Well, tomorrow’s Kentucky Derby Day, and I’ll be putting on my flowing, flowered organdy dress and picture hat; pouring myself a nice, tall Mint Julep; and, armed with my binocs and on the arm of my husband, The Colonel (who will be dashing in his cream-colored suit), watching the race closely.
Did I actually just write that?
What a liar I am.
Tomorrow may be Kentucky Derby Day, but I’ll be doing my usual Saturday shuffle, which has a dress code of jeans and beaten up Red Sox cap. And as for The Colonel – in real life, The Economist. Hah! No cream-colored suit there.
If past years are a predictor of this one, I won’t be watching The Derby. If I hear the name of the horse on the news, I will have forgotten it by Monday.
Here are the race horses whose names I remember: Sea Biscuit, Man o’ War, Secretariat, Dan Patch, Ruffian, Secretariat and National Velvet. (Or was Velvet the girl’s name?)
Still, I read with interest the article in The New York Times the other day on the decline in fortunes that the thoroughbred business, centered in Kentucky, is experiencing.
Other than the fact that no one actually needs a horse, and you can’t live in a stall (at least not comfortably), what’s happened to the thoroughbred breeding and farm biz is somewhat akin to what happened to the housing market.
The prices went up, up, and away. No end appeared to be in sight. Speculators and horse-set wannabes entered the market with no money down. Demand resulted in more supply than it turns out we needed.
This nag, metaphorically speaking, broke a leg.
As a result, there are oodles of horse farms for sale in blue grass country.
Lately, however, horsemen have been betting their farms and losing. There are 265 farms of more than 20 acres for sale here in the four counties of horse country — up from 199 listed last year — and that is not counting the more than 60 “pocket listings” Mr. Kirkpatrick said he and his peers had not put on the multiple listings service.
“I’ve got 14 myself from people who want out, but don’t want to scare their help or their clients by listing,” he said.
Well, if there’s one thing I can say about how nice horse people are, it’s that they don’t like to scare their help.
And as for the horses themselves, stud fees ain’t what they used to be, either. (Not that the studs themselves care one way or the other.)
Top dog horses used to command $500K for their out-calls. Now the fee has drifted down to $150K. (Still not bad for a few minutes “work”.) One horse who almost but not quite swept the Triple Crown a few years ago has seen his fee plummet from $100K to a measly $10K. (Still not bad for a few minutes “work”.)
In Kentucky, all this is big business, and they’re not just horsin’ around in saying that.
The horse industry translates in 100,000 jobs and $4b in “economic impact.” And that’s not even taking Kentucky’s tourist trade – which is centered on things-equine – into consideration.
There’s just less money around for, and less interest in, the horse biz these days. In 2007, there was $1B leant to buy horses. Last year, this had dropped to a meager $400M.
And while you can’t exactly say that all bets are off, money spent betting on the ponies was down 30% to a mere $12B in 2009.
The racing business is hurtin’ for certain', and the Triple Crown has a cloud hanging over it that doesn’t appear to have a silver lining.
Pimlico, the track that hosts the Preakness, is in bankruptcy. And the NY Racing Association is making moo-moo noises (or are they nay-nay noises?) that they may not have enough money to run the Belmont Stakes this season.
A horse that won all three Triple Crown events used to go for $75M. Now, it might command $40M. (Buy sheep, sell deer.)
Frankly, if it weren’t for the 100,000 little guys working as groomers, stable boys, and other unglamorous, horse-related positions, or for the maids and busboys at the Bluegrass Hilton, or for “the help” that the horse farm owners in distress are scared of scaring, I wouldn’t give a hoot that the horsey set, in their picture hats and bespoke suits, were taking a bath.
But it’s all those lowly workers, shoveling the shit for them, who are – surprise, surprise – hit the hardest.
Baby may need a new pair of (horse) shoes, but, if you’re in the horse business in Kentucky nowadays, you may not be able to afford any this year.