The mystery illness killing unborn foals could have a multimillion-dollar impact on Kentucky horse country and weaken the horse-racing industry, already hampered by a shortage of mounts, experts said today.
One out of four or five mares in the nation's top thoroughbred breeding state has either miscarried several-week-old fetuses or given birth to stillborn near-term foals. On some horse farms, three out of four pregnancies are ending without a live birth.
"The losses will be in the millions, maybe the hundreds of millions of dollars," said Frank Taylor, an owner of Taylor Made Farms near Nicholasville, Ky.
A team of Kentucky scientists has performed necropsies on some of the 371 fetuses or dead foals delivered to a Lexington laboratory to try to determine the source of the illness.
Speculation has focused on an unusually dry April that dried out Kentucky's famed bluegrass and could have triggered a toxin-producing fungus outbreak.
'No Definitive Answer'
"There's no definitive answer," said breeder Art Zubrod at Brittany Farms in Versailles. "We lost five [foals] in a one-week period and I thought we were going to lose five more."
Zubrod lost one foal whose half brother sold for $365,000 last year and said he has suffered at least $1.5 million in uninsured losses. He induced two mares to give birth prematurely, and those foals are sick but surviving.
Breeders were trying to limit pasture grazing and were instead trying to get their mares to eat an untried type of feed that is said to absorb the toxin. Some mare owners are shipping their animals out of state.
"Every year there are mares that lose foals but it has not been as pronounced as this year," said John Cooney of the Jockey Club, which registers foals and tracks the industry.
A study of the problem estimated losses in Kentucky alone could amount to $138 million if 20 percent of the expected crop of foals are lost, Cooney said. Since 70 percent of Kentucky-born thoroughbreds end up racing, the miscarriages and foal deaths could result in an additional $35 million in lost training, boarding and racing fees.
Too Much Racing Already?
Already, the development of year-round racing at many U.S. racetracks has created a chronic shortage of mounts — a development that bettors do not like.
"Some people would say we have too much racing right now," Cooney said. "There's a chance that racetracks will have to cut back the number of races they have each day or cut back the number of racing dates."
Under threat is the nation's $1.1 billion breeding industry, nearly one-third of which is centered in Kentucky.
Last year, Kentucky's 20,000 mares and 500 stallions produced roughly 30 percent of the 20,000 thoroughbred foals born in the United States. Some 12,000 yearlings and weanlings less than a year old were sold last year for a total of $600 million.
Also at risk are Kentucky horse farms, which could lose anticipated stud fees ranging from a few hundred dollars to $400,000, as well as insurers and other businesses reliant on money made in the horse industry.
"It'll affect the stallion farms not getting stud fees this year or next, owners who won't have offspring to sell down the line, horses leaving the state because owners don't want them to get sick, so you have boarding losses," said Philip Meyer of Bohannon-Meyer Insurance company in Versailles.
And the problem may not be confined to Kentucky.
Veterinarians reported a horse farm in southeastern Ohio had 10 mares miscarry and five others deliver stillborn foals.