One of my favourite moments of the year happens when the Illinois Department of Agriculture posts the latest year’s foal registration reports. Last night, I noticed that 2016’s had gone up — a bit earlier than last year’s, even! I had to finish handicapping and writing up the Jim Edgar, but once I did, the foal report took up the rest of my evening.
Reading the report felt like a roller coaster. In a future piece, I will touch on the good news, the reason why Foal Report Day feels most like a visit from Santa Claus to me: the actual foals, and the matings that excited me the most. But, to get the sad part out of the way first, the report provided a startling dose of Illinois horse racing reality.
It shows why we need some stability in Illinois horse racing, and soon.
The foal crop numbers paint a tough picture:
The foal crop fell to 258, its lowest since 1962, the first year for which Illinois published records in the report. That included 141 Illinois Conceived and Foaled (IF) horses, the lowest on record. It also included just 117 Illinois Foaled (IF) horses, the fewest since the Horse Racing Act of 1975. The 2016 tally included 92 fewer foals than last year, a 26% drop from last year’s already record-low tally of 350. The foal crop is less than half of what it was just five years ago (533), and just 13.5% of 1983’s all-time high (1,912).
The Jockey Club’s Report of Mares Bred suggests things will get worse before they get better. Last year’s records indicated 300 ICF mares in 2015. This year’s report only counted 220 mares bred to Illinois stallions at all. Of course, given the low demand for Illinois studs in other states, most of those will likely be ICF.1 But, even 220 is a big drop from the 300 ICF mares last year that led to the 141 ICF foals this year.
The number of stallions standing in the state has also dropped to its lowest level since 1976, when the Illinois Department of Agriculture started keeping that record.
This year’s report notes 64 registered stallions in Illinois. Though the report does not note when that registered stallions number was taken, the number of stallions in the state has since dropped even more. The Department of Agriculture’s directory of Illinois Thoroughbred stallions, updated daily, currently contains only 58 studs.
We still have some hidden gems among those 58. Today’s Brisnet list of this year’s leading sires of Illinois-breds for the year by earnings contains a pair of active Illinois sires holding their own against out-of-state stallions: Road Ruler (2nd) and Three Hour Nap (6th). El Medwar (14th) and Indy Snow (18th) join them in the top twenty.
Still, the state’s stallion roster has suffered a few major blows through 2016. Cashel Castle, who has seen a recent spate of stakes winners with Puntsville, Silver Lode, and With a Twist, moved to Indiana earlier this year. He stands at Swifty Farms with another former Illinois stallion, Fort Prado, though Fort Prado spent five years in Kentucky before making his way to the Crossroads of America. Illinois-bred Straight Line, sire of Grade I-placed Streamline, has packed off to Kentucky for 2017.
The numbers reinforce an uncomfortable truth: the unstable racing situation in Illinois keeps taking its toll. Only stability will get foal crops and the stallion roster trending upward again. Of course, stability is a short word for a huge problem.
It seems sprawling, unmanageable sometimes.
Illinois needs enough purse money to make it attractive to race here, to give people an honest shot to make money here. That, in itself, is a multifaceted problem. It requires having races here that people want to wager on. It requires taking the initative to wager on Illinois races. And, it requires support for supplemental funding (like a gaming bill) in order to provide bootstraps for the short and medium term.
Adjacent to purses, breeding funding also matters. There needs to be enough money — in breeders’ awards or sales prospects — to make having broodmares here attractive. There need to be enough broodmares in the state (or coming to the state) to make standing stallions in the state worth it.
Of course, this is only a partial list of sweeping problems. Just brainstorming this list was exhausting.
But, a metaphor Natasha Godard uses for large problems is relevant here: a wheel with spokes. No person, even no institution, can fix every single bit of the problem. But, we can focus on a part we can control, an area in which we have knowledge, influence, resources, or ideas.
Though times are tough, there is something to look forward to — even now. Though the foal crop may not be large, it contains some horses who may be exciting to follow come 2018, 2019, and beyond. Blinkers Off will focus on those in a future entry…and we all owe it to these foals and to each other to find a spoke or two that we can reach, push on it, and keep pushing.
1 Dear breeders in Illinois and beyond: you are sleeping on an opportunity. Send your mares here and breed them to Three Hour Nap. His babies win races, and they win races quickly. And, his stud fee is only $1,000, a reasonable breed-to-race price.