Declines in the number of foals and registered horses have created challenges for the equine industry at large, though the situation has raised another major question: Where have all the owners gone?
This year's American Horse Council National Issues Forum was titled, "Where Have All the Horses Gone?" During the June 24 forum in Washington, D.C., the question was answered on several levels, but the data also led to more questions.
Breed registries have largely the same story to tell, and it's one about fewer horses either through declines in the number of mares bred or the fact horses aren't registered. In any event, racing and other disciplines are feeling the impact that comes from fewer people participating in horse ownership.
For instance, the Thoroughbred foal crop was more than 51,000, an all-time high, in 1986, but The Jockey Club projects it will fall to about 22,000 in 2014. In turn, the number of individual race starters is projected to drop from 59,300 last year to 44,500 in 2017.
"This has an immense ripple effect on field size, pari-mutuel handle, and even auction results," Jockey Club president and chief operating officer Jim Gagliano said. "It's abundantly clear what we need to do."
Gagliano cited statistics that show on average purses cover 50% of the cost of a owning a racing Thoroughbred. And with the number of ownership entities having dropped 25% from 2004 to 2013 according to Equibase records, The Jockey Club will make owner recruitment a focus, he said.
Gagliano outlined seven things The Jockey Club believes the industry must do: thoughtfully reduce the number of racing days; promote the best races and events; improve use of new marketing tools such as social media; focus on a younger demographic to introduce people to horse racing; increase the value of Thoroughbreds in part by proving their value outside of racing; developing new owners; and reducing risks such as medication abuse or horse neglect that damage the Thoroughbred brand.
The ownership issue could be addressed at The Jockey Club Round Table in August, he said.
Other industry breed groups also have taken a proactive approach. Julie Broadway, executive director of the American Morgan Horse Association, said double-digit declines in the number of registered horses has led to a drop in the number of horses that participate, which in turn has fueled less demand for professional trainers.
The AMHA launched a "Stop the Drop" campaign that encourages reduced stud fees, mares for lease, and discounted training fees for the first four months in an effort to encourage new owners or get former ones to return.
Tim Capps, director of the Equine Industry Program at the University of Louisville, presented an overview of the horse-population issue along with historical perspective. He noted the impact the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in September 2005 had on racing and breeding in subsequent years, but said it wasn't much different after the Great Depression.
Capps offered statistics that show changes in yearling sale averages, race days, and gross purses from 1928-34 basically overlay those of 2006-11. He said the racing and breeding industry has proven very resilient with the expected peaks and valleys.
Some things shouldn't be a surprise, Capps said. He used the full-card simulcast boom of the 1990s as an example, noting growth to what was record annual wagering on Thoroughbred racing but also an obviously saturated market by 2004.
"It was clear you were going to hit the wall at some point," Capps said. "Bubbles always burst. The difficult part is figuring out when you're in a bubble."