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Marketing approaches vary to fill a young stallion's book
For many, beginning a new job is a time of excitement, anticipation, and certainly some anxiety over the unknown.
Standing a new stallion is no different. While a rookie sire may never have more momentum and recognition than in his first year off the track, he still faces the challenge of attracting a book of mares strong enough to ensure that he has the opportunity to succeed when his first foals hit the track three years later.
That, of course, requires a book of mares boasting both quality and quantity. It is important to assemble the best broodmares possible to visit a stallion in his first year, but quantity also is important in the early stages. With foal crops continuing to trend downward, the competition to draw broodmares to any stallion, young or experienced, is getting tougher.
Those economic forces await a 2014 group of first-year stallions in Central Kentucky that shapes up to be one of the more appealing in recent years, as two classic winners of 2013 – Orb and Oxbow – join such superbly bred Grade 1 winners as Point of Entry, Take Charge Indy, and Paynter in the region. These young sires likely will have a considerable impact on the commercial market starting in 2015, when their first covered mares and then weanlings are offered at auction.
The methods that farms use to attract mares during that crucial first year at stud run a broad spectrum – from careful pricing and advertising, to special offers, to the “do-it-yourself” approach.
The strategy can vary on a farm-to-farm, or even a stallion-to-stallion, basis.
“We try to really sit down and brainstorm what we think are the most salient points that we want to make about each particular stallion, and we try to condense that and disseminate that message in our advertising and marketing, and by word of mouth,” said Pope McLean Jr. of Crestwood Farm in Lexington, Ky. “We try to contact people individually and just sort of keep a steady drumbeat and work through the whole season to get mares to them.”
Ned Toffey, general manager at Spendthrift Farm in Lexington, said the most important thing a farm can do in a stallion’s first year is offer value to breeders.
“Giving the breeders value is going to get people to breed,” Toffey said. “It’s going to get your stallion opportunity, and then the stallion’s got to either sink or swim on his own from there.”
Spendthrift Farm has been among the most successful operations at getting mares to its young stallions in recent years. In 2013, the farm accounted for five of the top 10 North American stallions by mares bred – Into Mischief, Archarcharch, Tizway, Paddy O’Prado, and Warrior’s Reward – and only Into Mischief had foals of racing age.
The early popularity of those sires can be attributed in large part to a pair of programs created to incentivize breeders to take a chance on an incoming stallion: Share the Upside and Breed Secure.
Started in 2010, Share the Upside offers lifetime breeding rights to breeders who commit to a stallion for each of his first two seasons at stud. Breed Secure offers to lessen the financial risk of breeding to one of the farm’s stallions by taking the stud fee out of the resulting foal’s auction price.
“We had three new stallions at the time: Tiz Wonderful, Into Mischief, and Notional,” Toffey said when reflecting on the promotions. “We were concerned about a number of things, and one of them was making sure we had a market for our stallions, and making sure that we gave our stallions the opportunity to succeed, and we felt that the best way to do that was to get numbers. The best way to do that was to give the breeders the opportunity to breed at a very reasonable price and to have something to show for it.”
For the upcoming breeding season, all seven of Spendthrift’s new sires were included in the Share the Upside program, and 12 of its young stallions are eligible for Breed Secure. Several farms in Central Kentucky and elsewhere have adopted their own versions of the programs as well.
“It’s something that breeders have really responded well to,” Toffey said. “We feel like it’s generated a lot of customer loyalty. It generated a lot of business and helped ensure good crops for our stallions. They can’t get stakes winners if they don’t breed the mare first. They just need the opportunity, and that’s a big part of what our programs are designed to do – give them the opportunity and give our breeders the opportunity to make money.”
Crestwood Farm began standing stallions in 1994 after several decades as a commercial breeding and sales operation. In that time, McLean said the methods of getting the word out on a new stallion have changed dramatically.
Crestwood is a comparatively medium-sized operation among Central Kentucky farms, and McLean said his staff uses the farm’s size to its advantage, making it easier to showcase horses who might get lost in the shuffle at larger farms.
“Every stallion farm out there is very creative and competitive, and we have to try to be right there with them and try to work with the breeders as much as we can,” McLean said. “We try to do a little bit of everything and be as surgical as we can. We don’t have an unlimited budget with these stallions, so we really have to stretch our dollars and try to get as much impact as we can.
“We were breeders long before we stood stallions, so that’s our culture,” McLean added. “You obviously can’t make a stallion without the breeders, so you’ve got to help them as much as you can.”
While there are many different ways to get mares to a stallion, sometimes the most effective method is to do the legwork oneself.
Such was the case with Ken and Sarah Ramsey, who retired their homebred turf champion Kitten’s Joy to stud for the 2006 breeding season at their Nicholasville, Ky., farm. In preparation for their new stallion’s debut, the Ramseys acquired mares by any means available, often claiming broodmare prospects off the track or purchasing them privately for modest fees.
The Ramseys accounted for 73 percent of the 127 mares sent to Kitten’s Joy during his first season at stud and supplied the overwhelming majority of the stallion’s book for his first six years, never breeding fewer than 89 of their own mares. At the highest point, in 2009, Ramsey mares accounted for 91 percent of the 117 mares bred to Kitten’s Joy.
An undertaking of that magnitude requires a great investment, and with investment comes risk. However, Ken Ramsey said his belief in the stallion emboldened him to take that risk.
“I’m not afraid to fail,” Ramsey said. “To me, failure just develops character and inspires me to figure out what went wrong, and go back and take another look at it. In other words, as long as you keep believing in yourself and think you’ve got the product that’s been producing positive results in the past, then just hang in there and keep going. You’re never whipped until you quit.”
The plan was a success. Kitten’s Joy is now a perennial leading turf sire and finished 2013 as North America’s leading general sire by progeny earnings . All the while, demand from breeders has risen with his stud fee. Outside mares have outnumbered Ramsey mares sent to Kitten’s Joy for the past two years and figure to do so again in 2014.
While the old-fashioned “do-it-yourself” approach worked for Ramsey, he said the commitment, faith, and guts needed to pull it off requires an undivided focus and sense of entrepreneurship.
“Most people would not be willing to put in the time and risk the money that I risked,” he said. “I operate my business by saying, ‘Is the reward worth the risk?’ In his particular case, I really believed in the stallion.”
remember back when stallions had to *earn* good mares? when first books weren't laden with G1 winners and producers? those were the good old days, when one could more fairly assess a young stallion, and the best mares were reserved for the best established stallions, not wasted on the 'latest hot, young thing'
the only spin that rivals that which is in stallion ads is in politics, they'll take any factoid, the most insignificant statistic, the most nuanced parsing of a ranking, and blow it up as their 'lead' in the commercial ...I guess they hope most people don't remember what really happened in races and such [every time I see the ad for To Honor and Serve, showing him beating MMM, all I can think of is that THaS didn't *win* that race, MMM *lost* it because he won't pass horses (Gary Stevens noticed this when he got the mount, and concluded he needed to have him in front at the 1/8 pole, because he will hold off horses, he just won't pass them)!]