John A. Bell III reached into his pocket and pulled out two sheets of paper with the cold, hard facts. "Well, here's the bad news," he said. Bad news, indeed, for the family-owned and operated Jonabell Farm that Bell founded in 1956. Of 76 mares previously checked and believed to be in foal for next year, 33 of them, 44%, are no longer pregnant. "Never seen anything like it," Bell said. His wife, Jessica, shook her head, adding, "It's just devastating."
Bell had detailed records of how the fetal/foal loss syndrome had affected Jonabell. Particularly hard hit were the maiden mares, those coming off the racetrack last year and usually offering great potential with their offspring in the commercial market. Of the 27 maiden mares checked in foal, 18 had lost their foals, a loss rate of 67%.
Generally speaking, the longer a Jonabell mare was in foal, the greater chance she had lost her foal. Among those in foal 80-plus days, 8-of-13 (62%) lost their foals; 70-79 days, 9-of-14 (65%) lost; 60-69 days, 7-of-16 (44%) lost; 50-59, 7-of-19 (37%) lost; 40-49, 2-of-13 lost (16%); 30-39 days, 0-of-1 lost.
Son Jimmy Bell said the percentages that Kentucky's breeders are losing is irrelevant. "What really hurts is whether you lost a foal from one of your stars," he said. "One good foal can make up for a lot of average ones. But it's tough calling up a client and saying that A.P. Indy he bred didn't make it."
The senior Bell said when the farm began experiencing problem births he began to question whether his staff was making mistakes in the foaling barn. "I worried that we were doing something wrong," he said. "But things just kept happening that didn't make sense. Foals weren't breathing. It wasn't anything we were doing, but we still don't know what it is that's causing this."
Steve Johnson, the president of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers Club, said Margaux Stud has had no late term losses, but recently checked 26 mares in foal 40 days or more and 10 were empty. Claiborne Farm manager Gus Koch said the Hancock family farm has a 22% loss at this point. John Phillips of Darby Dan Farm said late-term losses have been minimal. A check of 45 mares in foal 60 days or more showed a 35% loss. Dan Kenny manages 60 mares on a variety of farms for different clients. "Up until today, they were all clean as a whistle," Kenny said. "Now, today, I know of two for sure (that are now empty)." Ted Carr of Diamond A Farms said 24 pregnant mares were checked and six are now empty, a 25% loss. All were maiden or barren mares.
"Not knowing for sure what is causing this is tough," John Bell said. "You just don't know what you can do."