Too many foals? The production paradox

Foal numbers in Britain and Ireland have increased again in recent years

PICTURE: Edward Whitaker (racingpost.com/photos) Too many foals or not? The production paradox
By Martin Stevens 12:52PM 7 JAN 2017

WHEN renowned critical thinker Mark Johnston says he is confused by the issue of overproduction, you know the situation must be bewildering.

The Classic-winning trainer and accomplished breeder said on these pages before Christmas: "I'm confused as to whether we are overproducing or not. Racecourses and the betting industry want more and more racing and the BHA seems to be complying.

"They always complain about small fields but it's arguable there aren't enough horses in training to serve the current fixture list."

The mixed messages coming from the sales ring and racing's rulers have indeed created a confusing picture.

On the one hand there are demonstrably too many yearlings and two-year-olds bred for commercial purposes on the ground. We documented how supply was outstripping demand throughout the 2016 sales season and, to recap, by the end of the year 982 Flat yearlings had been recorded as not sold or knocked down to their vendor. They accounted for 21 per cent of those who went through the ring, up from 16 per cent for a smaller crop in 2015.

But, on the other hand, we also reported before Christmas that the number of foals born in Britain and Ireland fell by 23 per cent and 32 per cent between the pre-credit crunch year of 2007 and 2015. Thoroughbred Breeders' Association chairman Julian Richmond-Watson called the decline in breeding activity "alarming", and added: "In the end we may not be able to supply horses to fulfil the race meetings that tracks want to put on."

So, too many foals or not enough? Paradoxically, both are probably true depending on your position in the racing and breeding industry.

If you are a racecourse official or administrator wanting to increase fixtures to generate income, or owe your career to the sport and are concerned by its shrinkage, then the decline in production would understandably be a worry.

But if you are a commercial breeder you will likely have learned for yourself in the last year or so that there are too many young horses relative to buyer demand.

The imbalance is shown by the divergent paths of ownership and foal production. Between 2014 and 2015, the number of owners in Britain declined by around 0.5 per cent year-on-year to 7,892, while the number of foals born in the country increased by five per cent to 4,466. In Ireland, the number of owners was down three per cent to 3,609 between 2014 and 2015, during which time the volume of foals born surged by ten per cent to 8,205.

That may be a slightly crude measurement as many foals produced by British and Irish breeders will, of course, be exported overseas and there are growing markets in the Middle East and Asia wooed by the prestige of our racing. But it still goes some way to showing how falling clearance rates at the sales have unfolded.

Clearly, growing the ranks of racehorse owners in Britain and Ireland is the only balm that will soothe both the problems faced by commercial breeders looking for purchasers of their product (and by extension stallion operations, boarding studs and sales houses), and by those forces who want to stage enlarged fixture lists comprising competitive fields.

To their credit, racing administrators on both sides of the Irish Sea have recognised the urgency of the issue and are looking into making ownership more affordable and easy, encouraging more syndicates to be formed and stimulating demand from overseas buyers.

In the meantime, commercial breeders probably ought not to have their heads turned by the issue of whether more foals are needed to fill fixture lists and should instead be guided by sales ring evidence of insufficient buyer demand for the numbers produced in recent years, adjusting their mating plans accordingly.

"If you build it, they will come" may have worked for Kevin Costner's character in Field of Dreams, but generally it is not a sound way to run a business.

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