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Stallion managers from each region face unique challenges
By DRF Staff
Getting mares to stallions today may be as hard as ever. The number of mares bred has fallen 39 percent from 2006 to 2011, and the foal crop in North America is at levels not seen since 1972.
Books for the most popular stallions have risen over the past several decades, negatively impacting many mid-level and lower stallions, and the pressure to get large books for any stallion is high. Without a lot of mares – and of high quality – the chance for a stallion to become successful diminishes greatly.
Stallion managers in each state have their own challenges as the quality of mares and number of mares available varies. Pricing is a key, as stallion owners try to set a stud fee that will lure as many mares as possible while at the same time maximizing revenues.
We asked a number of stallion managers from around the country how they deal with the present economics and diminishing mare pools as they try to get mares to their young, yet-to-be proven sires in that very important first year at stud.
California: Acclamation starts big
Acclamation may be the easiest new stallion to pitch to California’s mare owners this winter and spring. Eclipse Award champions such as Acclamation are rare at the state’s stud farms. As a result, the foals from Acclamation’s first crop may wind up in high demand.
Bud Johnston, who led the partnership that owns Acclamation, said the stallion will be bred to a book of approximately 40 mares.
“We’ve gotten a good response so far,” Johnston said. “I don’t want a real big book. I don’t want to breed too many mares this year. I want to get a good percentage” in foal.
Acclamation won 11 of 30 starts and earned $1,958,048. A nine-time stakes winner, he won the Eclipse Award as outstanding older male of 2011. For the 2013 breeding season, Acclamation is standing at Johnston’s Old English Rancho in Sanger, Calif., for an advertised fee of $20,000. He will start stud duty as co-highest-priced stallion in the state, tied with his sire, Unusual Heat.
“We’ve had almost all stakes mares” so far, Johnston said. “We’ve given consideration on the stakes mares.”
Johnston said the 40-mare book is not a firm limit for the 7-year-old Acclamation.
“If we get farther along, we could take a few more,” Johnston said.
While Acclamation is a familiar name to owners and breeders, Johnston said that more sales work is required to attract mare owners to Old English Rancho’s other four stallions: Big Bad Leroybrown, Cyclotron, Surf Cat, and Vronsky.
Vronsky stands for $3,500, Big Bad Leroybrown for $1,500, while Cyclotron and Surf Cat are private treaty. Last year, Cyclotron was bred to 37 mares, Vronsky to 28, Big Bad Leroybrown to seven, and Surf Cat to six, according to Jockey Club statistics.
Getting those numbers higher takes a constant effort to work with mare owners on potential matings, particularly showing statistics on them.
“Cyclotron and Vronsky have done very well,” Johnston said. “People see the statistics. We have a lot of people that have done business with us in the past. We have a good group of mares of our own.”
– Steve Andersen
Florida: Patience with new stallions
As with most states, Florida endured a significant drop in mares bred over the past seven years, precipitated by the global economic recession that started in 2008. In 2006, The Jockey Club reported 7,072 mares bred in the Sunshine State; by 2012, that figure was estimated at 3,070.
Still, the number of mares bred in Florida has held relatively steady over the past three years at a little more than 3,000 per year, and the state’s stud farms, many located around the Thoroughbred breeding and sales hub of Ocala, have adjusted their expectations and moved forward with business models appropriate to current economic conditions.
“Basically, you lower your sights some,” said Brent Fernung, owner of Journeyman Stud in Ocala. “Used to be, there was a time when every horse I’d [stand] I’d assume I’d get 100 mares booked to him – particularly the new horses. You have to drop your sights quite a bit this day and age.”
Journeyman will stand a dozen stallions in 2013, including 2010 and 2011 leading Florida sire Wildcat Heir. Fernung was to stand multiple Grade 1 winner Jackson Bend as the farm’s only new stallion for this year, but breeding plans for the Hear No Evil horse were put on hold until 2014 after several test breedings indicated that he had not fully recovered from a training accident suffered last summer.
“When I was working at CloverLeaf Farms II” – as general manager from 2000 to 2007 – “I had 10 stallions and bred 1,050 mares. That’s an unrealistic expectation today. I think it has an impact on first-year stallions more – because in this economy, people are less likely to want to speculate and would rather breed to an established horse. That makes it a little tougher to get the job done.”
With more than three decades of experience, Fernung knows that patience is required when establishing young stallions in the competitive Florida market. He booked more than 80 mares to Grade 1 winner Circular Quay during the stallion’s first two years at stud (2009-10), but saw the numbers drop to less than 40 in 2012. He expects Circular Quay to make a comeback this year to the 50- to 60-mare range, based in part on a more stable economic climate but also on the horse’s status as Florida’s top freshman sire in 2012.
– Patrick Reed
Pricing, discounts key at Crestwood
Pope McLean’s 1,000-acre Crestwood Farm stands six stallions with advertised fees from $2,500 to $5,000. The roster includes two first-year stallions, multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire Get Stormy and the graded-placed stakes winner Country Day, both at $5,000. Another sire, Taste of Paradise, already has runners but is new to Kentucky, having moved from Louisiana to Crestwood, in Lexington, Ky., for 2013; he’ll stand for $2,500.
Value pricing is key today, McLean says, and today’s breeders expect farms to be willing to trim fees with discounts.
“There are more people looking for a deal,” McLean said. “Used to be, you had a price and that was it. Now, in some cases, the fee is just a starting point. On the other hand, we like to price stallions where they’re fairly priced and where people feel like they’re getting their money’s worth.”
Like many farms competing with a smaller pool of mares, Crestwood also offers discounts for breeders booking graded stakes performers/producers or multiple mares. Crestwood’s in-house analyst, Rob Keck, offers free pedigree analysis and mating advice for breeders.
“A lot of people are copying Spendthrift with the ‘Share the Upside’ program, which has caught on pretty well,” McLean said. “It gives people a benefit: If they breed to a horse and he does happen to hit, then they’ve got a breeding right for the future. So it’s a plus-plus for the breeder and the stallion owner. We’re offering that for the first time on our two new stallions.
“It’s definitely tougher to market horses now,” McLean added. “You can’t sit back and wait for people to come to you. We mail more things out and make more phone calls to people who have bred here in the past. We’re not doing as much advertising in magazines. It’s probably not costing us any more than in the past, but it’s maybe a more efficient way of reaching people.”
The farm’s website is key to marketing, Keck said.
“A lot of our stallion requests come through the website, and many people will e-mail about stallions rather than call,” Keck said. “Nowadays you don’t have to put as much information in an ad as much as just pique someone’s interest so they’ll go to your website.”
– Glenye Cain Oakford
WinStar employs ‘Breed to Win’
Competition for Kentucky’s shrinking mare pool is fierce, especially for sires standing for $20,000 or less, says WinStar Farm’s stallion seasons director, Gerry Duffy.
That’s one reason behind the Versailles, Ky., farm’s “Breed to Win” promotion: 15 of WinStar’s 22 stallions stand for $20,000 or less. Under the promotion, breeders holding a 2013 live-foal contract to any of those horses will be eligible for a series of drawings for a complimentary 2013 season to one of the 15 participating stallions. The drawings will take place Feb. 9, when WinStar opens its new stallion barn. The farm will draw for one complimentary 2013 season for each of the 15 stallions standing at $20,000 or less.
“The ‘Breed to Win’ promotion is something we’re using to promote the stallion barn, promote the stallions, and at the same time reward the breeders,” Duffy said.
That’s only one of WinStar’s marketing efforts. The farm has posted a pair of billboards in Lexington, one for first-year stallion Bodemeister and another for second-year stallions Sidney’s Candy and Drosselmeyer.
“You’re trying to create buzz and do something a little bit outside the box and get people talking about it,” Duffy said.
Innovative marketing and social media like Twitter and Facebook can be especially effective during the sales, Duffy pointed out, when sales-goers can amplify the farm’s message.
“Social media is a very effective way of getting a short, concise message to the masses,” Duffy said. “At the sales environment, there are people standing around there 14 hours a day. They’re getting updates on their phones every five minutes. If you’re feeding them information, it becomes talked about.”
WinStar is still attentive to more traditional ways of marketing. The farm still runs print ads in trade publications, and, importantly, the operation prominently supports its own product.
“If we bring a horse in here, we’re going to get behind him, especially when we’ve got an ownership interest in him,” Duffy said. “So if we’re bringing a horse we feel confident in, I think there are a lot of other breeders who’ll feel confident in him. If your proven stallions are getting the job done on the racetrack and they’re priced fairly, they’re going to fill [their book]. With your unproven horses, it’s becoming tougher to get stallions to mares in years two, three, and four. We try and focus on reminding people through our marketing about the horse’s strongest attributes and get the message across the reasons we believe in the horse.”
– Glenye Cain Oakford
Louisiana program aided by slots
Louisiana stallion operations face many of the same challenges as other states in this economy, but they do have an ace in the hole, said Val Murrell, general manager of Clear Creek Stud in Folsom, La. There were $26 million in Louisiana-bred owners and breeders awards paid out in 2011, which goes a long way in drawing mare owners to a Clear Creek roster that includes Ide, Half Ours, Custom for Carlos, and newcomer Star Guitar.
“There’s a good many people that have reduced their numbers, are making a more concentrated effort,” Murrell said. “That seems to be pretty well the case nationwide, and I know that’s the way it is in Louisiana. I think it’s just the general economy.
“But the bulk of my peers and clients are still willing to dedicate the resources to producing a better horse. With our state program, we’re going to reward all those efforts for all those owners and breeders. It’s tremendous. The people in the state legislature support us so well, and by doing so they recognize that breeding and racing is labor-intensive, that they create a lot of jobs.”
Slot machines at the state’s tracks have boosted the Louisiana-bred program over the past decade, and Murrell said as it has strengthened it has helped make quality stallions available to mare owners.
“People have gotten to be pretty sophisticated,” he said. “They’re buying better mares.”
Clear Creek has long had an established reputation for top stallions. Star Guitar is a notable addition to this year’s roster. He retired last fall as the all-time leading Louisiana-bred earner, with a bankroll of $1,749,862, and is an easy sell in the market, Murrell said.
“He was pretty much a star, especially in Louisiana,” Murrell said. “He’s the greatest money-earning Louisiana-bred of all-time, and to have 24 wins from 30 starts, that’s pretty significant. He was very durable. He ran [six] years, won stakes every year, and even in his last start set a track record. He was a pretty phenomenal sort.”
Murrell is hoping to book 80 to 100 mares to Star Guitar, who will stand for a $4,000 fee, or $3,500 if paid by Sept. 1.
– Mary Rampellini
Out-of-state mares boost New York
It’s no exaggeration to say that word has gotten out about the lucrative boosts in purses and breeders’ incentives in the Empire State since the addition of casino gaming at Aqueduct.
The lure of added riches from an already well-established racing program has created an exodus of breeding stock headed toward New York. Suzie O’Cain of Highcliff Stallions at Mill Creek Farm said the buzz has gone a long way in helping promote new sires.
“It’s getting easier now because we have more mares coming into the state,” O’Cain said. “Our program is so lucrative. Last year, it was amazing. We felt a big difference in out-of-state mares coming in, and it made our work a little easier. We had more quality mares, so we’re enjoying the benefits of our program right now. It’s such a positive on every level.”
Highcliff stands first-year sire Smart Bid, a Grade 2-winning son of Smart Strike. He is one of seven new sires standing in New York for 2013, second behind Kentucky by number of debuting stallions.
“I think the stallion market in New York is going to get stronger by the year, because people realize if you’re a player, you’ve got to have some kind of exposure in New York. You’ve got to try to participate in this program.”
While Smart Bid never raced in New York, O’Cain said that breeders in the region are willing to support their local heroes, giving horses that succeed at the state’s tracks a unique head start when they go to the breeding shed.
“If horses run in New York, or have New York connections, it’s not a bad idea to stand them in New York, because you’ve got a huge fan base and people like to breed to horses that they had been a fan of at the track,” she said. “They have an instant attraction for that animal. If they ever make a presence in New York, and they do well and excite the fans, they want to support them, they want to breed to them.”
– Joe Nevills