Looks can be deceiving, and the happy faces worn by many consignors at the Keeneland November breeding stock sale may be sending out a deceiving message about the true health of Kentucky's No. 1 business.
It's true the average price of $97,348 was the highest since 1984, a giddy time for Thoroughbred breeders when the appraised value of a horse seemingly increased by the minute. That unrealistic climb, accompanied by widespread overproduction, came to an abrupt end shortly thereafter and was followed by a long, hard correction in the bloodstock market.
The current year's escalation in prices for breeding stock may be more grounded in reality than the inflation of the early- to mid-1980s. Economics for Thoroughbred owners and breeders are improving in some states, almost entirely because of slot machine revenue, and hopes are high that tracks in Pennsylvania, the newest slots state, will offer purses that horsemen there could only dream of in the past.
New York still has not realized the potential of slot machine revenue, so there is optimism for an economic boom there, too. The same goes for Florida, where voters recently approved a referendum giving residents of Dade and Broward counties the right to decide whether tracks and jai-alai frontons should be permitted to install slots. That issue must go before voters in those counties before June.
However, at the racetracks in the backyard of Kentucky's Thoroughbred owners and breeders, purses have stagnated or are falling. As other state breeding programs grow, as they surely will in Pennsylvania, Florida, and New York if slots revenue comes to fruition, Kentucky remains a state without a significant program awarding breeders. Historically, Kentucky owners and breeders have either been naïve or apathetic about political activities in their state, and it is beginning to show--especially as other states have progressed.
Fortunately, that is changing. The Rodney Dangerfield of Kentucky's businesses--the Thoroughbred racing and breeding industry--finally may get some respect from state legislators.
Thanks to the formation of the Kentucky Equine Education Project, all horse breeds in Kentucky will have a voice--a significant one--in the state capital of Frankfort. Launched last May, the organization is developing a strategy to educate the general public and legislators on the importance of the horse industry to this state.
KEEP, as it is known, will be holding a major fund-raising event Dec. 3 in Lexington, where seasons to such stallions as A.P. Indy, Elusive Quality, Fusaichi Pegasus, and Storm Cat will be auctioned (as well as stallion seasons from other breeds). Money from the fund-raiser will give the kind of political clout to the horse industry that it has never had before, allowing horse owners and breeders to tell their real-life stories to Kentucky citizens and legislators. Unfortunately, too many people in the state have relied on a stereotypical image of the Kentucky horse farmer as an aristocratic owner whose horses are nothing more than a hobby.
The KEEP initiative is critical to the future success of all horse breeds in Kentucky, but especially to the Thoroughbred breed that contributes so much to the state's image, its work force, and its revenue stream. For the early momentum to be sustained, every horse owner and breeder in the state must stand behind KEEP. Attend meetings when requested. Contact and support legislators. And, by all means, show up on the night of Dec. 3 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel for the "biggest stallion season auction in the history of the world."
And bring your checkbook. There is no better time to invest in the industry's future.