02/15/2008 1:00AM

Drop in foal crop raises field size worries in California


ARCADIA, Calif. - The 3,223 California-breds registered with the Jockey Club from the 2006 crop marked an 11 percent decline from the 2005 crop and the lowest number of foals registered in the state in nearly a decade.

Earlier this week, the Jockey Club released its online fact book, which included state-by-state foal crops for 2006, the most recent available. California ranked third in number of foals behind Kentucky (10,346) and Florida (4,296), a position it has held annually since relinquishing second to Florida in 1994.

The 2005 California-bred foal crop reached 3,636. There were 3,783 foals in the 2004 crop, according to Jockey Club statistics.

The sharp drop in California-bred foals in 2006 has the attention of California Thoroughbred Breeders Association executive director Doug Burge, who acknowledges that the economic climate in California has contributed to the decrease.

Burge said the loss of some farms to development and the high cost of operating a breeding farm in California have taken a toll at a time when purses are not growing substantially. At the same time, purses in New Mexico, where some of the lesser mares from California have been sent, are booming because of growth in purses from racetracks aided by slot machines.

"If you look at the mares bred, the one thing that is a little concerning is that we've taken 1,000 mares out of production in the last two to three years," Burge said. "There is a good argument that most of that is a shuffling off from the bottom end, a culling from an economic standpoint.

"It costs more now than ever to raise and develop a young horse. If it's not making it from an economic standpoint, you will see a demise."

"A lot of the regional markets are experiencing similar trends as we are. It's not just a major issue here in California. It does get down to the economics."

Since 1968, according to records available on the Jockey Club's website, California's annual foal crop has ranged from a low of 3,128 in the 1997 crop to a high of 6,061 in 1985. As recently as the 2003 crop, there were 3,865 foals registered in the state.

Burge said the development of an incentive awards program for owners of California-breds in the late 1990s spurred growth through the first half of this decade, but that the advantages from that program have dissipated.

Along with the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the racetracks, the CTBA has held discussions on ways to increase ownership of statebreds, Burge said. Field size at the state's racetracks could be at risk. Burge said that 50 percent of starters on both the Northern and Southern California circuits are California-breds.

"What we're looking at are ways to stimulate the production of not only better horses but to reverse that trend [of smaller foal crops] and get back to where we need to be," Burge said.

"I think the optimum number, with the amount of racing dates we have and the dependency we have in California on the local horse, is probably 3,500-plus."

Burge said that farm operation costs have hurt foal crops. One way to help alleviate those costs is to help farms band together for issues such as workers' compensation insurance policies.

"We've lost a number of farms to development and horses to other states that are subsidized by slot machine money," Burge said. "We're looking for ways to assist here."

Burge said that the preliminary figures for the 2007 foal crop are more encouraging. In conversations with the Jockey Club, he said he found the foal crop could reach 3,300.