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Big Business Of Horses

Equine commerce is a virtual Kentucky quilt of possibilities: Stabling. Shoeing. Showing. Training. Feeding. Hauling. Breeding. Buying. Betting.
There are a booming 13,400 horse farms in Kentucky, according to the most recent agricultural census, 1997.

One of them belongs to Mike Spencer, a saddle horse trainer who says he can’t make a profit by doing just that.

“You don’t make a living training horses,” he says. “It’s buying and selling (horses).”

Spencer, 48, trains horses on his 32-acre Gold Leaf Farm in Simpsonville. Its stables are home to 20 saddlebred horses, most of them owned by people who live out of state.

Making a living by working with horses may look easy to other people, but Spencer says he knows better. His soft-spoken voice takes on a harder edge of conviction as he says, “Somebody else thinks (he) can do it. I can do it.”

Still, Spencer is part of an industry that generates more income than any other agricultural commodity in the state–plant or animal.

Horses (plus mules) brought in $800 million in 2001, dominated by thoroughbred sales and stud fees, according to the Kentucky Agricultural Statistics Service. That easily beat the fading runner-up, tobacco.

But that kind of income, even if you include those eye-popping yearling prices at Keeneland, is just the tip of the bridle.

A 1996 study by the American Horse Council reported that Kentucky’s wide-ranging horse industry, from national show horses to hunter/jumpers to miniatures, produced goods and services worth $1.2 billion, with a total economic impact of more than $3.4 billion. And that didn’t even include tourism. It also created 128,800 jobs. Of the state’s 150,000 horses, less than half were involved in racing.

To give you an idea of the range of horse commerce, big and small, in Kentucky, we visited with a variety of horse folks.

Nancy Beck, 50, keeps her one horse on three and a half acres in southwest Jefferson County. Six years ago, she paid $1,600 for Gene, a gentle chestnut walker. Beck says it costs about $1,200 a year to feed and care for the tall gelding. That’s fairly inexpensive, she says, because Gene is a healthy horse that doesn’t need many visits from the vet. But her modern barn cost $15,000 and two stalls were $1,500 each–materials only. “It’s an insane thing to do for an animal,” she laughs, but points out that when she comes home from a day’s work, Gene is her “stress-buster.”

Perry Bozarth, controller at Sallee Horse Vans Inc. in Lexington, suggests Sallee may be the largest transporter in the country. His numbers: 40,000 horses–mostly racetrack thoroughbreds–hauled by a fleet of 22 trailers that travel four million miles a year. And more than 100 employees in six states and Canada to get it done. Sallee’s revenue in 2001, Bozarth says, totaled more than $10 million.

Tom Olds, of the Kentucky Association of Fairs and Horse Shows Inc., says 96 county fairs had horse shows in 2002. Although there were 22,688 entries, horse shows “are not real important,” from a financial point of view, Olds says. “They can’t compete with motor sports.” Olds says such horse events are valuable in other ways, though, such as providing family entertainment and upholding Kentucky’s horse-loving heritage.

In Brandenburg, Jeff Benham, 40, enjoys hitching up a pair of Belgian draft horses to drag timber, rake hay, and disk fields on his 11 acres. He expresses his appreciation for the working conditions in three words: “peace and quiet.” Does he save any money using Belgians instead of a tractor? “Probably not.”

Administrative assistant Kay Tipton says last September’s enrollment at the Kentucky Horseshoeing School in Mt. Eden was the largest ever:34. Through the years, students of fire, steel, the horse, and the hammer have come from around the world. What’s a modest yearly income for a farrier, after pulling clear of the start-up expenses? “Between $40,000 and $60,000,” estimates instructor Sam Gooding.

KBC International is a large horse supply business among a slew of others in central Kentucky. It sells mostly to thoroughbred owners, and finished another year of “steady growth” in 2001, with gross sales between $4.5 and $5 million, says general manager Jeff Cox. New sales tactics in recent years have helped keep the Lexington-based business churning. Among them: a retail sales area that has increased its customer base, a colorful sales catalog, and an interactive Web site. Plus that vital intangible: customer service. “It’s not like the competition is going away,” Cox says.

Venues for horse-related events and entertainment are also extremely popular in Kentucky and contribute significantly to the state’s horse-related commerce.
One popular misconception about Louisville’s 47-year-old Freedom Hall is that it was designed for basketball.


Joe Deiss, who worked at the Kentucky Fair & Expo Center in the 1960s as deputy developer for fair development, recalls that the massive coliseum opened in 1956 as a palace for a new saddle horse event, the World’s Championship Horse Show.

Freedom Hall may have been remodeled for University of Louisville basketball in the late ’80s, but the place still caters big-time to horses. The 2000 U.S. National Arabian and Half-Arabian Horse Show alone brought in about 2,000 animals. It also piled up an economic impact of $5.5 million, according to the Louisville and Jefferson County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The state fair kicked up an economic impact of $16.3 million, as calculated by a 2001 University of Louisville fair board study, and more than a third of that–$6.5 million–was rung up by the World’s Championship.

Racing generated large amounts of money even in a slow year, as 2001 was, compared to 2000. U of L’s department of equine business says the slack economy, casino operations, and other factors pulled on-track wagering at Kentucky’s eight thoroughbred and harness tracks down to $535 million.

From another direction, state government certainly appreciates Kentucky’s horses as tourist magnets. Although the Kentucky Department of Travel says it doesn’t count how many people visit Kentucky just for its horses, it knows a drawing card when it sees one.
Bob Stewart, commissioner, says horses are played up time and again in the travel department’s advertising, both for specific events and overall image. Taking advantage of “the whole romance of the horse’s imagery…helps us carve out a niche and marketing hook,” he says.

Four horse-oriented events were on the department’s top 25 attractions list for 2001, including Churchill Downs and Keeneland racetracks, Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, and Trackside, an off-track betting facility in Louisville.

The Kentucky Horse Park, promoted as a one-of-a-kind theme park dedicated to celebrating horses, horses, and more horses, pulls in 850,000 visitors a year. It also produces a stratospheric annual economic impact of $130 million, according to marketing director Lisa Jackson.

So what’s ahead for the horse business, as the Commonwealth begins 2003? Here are a few items:

The Horse Park celebrates its 25th anniversary this summer with more than 450 “priceless” horse-related arts and artifacts from England in the exhibit “All the Queen’s Horses.” Jackson expects the show, the Horse Park’s most sizable splash since its “Imperial China” extravaganza in 2000, to be “probably the biggest thing in the Lexington/Bluegrass region.”

Also in Lexington this summer, Cynthia Kohorsts Louisville production company, International Expositions Concepts, will resurrect the Thoroughbred Owners & Breeders Trade Show after a 12-year absence.

The show has the potential to make a substantial financial impact on Lexington, Kohorst says.

Over at the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, Commissioner Billy Ray Smith sees better days ahead after Kentucky overcomes the threat of Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome, and the U.S. economy sees a rebound.

Some of that growth is expected to come from non-traditional directions, Smith says. Some approaches include custom boarding, which retrofits vacant tobacco barns for horse stalls; adding horses to the livestock of more farms; and increasing horse farm visits by tourists.

That last push meshes with Kentucky’s new agri-tourism strategy. Sanctioned by the state legislature, it is designed to encourage Kentucky’s agriculture and travel departments to work the tourism street together. (More on that when we explore agri-tourism in the April 2003 issue of Kentucky Living.)

Visitors can expect some of those new agri-tourism experiences to be “interpretive,” says Stewart. Interpretive, as in not lazing away a bed-and-breakfast visit to a farm, but actually helping out with the chores. Say, feeding the horses.

As for the future and Mike Spencer, he says he’ll keep training horses as long as he’s able, in a career that now stands at better than a decade and counting. Spencer’s wife, Nancy, who like her husband has worked with horses since she was a teenager, understands. But she doesn’t hesitate to brand their farm a 24-7 job, and go on to point out that their business requires some “serious cost accounting” to keep up with the bills.

Spencer savors the challenges and surprises brought on by what so many Kentuckians consider the state’s mesmerizing, majestic icons.

Horse Industry Contacts

Kentucky Association of Fairs & Horse Shows

820 Moreland Drive

Bowling Green, KY 42102

(270) 796-6639

Kentucky Horse Park

4089 Iron Works Parkway

Lexington, KY 40511

(800) 678-8813

Web site provides hundreds of
“Other Equine Links”

Kentucky Horseshoeing School

P.O. Box 120

11251 Mt. Eden Road

Mt. Eden, KY 40046

(800) 626-5359

Gold Leaf Farm

P.O. Box 303

Simpsonville, KY 40067

(502) 722-5543

Kentucky’s Horse Racing Tracks

Thoroughbred Racing

Churchill Downs, Louisville

Ellis Park, Henderson

Keeneland, Lexington

Kentucky Downs, Franklin

Turfway Park, Florence

Harness Standardbred Racing

The Red Mile, Lexington

Thunder Ridge, Prestonsburg

*Players Bluegrass Downs, Paducah

(*Also has quarter horse racing)

For More Info on Horse Racing

Kentucky Racing Commission

4063 Iron Works Parkway, Building B

Lexington, KY 40511

(859) 246-2040

(Links to Kentucky’s tracks and other racing Web sites.)

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