04/10/2009 12:00AM

Calif. farms struggling for stallion bookings


The breeding season reaches its unofficial halfway point this week, and the last two months have not been an easy time for many Thoroughbred breeding farms in California.

An economy in a recession, combined with the high costs of keeping Thoroughbreds in California, has resulted in many stallions having smaller books of mares this year. The expected cutback in mares bred has led to concern that the state's Thoroughbred crop will fall in coming years and affect the number of racehorses available for the state's two major circuits.

According to Jockey Club statistics, the number of mares bred in California has been dropping in recent years. There were 4,911 mares bred in 2006, 4,700 in 2007, and 4,023 in 2008. The figures is expected to drop again this year.

The outlook on the current breeding season varies among four farm managers and owners contacted this week. Some were resigned to managing stallions that will have smaller crops this year. Others were surprised that some mare owners were content leaving mares barren this year to reduce costs.

At Tommy Town Thoroughbreds in Santa Ynez, farm manager Mike Allen described business as "pretty slow."

He has taken to heavily discounting some of the farm's stallions to attract clients, all the while trying to coax breeders not to give up.

"I've had some people call and they say, 'Do you know anyone who wants the mare and the foal?' " he said. "It's pretty unusual. It doesn't make sense to me. If you're going to pay board for another year, it would make sense to breed the mare. I've offered some clients reduced breedings or free breedings."

Allen said that the farm has foaled 82 mares this year.

"Normally, we'd have 140 mares," he said. "I hope it's better next year."

At River Edge Farms in Buellton, the presence of the prominent stallion Tribal Rule has helped lure mares. Tribal Rule, who stands for $7,500, an increase from $5,000 last year, will be bred to more than 100 mares this year, according to farm manager Russell Drake.

Overall, Drake expects a decline, with less support for well-known stallions such as Benchmark and Bertrando.

"I don't think it's quite as good as it was last year," he said. "Benchmark and Bertrando have been slacked off."

Fees for Benchmark and Bertrando have been cut. Benchmark is $4,000, down from $10,000, while Bertrando was cut from $12,500 to $10,000.

"I think everyone is trying to find the best deal they can," Drake said. "I think there are less people breeding this year. I've never seen people have horses and not breed them, and we're seeing a little of that. Next year will be the telling story."

Drake is in the fortunate position of having three well-regarded stallions. He worries for other farms, with lesser stallions.

"If there are those that aren't doing as much, there are a lot that aren't doing anything," he said.

The stallion Marino Marini and freshman stallion McCann's Mojave have helped Rancho San Miguel in San Miguel stay close to last year's figure for mares bred, according to farm manager Clay Murdock.

"We're hanging in there," he said. "You'd always like more. I'm trying to be realistic with this market."

Murdock said that McCann's Mojave should attract about 50 mares, while Marino Marini will be bred to 60 to 70 mares. Formal Gold, 16, who stands for $5,000 will have a book of 25 to 30 mares, down from about 45 in 2008, Murdock said.

"It doesn't do any good to sit back and sing gloom and doom," he said. "You have to work harder for the mares and rely on your old clientele. I'm sure my boss wishes there was more."

Scoop Vessels, who owns Vessels Stallion Farm in Bonsall, said some mare owners have changed their minds in recent weeks and may indeed breed mares this year. But time is running out to make plans for this season. The farm expects to breed mares until early June.

"We did a lot of talking," he said. "It seems to be turning in the last three weeks or a month. People are thinking of breeding their mares.

"Thoroughbred-wise, we cut our fees quite a bit and that has helped. We're not having the best of seasons."

The farm also has a nationally prominent Quarter Horse division.

Vessels said that In Excess's fee was cut to $12,500 this year, having been as high as $20,000 in past seasons. Vessels predicted that In Excess will be bred to 75 mares.

"It's pretty cut and dry," he said. "The upper-crust horses will do okay, maybe not as good, the young horses starting out aren't going to struggle."

A newly enacted bonus that pays the owners of a California-bred who wins a maiden special weight race in Southern California an additional $20,000 (or $10,000 in Northern California) was described by Vessels as a "pretty big Band-Aid."

"It helps," he said. "The incentive program is very good and a California-bred can do quite well. This is another boost in that program."