The article on an inside page of yesterday's Daily Racing Form might have seemed inconsequential to a casual reader: Breeding farms throughout Maryland reported a noticeable drop in the demand for stud services.
A robust stallion might be bred to as many as 50 or 60 mares in a season, but some well-established stallions were being booked to half that number. Even Windfields Farm, the Tiffany's of the industry, disclosed that its business was down and it was considering reductions in stud fees for next season. Another breeder said that some owners of mares had been losing so much money that they might be giving these mares away instead of blowing more money on stud fees.
What is happening in Maryland is a reflection of what is happening in America, and it is probably the most significant story in the sport. The great boom in the thoroughbred market -- which outpaced even the great booms in gold, real estate and common stocks during recent years -- is finished. Prices are plummeting, and people at every level of the business are being affected.
Even so, the decline hasn't made headlines or been widely acknowledged, because the popular barometer of the industry's health is the average price of a yearling at the Keeneland Summer Sale.
That blue-chip index has stayed high every year. But this July, many experts predict, Keeneland's prices are going to plummet, the word collapse will start appearing in headlines, and a panic mentality will affect the business. In short, everyone will finally acknowledge the harsh realities that Maryland breeders are confronting now.
What has happened to the thoroughbred business is a textbook case of supply and demand. When Robert Sangster and the Maktoum brothers started paying unheard-of prices for the most fashionable throughbred pedigrees, every breeder wanted to sell them a $1 million yearling. Plenty of new investors scrambled to get into the breeding business. The demand for top stallions was intense, and stud fees skyrocketed.
The prices rose across the board, even for the bottom 99 percent of the market in which Sangster and the Maktoums had no interest. When Lord Avie was retired a few years ago, he figured to have minimal commercial appeal, yet his stud fee was set at a preposterous $50,000.
The results were inevitable. Breeders would pay these inflated stud fees, spend the $12,000 or so necessary to raise a young horse and bring him to auction and find that they couldn't begin to recoup their investment. There was too much supply -- everybody wanted to be a commercial breeder -- and little demand for these overpriced horses. The only people making big money were the few who were lucky enough to sell a yearling to the Arabs. And now even the upper level of the market is being affected.
"There's been a general softening of the market," said Joe Hickey, general manager at Windfields Farm. "It started at the bottom -- a lot of cheaper mares simply weren't being bred. It got to the middle because the industry was just producing more horses than the market could absorb. Now, it's affected the very top. A year ago, a season to Northern Dancer sold for $1 million. This past November, a season went from $800,000. In January, one traded from $700,000 and another for $670,000."
The weakness at the top of the market will be reflected at the Keeneland and Saratoga sales this summer. Breeders who paid peak prices for stud fees (such as the $1 million fee for Northern Dancer) are going to take a beating. "People are going to be saying that the horse market is in a tailspin," predicted Bill Oppenheim, editor of the newsletter Racing Update.
Yet this whole shakeout is sure to have some healthy long-term effects. The decline in stud fees will bring a measure of sanity back to the market. It will give people a chance to make money buying and selling medium-priced horses.
"The groundwork is going to be laid for people to make fortunes in this business over the next five to 10 years," Oppenheim said. But before that happens, there is going to be a lot of pain and suffering in the horse business.