Representatives of the Thoroughbred industry joined Kentucky agriculture commissioner Ryan Quarles at a press conference Dec. 4 at Keeneland to praise the resumption of equine exports to the People's Republic of China.
A ceremony in Beijing took place Nov. 6 as the agreement was signed by U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad and Minister Zhi Shuping of the People's Republic of China. The agreement clears the way for the U.S. to export horses, including Thoroughbreds, to China, where a rapidly expanding racing industry has emerged.
"Kentucky is known around the world for a few signature products—bourbon, fried chicken, and the equine industry," Quarles said.
"Kentucky is part of a greater global economy. It's estimated the Chinese are buying $20-$30 million of horses each year and their racing industry is growing ... we believe we can capture a significant part of this market."
Quarles said an estimate of the agreement's economic impact is unknown at this time, but with Kentucky's reputation for Thoroughbreds, the Chinese buyers likely will come to the Bluegrass State first. He said there could be an immediate multimillion-dollar impact.
Keeneland's president and CEO Bill Thomason said this agreement will increase the presence of Chinese buyers at Thoroughbred auctions in Kentucky.
"The first thing we need to do is break down the barriers," he said. "Once they come here and see the quality of horses and they take them back into their countries, it always leads to more investment and development.
"I think, internationally, every country has a view of this Kentucky product and the quality of the product."
China Horse Clubhas been an active buyer at Thoroughbred sales during the past couple of years. At this year's Keeneland September yearling sale, China Horse Club, either alone or in partnership, purchased 15 yearlings for $4.85 million. The group also purchased six head at the Keeneland November breeding stock sale for $194,000 and made one purchase at the Fasig-Tipton November sale for $675,000. Thomason said some of the yearling purchases are in the process of heading to China.
Chauncey Morris, executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association/Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders, said that racing conditions in mainland China are similar to North American conditions, giving Chinese buyers more reason to source horses in Kentucky.
"The biggest trading partners of Thoroughbred horses into China are currently Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland," he said. "The reason that Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland are chief suppliers is because they have preferential trade or health protocol status ... When there are too many hoops to jump through, it makes it harder and it's easier to go somewhere else and get your horses.
"That said, there are over eight racetracks (in the mainland) now that are operating in a circuit nationwide—they all run on dirt, they know about our horses, they want our speed ... There is a difference between the racing that occurs in Hong Kong and Macau and what occurs on the mainland, and we feel that our product will really rival everybody else's.
"Their racing conditions are much more similar to North America and they also know this product is better suited for horses for courses."
Morris also said the global branding of organizations and events, such as Keeneland and the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1), help cement Kentucky's position as a market leader.
"Chinese are incredibly global, savvy business people," he said. "They recognize brands like Keeneland, like the Thoroughbreds, like the Kentucky Derby. These things are very important to them and that goes into that whole concept of face (culture of prestige and respect). They want the best horses, this enables them to do that."