Two sons of Scat Daddy–Justify and Mendelssohn–each covered 252 mares while standing their first seasons at Coolmore America’s Ashford Stud this year, knocking Spendthrift Farm’s Into Mischief (Harlan’s Holiday), who bred 241 mares, off his two-year reign as North America’s top-covering stallion.

Coolmore’s Uncle Mo (Indian Charlie) also covered 241 mares. Back in 2016, Uncle Mo led the continent with 253 mares bred.

These statistics are based on 2019 reports of mares bred in North America (RMB) that were released Thursday by The Jockey Club (TJC).

TJC annually releases RMB figures at this time of year. But this year’s cover numbers, which serve as a barometer for the continent’s breeding industry, are likely to be viewed in a different light this time around because TJC’s board of stewards is in the midst of considering per-stallion breeding limits that could be phased in over three years starting with the 2021 season.

When the proposed mandate to the number of cap mares bred at 140 was first made public Sep. 6, the concept was met with a hazy mixture of consternation and support within the United States bloodstock community. TJC told TDN when the story was first reported that a new rule regarding cap limits could be announced before the end of this year.

In 2018, five stallions topped 200 covers based on RMB reports released that October. This year there were eight.

The only other stallions to crack 200 RMBs in 2019 were Spendthrift’s duo of Goldencents (Into Mischief) at 239 and Bolt d’Oro (Medaglia d’Oro) at 214, then Coolmore’s duo of Munnings (Speightstown) at 202 and Practical Joke (Into Mischief) at 200.

In fact, of the first 14 stallions on the most-covers list, only two are not standing at either Coolmore or Spendthrift: Sharp Azteca (Freud) with 195 for Three Chimneys Farm, and Klimt with 187 for Darby Dan Farm.

Using the 140 number that is under consideration for TJC’s cap, in 2018 there were 41 stallions that covered 140 or more mares. This year that number rose to 44.

And of those 44 stallions who covered 140 or more mares this year, all but three stand in Kentucky.

Every GI Kentucky Derby winner between 2014 and 2018 is also above the proposed 140 cutoff.

Kentucky-based stallions occupied the top 31 positions on the RMB list. Girvin (Tale of Ekati), who stood his first season this year at Ocala Stud in Florida, was the first non-Kentucky stallion to crack the rankings at No. 32 (149 covers).

In terms of individual state RMB leaders beyond Kentucky and Florida, the following stallions topped the covers list for their respective states/provinces:

California–Stay Thirsty (Bernardini) 147
Pennsylvania–Hoppertunity (Any Given Saturday) 129
New York–Central Banker (Speightstown)127
Ontario–Souper Speedy (Indian Charlie) 104
Maryland–Golden Lad (Medaglia d’Oro) 89
Louisiana–Star Guitar (Quiet American) 65

Key breeding stats dip, but not as steeply

The year-over-year declines in the North American breeding industry appear to be evolving into a “new normal,” although signs of a bottoming-out might be within reach.

For the fifth consecutive year, and for the 13th time in 14 years, the number of reported mares bred (RMB) in North America has dropped according to annual comparative statistics through Oct. 16 released Thursday by TJC.

The 29,218 covers reported thus far in 2019 represent a drop of 3.5% from the 30,274 reported in North America at this time last year. That’s a slight improvement from the 5.0% RMB reduction in 2018 and the 5.6% RMB decline in 2017.

The number of active stallions also continues to fall, but again, not as precipitously as last season. TJC reported 1,134 active stallions in 2019 continent-wide compared to 1,214 in 2018, a 6.6% dip. The 2018 drop was 9.5%. The 2017 decline was 5.7%.

For a longer-range perspective, the number of mares bred in North America has now dipped to 48% of what the final (not RMB) foal crop tally was for 1991 (the oldest date for which TJC publishes those statistics online), when 63,479 mares were bred.

And the number of active stallions on the continent has now declined in every single year since at least 1991, when TJC reported a final tally of 6,696 stallions. The current number of stallions represents just 17% of that 1991 figure.

Gray Lyster, the president of the Consignors & Commercial Breeders Association, told TDN that the current climate for the breeding marketplace makes it challenging to get a true reading on year-to-year statistics.

“Have we settled to [a bottoming-out] point?” Lyster asked rhetorically. “I think it’s difficult to evaluate the year-to-year [declines] and say, ‘Well, this year it’s because of some negative headlines, and that’s why it happened.’ I don’t see that. As a guy who operates a consignment and a farm, I see that we’re not able to breed at the lower level like we used to be able to do.

“This gradual decline may be a result of things still settling out from [the larger economic recession] a decade ago,” Lyster continued. “All of our expenses–the costs of raising a horse–are going up every single year. You see in sales that [buyers] are continually all lining up on the same horses, and it’s usually the more quality stock. The bottom quarter of our industry, those horses are simply not viable commercial animals. You’re not seeing horses at every level being removed from the marketplace. You’re seeing the bottom of the marketplace being removed. How long it takes that to settle [is unknown]. Sometimes there’s a delay.

“So while I don’t think it’s shocking that we continue a small decline, I do think that it’s not something that’s alarming, and I do expect a settle sometime soon,” Lyster summed up.

Pennsylvania bucks negative trend

Of the top 10 states and provinces ranked by number of RMBs, only Pennsylvania (up 12.5%) and Oklahoma (up 1.9%) stallions covered more mares in 2019 than in 2018.

Pennsylvania’s 2019 uptick marks the third straight annual increase in RMBs for the state, which posted an 8.3% RMB boost in 2018 and a 15.1% jump in 2017.

Brian Sanfratello, the executive secretary of the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association, pointed to several reasons for the positive trend.

“We have a real good program, probably one of the best in the country,” Sanfratello told TDN. “A few years back [potential horse owners] were a little leery about money that was being [diverted by the state] from the Race Horse Development Fund. And a couple of years ago, the legislature put that money in a trust, so it basically can’t be touched [by other entities]. So now people have more faith that the money will be there, and are making a commitment to Pennsylvania.

“We also raised the breeder awards to PA-sired horses to 40% at the beginning of 2017,” Sanfratello continued. “What that did was [assure] people that if they breed to a PA sire, they can recoup a good portion of their money in breeder awards, so it makes it a better business model for them. We also moved the maiden breeder award for PA-sired horses to 50%. And we didn’t forget about the non-PA sired horses either. We raised that maiden breeder award to 25%. So what all that did was [cause] a big influx of new stallions. Last year we had probably 10 or 12 new stallions come into Pennsylvania.”

Among the top 10 breeding jurisdictions, California reported the largest 2019 RMB drop, declining 18.7%.

Two other significant breeding states continue to post RMB declines, but not as sharply as in recent seasons: New York was down 5.1% in 2019 (on the heels of a 15.9% dip in 2018 and a 12.1% decline in 2017). Florida was down 2.8% (after falling 7.5% in 2018 and plummeting 24.8% in 2017).

Ontario, which in 2018 reported the largest state/province RMB drop, declining 23.5% from 2017, was again down double digits in 2019, falling 13.2%.

Kentucky stallions accounted for 58.6% of all of the mares reported bred in North America in 2019. The 17,123 RMBs there represent a 1.1% decline from Kentucky’s total in 2018. From 2017 to 2018, Kentucky posted a fractional RMB rise of .3%.

By T. D. Thornton

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