09/05/2001 11:00PM

Waiting for the other shoe to drop

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Four months after mare reproductive loss syndrome devastated some breeding operations with early and late fetal losses in an estimated 2,400 mares, Kentucky's commercial Thoroughbred breeders are waiting for scientific answers and preparing for the disease's economic impact in the auction ring.

The syndrome's cause remains undetermined, but buyers have cause for some confidence heading into the fall breeding stock sales. Veterinarians and breeders, who are monitoring pregnant mares closely in the wake of the syndrome, so far report that fetuses generally appear to be developing normally. Some insurance underwriters are offering prospective-foal policies again for people wishing to insure a mare's pregnancy. When the syndrome hit this spring, most companies stopped offering such insurance, and any resumption signals to buyers that at least some insurers have regained confidence.

"We knew something would have to be in place before the November [breeding stock] sale, because so many buyers get prospective-foal insurance right after they buy a pregnant mare," said Lexington insurance agent Augie Greiner. "One company has told me the rates could be 2 percent higher than before, and there may be a more detailed form to fill out for the mare."

Keeneland, which conducts a breeding stock sale that normally runs for two weeks in November, will be the first auction house to feel the effects. That auction, which last year sold 1,662 mares and 1,379 weanlings, is likely to have a slimmer catalog this year. The syndrome's precise losses haven't been calculated but have been estimated at about 20 percent of Kentucky's foal crop for 2002, or about 1,900 early fetuses, some of whose dams would have been pointed to the sales if they had remained pregnant. Though not all of the affected horses were Thoroughbreds, it's clear that the potential effect on the Thoroughbred market for breeding stock sales this year and for yearling sales of 2003 is substantial.

"I do foresee there will be a decline because of MRLS, but I don't know what the quantity will be yet," said Keeneland's director of sales, Geoffrey Russell, who is in the process of compiling the catalog. "Maybe supply and demand will have an effect and fewer horses will make more money."

Fasig-Tipton, which hosts a smaller November auction of between 75 and 100 lots, mainly weanlings, expects less of an effect, according to chief operating officer Boyd Browning Jr.

Looking to the future

Researchers are still working to identify the cause or causes of mare reproductive loss syndrome. In the absence of a definitive explanation, University of Kentucky researchers will try to provide some management recommendations for horsemen. Dr. Scott Smith, dean of UK's College of Agriculture, is scheduled to speak at the Oct. 2 Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers' Club meeting in Lexington, where he will present contingency plans to help farm managers avoid the risk of MRLS in the future. UK plans to release details of that plan later this month, in advance of Smith's presentation.

"This isn't just about changing management issues, like whether to spray for caterpillars or remove cherry trees," said KTFMC president Steve Johnson. "It's also about monitoring the conditions that can create MRLS, which can happen in any state. We lost two to three weeks this year from when we think the onset of the problem occurred to when we first noticed the consequences. Part of the plan is to look for these conditions if they begin to unfold in the future in an effort to obtain data. That will help farm managers adjust their management, and it will help researchers."

* A $105,000 Fit to Fight colt out of Non Stop Chatter (by Fast Play) topped Tuesday's Washington Thoroughbred Breeders Association summer yearling sale. Dave and Jill Heerensperger purchased the sale-topper from Jerre Paxton's Northwest Farms. Overall the auction sold 136 yearlings for gross revenue of $2,404,400. Average price declined 14 percent to $17,679 from last year, when the sale included a portion of the 505 Farms dispersal.