Stallion clusters dominate US racing industry, amid overall decline across nation

© Jon Sullivan’s, via wikipedia

Isolated, scattered Thoroughbred and Standardbred stallions have largely disappeared in the United States over the last two decades, fresh research has shown.

Core states or counties that had an initially high percentage of stallions in the mid-1990s have tended to grow, the researchers found.

“The gainers and losers among previously core regions appear to be heavily influenced by state-level policies,” Paul Gottlieb and his colleagues reported in the journal Sustainability.

“In the USA, choices made by breeders or owners are likely affected by sudden changes in specific state policies, especially those related to gambling,” they said.

Researchers in the Rutgers University study set out to trace changes, between 1995 and 2017, in the geographic distribution of registered Thoroughbred and Standardbred stallions in the US.

These changes have been playing out against a background of national decline in the number of registered racehorse breeding stock.

The authors found that, in 1995, there were 5203 Thoroughbred stallions in the US, while in 2017 that number was reduced to 1710, a decline of 67%.

However, bucking the national trend, there were increases from 1995 to 2017 in the percentage of Thoroughbred stallions standing at stud in Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio, and West Virginia.

“While Kentucky was not the sole dominant state in 1995, it was the big relative gainer over the 22-year period, in the face of national decline.”

Increases in the percentage of standing Thoroughbred stallions are also evident in the neighboring states of Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia, where the purse and breeder incentive structure is supported by revenue from alternative gaming such as slot machines and table games.

“Our analysis found that a significant percentage of Indiana and Ohio Thoroughbreds are standing near the Kentucky border, suggesting that there is a three-state cluster centered on the cultural heartland of the breed in Fayette County, Kentucky.

“In contrast, more than two-thirds of West Virginia’s Thoroughbreds are standing far to the east, in a county that is almost completely surrounded by Maryland and Virginia. They are therefore part of a cluster of Thoroughbreds in those states.”

They noted that while lower-tier Thoroughbred stallions are still found in most states throughout the US, Kentucky is dominant when it comes to standing top-tier Thoroughbred stallions.

“Kentucky not only dominates the nation for top-tier Thoroughbreds, it is also the only state that significantly increased its share of these stallions in the face of national decline.”

© Historicair GFDL CC BY-SA 3.0

In 2002, there were 1082 registered Standardbred stallions in the US, while in 2017 that number was reduced to 681, a reduction of 37%.

Standardbred stallions are more clustered nationally than Thoroughbred stallions, they noted, being primarily located east of the Mississippi.

There were increases in the percentage of Standardbred stallions in Delaware, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Iowa, where purse and breeder incentive structures are supported by revenue from alternative gaming such as slot machines and table games.

The same is not true in the states of Kentucky, New Jersey, and Michigan, which experienced marked declines in their share of Standardbred stallions over the 2002–2017 period.

Indeed, while Kentucky historically has been a leader in the breeding of Thoroughbred racehorses in the US and has been able to survive the lack of alternative gaming revenue support for horse racing, this has not been the case for the Standardbred breeding business within the state.

Looking only at the more elite group of top-end Standardbred stallions shows more clearly the difference in geographic change over time by quality level.

“Ohio was the biggest gainer overall for this breed, but its relative success over the study period is even more dramatic when the analysis is restricted to Level 1 stallions.”

The authors continued: “We have argued that the geographic tendency in racehorse breeding, especially under conditions of secular decline, is toward a winner-take-all outcome.

“If Kentucky was the big national winner in Thoroughbreds from 1995 to 2017, Ohio was the big national winner in Standardbreds.

“Like Kentucky, it had a special edge in retaining the top-tier stallions, suggesting that agglomeration is even more important when the economic returns are high.

“This could not have happened if Ohio had not implemented purse and breeding incentives funded from alternative gaming.”

West Coast and Mike Smith lead all the way to win the 2017 running of the Grade I Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Saturday. 
West Coast and Mike Smith winning the 2017 Grade 1 Travers Stakes at Saratoga. © Joe Labozzetta / NY Racing Association

In their concluding remarks, Gottlieb and his colleagues point to research which has shown how a thriving equine industry can generate side benefits related to landscape conservation, ecosystem services, and rural amenities.

Racehorses sit at the high-value end of the equine industry, so their presence requires a dense pool of high-quality suppliers.

“Registered stallions standing at stud are key assets in this industry: they can be used as a bellwether of cluster success or failure.

“We have shown in this study that under conditions of secular decline, measures of overall concentration tend to increase. A previously large region can become a lower-risk refuge, and can significantly increase its share of stallion assets.”

However, success will be highly contingent on state-level policies.

“Revenue streams for purses and breeder incentive programs appear to be significant determinants of which states became high-share regions for racing stallions under conditions of secular decline.

“Ohio and Pennsylvania are examples of a positive effect of state policy on the economic viability of Standardbred breeding operations, while Kentucky and New Jersey illustrate the downturn that can occur in states that lack sufficient revenue streams for purses and breeder incentive programs.

“For the most part,” they say, “racehorse clusters in the US are fragile and can only be sustained using programs that reward breeders financially on the basis of state of residence.

“The horse racing sector is worth saving nationwide, not only because of its long and prominent history in US sport, but because it is an economic driving engine of the entire US horse industry and is extremely valuable to the quality of life in the form of the agricultural working landscape.”

It would, they said, be useful to contrast this industry with another declining industry, such as automotive.

“There, too, state policy plays an important role in the observed distribution, as there have been fewer plant openings recently in union states than in states that have passed right-to-work laws.”

State policymakers may have more control over economic prosperity, environment, and social equity than they realize, the authors suggest.

The study team comprised Gottlieb, Jennifer Weinert, and Karyn Malinowski, with Rutgers University in New Jersey; and Elizabeth Dobis, with Pennsylvania State University.

The Evolution of Racehorse Clusters in the United States: Geographic Analysis and Implications for Sustainable Agricultural Development
Paul D. Gottlieb, Jennifer R. Weinert, Elizabeth Dobis and Karyn Malinowski
Sustainability 2020, 12(2), 494;

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here.

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