03/27/2016 5:38PM

Marks: Understanding the declining foal crops

Fred Brown
Top older pacer Rockeyed Optimist may have sold for less than $10,000 if he wasn't a buy-back by his original owners.

The North American standardbred foal crops have been in a gradual state of decline for quite some time now. That may seem surprising to some considering that overnight purses, especially in casino fueled states, have never been higher.

In reality, the number of North American foals registered in 2015 is about half of what it was in 2000, and that number was far beneath what it was in the 1980’s.

Unfortunately, the level of overnight purses mean little if anything to breeders as the overwhelming purchasers of yearlings are seeking to acquire stakes prospects to be raced as 2- and 3-year-olds. Simply put, most buyers are not playing the long game and looking for older stars.

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I consigned and sold at least 2,500 colts and fillies during my tenure at Perretti Farms and can safely say that I never sold one for any kind of decent money on the premise that he or she would be an exceptional Free-For-All performer.

I noticed Money Maven in the Yonkers Open Trot on Sunday, and while he didn’t win it, he’s proven a solid money earner over the years. Money Maven is by the now exported Revenue S from a pretty nice mare named The Raven. While Revenue S would be considered a successful sire, as many of his earlier offspring inhabit upper class trotting events at major raceways, he was distinctly unsuccessful when it came to producing quality 2- and 3-year-olds.  As that reality became increasingly apparent, it was much harder to get Revenue S youngsters looked at and even more difficult to actually sell them for any kind of money.

As it was, Money Maven, a foal of 2009, brought all of $2,200 at the September sale at The Horse Park in 2010. It was almost impossible to get him out of the stall to get looked at. Few, if any buyers, asked to see him or even humored me by seriously looking at him if he happened to be standing on the floor.

Was he a bad horse?  Heck no. It’s just that what in 2007 seemed like a good idea, breeding The Raven to Revenue S, as she did sell a nice Revenue S colt for good money the year before, evolved into a bad idea three years down the road. And that is a problem all breeders face, as often what seems right at the time is not so right a few years and perhaps $20,000 later when the conceived embryo actually reaches the auction ring.

Most breeders estimate a cost of approximately $20,000 to get a foal from the point of conception to market, and that’s not including the stud fee. In the case of Money Maven there was no stud fee, as Revenue stood at Perretti Farms, but still the $2,200 we got for him represented a fiscal disaster.

Money Maven is just one many examples.  Pacing star Rockeyed Optimist might have brought less than $2,200 if he wasn’t reserved for the $10,000 his selling price is listed as. That’s not counting the fact that his sire, Rocknroll Hanover, stood for a $15,000 stud fee at the time of conception.

While it’s true that many yearlings oversell and become high priced disasters to their purchasers, not enough sell high enough to balance the breeder’s books for the large numbers that undersell. One look at the Horseman & Fair World’s annual Breeders Book will illustrate that approximately 75% of all yearlings sold bring prices of $25,000 or less, which means that  the occasional six-figure yearling we all covet has lots of dead wood to drag up the proverbial hill.

Basically, breeders produce sufficient numbers of yearlings for the stakes market. The problem is harness racing is not limited to stakes races alone. There’s also the racetrack market, as tracks constantly complain about not having enough horses to fill racing programs. If we can’t sell them as yearlings, where will they come from?  It’s not like we can warehouse horses until they’re needed as aged horses.

It’s kind of like the situation in the automotive industry. Used cars may go through multiple owners during their lifetimes, but as new cars, both the dealers and factories got paid. Conversely, race horses also may have multiple owners during their racing careers, but as yearlings, very often their breeders did not get what they consider adequate prices.

In that breeding farms are basically factories manufacturing a product, in this case race horses, sooner or later they stop producing those they know or highly suspect will not sell sufficiently as yearlings. The end result becomes a dwindling foal crop and of course fewer horses for the racetrack overnight market.

One possible solution would be a revamping of the purse structure allocating more money for the non-stakes caliber younger set and less for the lower level claimers, many of whom race for upwards of 80% or more of their listed value. Thoroughbred racing does it this way, with maiden special weight races going for very respectable purses.  My system provides the chap who spent $40,000 on a yearling and pretty close to that number getting him to the races, a reasonable shot to redeem something in the event he’s not blessed with a grand circuit or even sires stake prospect.

The above idea has been bandied about before and over the last year some tracks have increased purses for younger horses, but thus far it has been too sparse to make a difference.  

While it would be nice to end with better news, the status quo agendas don’t provide for much improvement in the foreseeable future.