Steady Thoroughbred auction results and foal crop numbers, combined with the public interest generated by 2015 Kentucky-bred Triple Crown winner American Pharoah are among the key factors causing many industry leaders to maintain a positive outlook on Kentucky’s horse business – at least for the short term.
The Bluegrass brand is as strong as ever thanks to the win tickets Kentucky-breds continue to cash at tracks around the world. However, there is a growing concern that other states where tracks have expanded gaming are successfully luring commonwealth horsemen away with fatter racing purses and financial incentives to breeders.
“What we’re seeing right now is a period of consistency and stability,” said Keeneland President and CEO Bill Thomason. “The foal crop is what drives our industry, and supply and demand … and that has really stabilized.”
In 2013, Kentucky-breds represented 32.5 percent of the total North American foal crop, up slightly from 31 percent in 2012, according to The Jockey Club, which maintains the Thoroughbred registry. Thomason noted that percentage – which towers over other states – reflects Kentucky’s continued ability to produce quality racehorses.
“We have a strong, competitive position around the world with the horses that are being bred in Kentucky,” Thomason said.
Some say Kentucky is still at a big and growing disadvantage because of its lack of expanded casino gaming, however. Surrounding states such as Ohio and Indiana bolster their racing purses and breeding programs with alternative gaming funds, which has spurred some Kentucky breeders and racehorse owners to move their animals out of state.
The limited establishment in September 2011 of “historical race wagering” has helped Kentucky remain competitive. It uses betting devices similar to slot machines that tap data of actual past races to determine an outcome, and make payouts on a pari-mutuel formula.
Since being launched at Ellis Park in Henderson and Kentucky Downs in Franklin, historical race wagering, called “Instant Racing,” has generated $1 billion in handle, according to a May 6 report presented to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. As of May, an added $9.7 million has fueled Kentucky race purses, while $694,000 went to the Kentucky Thoroughbred Breeders’ Incentive Fund.
“We (established) Instant Racing for one reason: to help enhance our purse structure and breeding programs and to keep them competitive,” Thomason said. “We’re hoping over the next three to five years that we’ll be able to make a significant impact with those programs in Kentucky.”
Instant Racing is to expand in September when a $30 million 1,000-terminal facility near downtown Lexington opens. It will be a partnership operation of Keeneland Racetrack and The Red Mile.
In terms of racing and auction sales in the Bluegrass state, average purses per runner from 1992 to 2014 have increased 135 percent. Unfortunately, that is much less than the 179-percent increase in the average purchase price for yearlings, the 246-percent increase for weanlings and the 262-percent increase in the cost to buy a 2-year-old over the same period.
Average yearling sales prices continue to improve while average broodmare prices decreased in 2014, and average stud fees are increasing somewhat in 2015, according to Jockey Club figures. Overall, the results are favorable to breeders.
“We think the supply (of horses) is very consistent with what it’s been over the past two or three years,” Thomason said. “All around the world, the demand has been consistent, stable and very strong for good horses.”
At least 3-5 years of sustained growth
Indications are Kentucky’s horse industry likely will see at least a three- to five-year period of continued moderate, sustained growth, Thomason said, because of these supply and demand factors, the recovering overall global economy, and improvement in purses at racetracks around the country.
Last September, the Keeneland September yearling sale, the world’s largest Thoroughbred auction, had results nearly equal to 2013, continuing the healthy trend toward market stability and confidence. Cumulatively, the average price of $99,312 was down 2.8 percent from $102,220 last year. The median, the critical indicator of a healthy market, remained the same as last year at $50,000.
“The success of this sale flows from the fact that we continue to operate in a fair, realistic market,” Keeneland Vice President of Sales Walt Robertson said. “We had a significant improvement in results the last two years. Now we’re seeing consistency and stability in the market, which fuels optimism, heightens buyer confidence and spurs competition.”
A month later, Keeneland’s November breeding stock sale also demonstrated healthy trade that generated solid gains, including a record-equaling median ($35,000); the sale of 18 seven-figure horses, up from 14 last year; an influx of new buyers participating at the top levels of the market; strong demand for quality foals; and a weanling filly selling for a North American record $3 million.
More recently, the Fasig-Tipton July selected yearling sale, which marks the first major yearling sale of the season and could serve as an indicator for the health of the 2015 market, posted across-the-board gains in Lexington July 9.
Seven yearlings brought $300,000 or higher this year and 18 realized $200,000 or more; five accomplished the former in 2014, while 10 reached the latter a year ago. Fasig-Tipton’s 2015 gross climbed 31.1 percent, the average gained 3.6 percent, and the median advanced by 10 percent.
“It was very solid and very competitive,” Fasig-Tipton President Boyd Browning said. “Optimism but not exuberance out there in the market place. I think you see a very similar market, maybe slighter better but not dramatically different, than what we saw in 2014. But all in all, a good marketplace – and a fair marketplace, too.”
Real estate, finance, fundamentals all solid
Officials in the local real estate and banking businesses echoed the positive sentiments of the health of Kentucky’s horse industry due to the growth they’ve seen over the last year.
“The Thoroughbred industry as a whole has been doing better. It’s healthier,” said Zach Davis, president and principal broker of the Lexington real estate company Kirkpatrick & Co. “We have seen that reflection in the equine real estate market. 2013 and 2014 were both very good years, and just this past week (first week of July) I put two farms under contract that were multiple-offer situations; that hasn’t happened since maybe 2004 or 2005.
“I don’t want to imply the market as a whole is that active, but if a farm goes on the market and it’s priced right and the presentation is good, it will sell.”
In the past year, Davis said, the majority of Kirkpatrick’s top horse farm sales have been to either buyers from outside Kentucky or outside the nation.
“We deal with international buyers, and they have been a significant factor in the Central Kentucky farm market,” he said, adding he has seen an increase in non-Thoroughbred racing “sport horse” people investing in Kentucky equine real estate since 2012.
While farm prices went awry in the years following the collapse of the international financial market in 2008, things have since stabilized, Davis said.
“In 2009 and 2010, there was such a glut of bank-owned (repossessed) properties that prices were all over the board, and it was very scattered,” he explained. “Since then, we have had a good deal of stability that has led to a healthy market. We have seen fair sales prices, and we’ve seen a few steadily increasing.”
The Thoroughbred industry is a long and cyclical business in which it takes horse owners and breeders two and a half to three years to get their product from conception (mares getting in foal) to market (selling the offspring at auction or racing them on the track). While the industry was suffering a period of oversupply during the worst of the economic recession in 2008-09, it was able to steady itself in 2011 and 2012. Equine banker and PBI Bank Senior Vice President Bob Feenick believes the industry has now entered a good window of fundamentals.
“We’re not the heyday of the 1970s and late 1990s, but we’re still fundamental and very sound right now,” Feenick said. “The overall fundamentals of both racing and breeding look really good, and my customers are enjoying that right now. My loan demand reflects that.”
Feenick described the lending market for his equine customers as “very, very good.”
“I have customers who are returning to increase their credit, along with continued opportunities with new clientele,” Feenick said. “If my clientele take three years to get their product to market, and we look at what production is year in and year out, we’re likely in pretty good shape for the next three to four years with nothing else changing.”
Shiny Triple Crown attracts attention
The interest in Kentucky’s Thoroughbred industry was given an additional boost in June when for the first time since 1978, a horse finally swept the Triple Crown. American Pharoah, who accomplished the feat, is a Kentucky homebred owned by Zayat Stables. He was foaled at Tom VanMeter’s Stockplace Farm near Lexington, and is expected to begin a stud career at Coolmore’s Ashford Stud near Versailles, Ky., after competing in the Oct. 31 Breeders’ Cup Classic.
American Pharoah was recently pegged at 3-5 odds by Television Games Network and parent company Betfair to stand for a fee between $175,000 and $200,000 during his first season at Ashford, which would place him as one of the most expensive first-season sires in history. His sire, Pioneerof the Nile, stands at nearby WinStar Farm.
“The significance of the Triple Crown really seems to have captured the general public’s imagination, and we have already seen a lot of interest in his retirement to Ashford,” said farm manager Dermot Ryan. “He’s obviously a very unique horse, and you would expect the buzz he has created on the track will crossover into his breeding career. He will bring his celebrity status to Kentucky when he retires here, and that has got to be a positive for the whole industry.”
Several operations and entities believe American Pharoah’s feat could have a significant impact on the continued health of Kentucky’s Thoroughbred industry, among them Horse Country Inc., a new non-profit central organizer and booking outlet for tours of Kentucky Thoroughbred farms, its major equine medical clinics and local equine attractions.
“I think we’re already seeing how special American Pharoah is as a personality and athlete, and his accomplishment represents a huge opportunity for the sport and the industry,” said Horse Country Executive Director Anne Sabatino Hardy. “Any time you get the ‘big win’ in a sport, you get the eyes of the world, not only those of your fans.
“The fact that he is a Kentucky horse and will return home to Kentucky when he’s finished racing is a tremendous opportunity for us,” Hardy said. “Of course people will want to see him, and Ashford (Coolmore America) is participating in Horse Country, so once he’s had a chance to settle into his new home, people will be able to visit.”
Increased public access to farms
Horse Country Inc. – which is dedicated to connecting visitors with the story of the horses, land and people, and to developing fans of farms and clinics – will host its first official tours during Breeders’ Cup Festival week in Lexington Oct. 25-28.
“While we always have things to work on and toward (in the horse industry), I feel bright days are ahead,” said Horse Country President Price Bell Jr. of Mill Ridge Farm and Nicoma Bloodstock. “In my opinion, there has been a return to promoting the horse and connecting people to our star athletes. From Kentucky-bred American Pharoah’s feature on the ‘Today’ show, to the success and recognition of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, our industry is working together to promote, connect and protect our amazing athletes.
“Our hope is Horse Country can support this movement by celebrating the stories of our horses, the passions of the people who work with them, and share in the dreams that play out in each race,” Bell said.
Horse Country Inc.’s members include several Central Kentucky Thoroughbred farms and veterinary clinics. It also is getting support from industry organizations such as Breeders’ Cup, Fasig-Tipton, The Jockey Club, Keeneland, and Kentucky Thoroughbred Association-Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders.
While Kentucky’s horse industry didn’t leave the economic recession unscathed, after several years of recovery, it’s returning to a place of normalcy, health and growth. In a sense, its steady foal numbers and positive auction results show the industry is holding its own after a long period of instability and uncertainty.
The influx of new players buying real estate, along the hope of drawing additional fans to Kentucky via American Pharoah’s Triple Crown feat and the establishment of Horse Country Inc. has generated excitement of a whole new level. The industry has been historically cyclical, but the foreseeable future is creating optimism.