Saturday, May 5, 2012

Brereton Jones had a big day yesterday, but he worries about the horse industry's future

By Justin Wright
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

Today is the greatest day for Kentucky horse racing, and yesterday was a great day for a Midway horse farm, but there are troubles on the horizon for the horse industry in the state of Kentucky if things don’t soon change.

 “The economics of the horse industry are tremendously important to the economy of this state, this is one of the reasons that we need to have a level playing field, and this is not level due to the gaming that is going on in surrounding states,” said former Gov. Brereton Jones, owner of Airdrie Stud near Midway. (Courier-Journal photo by Bill Luster)

Jones was the big winner yesterday as his filly Believe You Can won the Kentucky Oaks and its purse of $564,500. His trainer, Larry Jones (no relation), was effusive in his praise of Jones and his family at the post-race press conference, saying they inspire people to do their best.

The Joneses had hoped to enter their cols Mark Velaski in today's Kentucky Derby, but Larry Jones, the only trainer who rides his own horses in workouts, concluded the colt wasn't ready to run a mile and a quarter.

Located on Old Frankfort Pike about three miles west of Midway, Airdrie Stud is a major presence in the area. It has 77 full time employees, with average annual pay of a little over $40,000, Jones said. He said he provides free housing for 31 of the 77 and health-care benefits for all, and the farm’s total annual expenses are more than $10 million.

Those figures show the importance of just one of Kentucky’s major horse farms and its impact on the economy, and the threat posed by expanded gaming in other states.

New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and other states are attracting more stallions, mares and trainers because they have slot machines or full-scale casinos at racetracks and in some cases funnel expanded-gaming revenue from other sites into race purses and programs that reward breeders for foaling horses in a state.

This year the Kentucky legislature again rejected the idea of casinos, which would have been located mainly at racetracks, with the revenue helping the industry and other causes. There was division in the  horse industry about the specifics of the plan, and Jones objected it to it soon before it died.

Another factor that hit the horse industry hard was the economic downturn of 2008. That has put pressure on owners and trainers to ship horses to other states to seek better breeding grounds and racing purses. some owners sold horses or farmland simply because of the cost of keeping up a Thoroughbred. Feed, shelter and training costs run into a lot of money.

Jones said the business is more difficult now because the competition is more challenging. “Countless small farms are on the verge of being put under concrete,” Jones said, showing his concern for the smaller farms around Central Kentucky.
During his time in politics, Jones focused more on breeding than racing, but he has moved back into racing as a way to make money when breeding won't. He is racing some 3-year-old horses that did not meet the reserve price he set for his 2-year-olds at sales. He discussed that in an interview at Churchill Downs this week (video from The Courier-Journal): But he is more able to do that than the typical breeder, because he has more resources to fall back on. Some other breeders have cut some of their help and sold horses to stay afloat.

Although horses are raised all around the country, history has shown that the best place to raise thoroughbreds is on the land in Central Kentucky, Jones said: “You can raise a good horse any place, but it’s easier to raise a good horse in the midst of the best land.”

Many if not most of the world’s finest horses have come from this region and it is still where some of the finest horses are bred today. That has helped make tourism a staple of the economy of Kentucky. Tourism in the horse industry is a key player. “You don’t come to Kentucky to tour a coal mine,” Jones said. “You come to see the horse farms.”

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