bluegrass State retains the bloodstock seat of power with regard to book size, Kentucky-based stallions owned the top 44 individual rankings in terms of number of mares bred. Florida-based Uncaptured (Lion Heart), ranked 45th with 140 covers, is the first stallion outside of Kentucky to crack that list.
As in past seasons, all of the paperwork isn't in yet. Based upon historical trends, The Jockey Club estimates an additional 2,000 to 3,000 mares will be reported as having been bred during the 2017 breeding season.