Breeding in the current climate is not without its difficulties, as anyone who has attended the last few breeding stock sales would probably attest. But one area where there remains light is the allure of our product to the overseas market, something that was brought into sharper focus by the recent release of the Weatherbys Fact Book for 2023.

While some other metrics are on a downward trajectory, such as the number of British-based mares and stallions in production, the number of permanent exports out of Britain are holding relatively steady. The total figure of horses in training and broodmares exported was just north of 1,500, with the main beneficiary being France, the importer of 350 horses in training and 47 mares. However, that marked quite a drop from the total of 666 imported only three years earlier, a trend that is sadly in keeping with declines seen across continental Europe. Italy and Greece, in particular, have contributed plenty to the lower end of the yearling market. However, Brexit has understandably made the process more difficult and now Greece is to cease racing completely.

More mares than before also headed Down Under

Instead, the stability of the export market is a mirror of the evolving racing landscape that we’re in, where Middle Eastern ambition and Australian riches are helping to drive the top end of the market. From 2020 to 2022, the number of British and Irish-bred horses in training exported to Saudi Arabia increased from 109 to 271 and while the 2023 figure increased only slightly to 282, that is expected to rise as further registrations are recorded. The number sent to Australia was 268 compared to 147 in 2020. Interestingly, more mares than before also headed Down Under; 89 compared to 21 three years before.

Saudi Arabia has embarked on a seriously ambitious developmental programme. Its racing is currently split between Riyadh and Taif, situated in the Mecca Province. The shining beacon is the Saudi Cup meeting and when the season ends in March, its calendar will have hosted 108 meetings, nearly double that staged three years ago. Other racetracks are in the planning, all of which drives the need for more horses.

Of course, the growing demand is of immediate benefit for the horses in training market. Having said that, it should filter down to yearlings, particularly when it comes to the middle-distance horse. Much has been made of the retirements of Adayar, Hukum and Westover straight to Japan. It will take a long time but as it becomes further recognised just how much weight proper middle-distance types hold in these jurisdictions, then perhaps the tide could start to change. That is particularly true if somewhere like Saudi Arabia stays true to its aspiration to become a major racing nation.

Other figures recorded in 2023 paint a sobering picture

Away from the exports, various other figures recorded in 2023 paint a sobering picture. The general consensus over the past year is that small breeders have probably never had it so tough as an already selective market seemingly becomes even more unforgiving. Perhaps that is partly behind the seven per cent drop from 2020 in active British-based broodmares to 7,705. And while there were 152 British-based stallions in service in 2020, that figure had fallen to 118 in 2023 (although that is another figure that Weatherbys expect to rise as further registrations come in). Established sires, in other words those standing their third season or more, accounted for 84 per cent. The foal crop held stead at 4,510, although that is quite far removed from the heady days of 2008 when nearly 6,000 foals were born.

As for Ireland, the foal crop is on the rise, checking in at 9,569 (though, as with Britain, still a long way behind the 12,633 recorded at its peak, in this case in 2007) while the number of active broodmares rose marginally to 15,193. Against that, there were 195 registered stallions, down 18 per cent from 2022. As has become the norm, a concentrated group of stallions received large books led by Crystal Ocean, who has covered books north of 300 for each of the past two seasons. Four others covered between 251 and 300 mares (Affinisea, Saxon Warrior, Sioux Nation and Vadamos). All are based in Ireland; the busiest British-based sire was Frankel whose book consisted of 196 mares.

One path that this industry has never been afraid to pursue is self help. The Great British Bonus Scheme (GBB) is one such example. Borne out of the findings of the 2018 TBA Economic Impact Study conducted by Pricewaterhouse Coopers, in which it was identified that 66% of British breeders were losing money, it came into operation on June 1 2020 and had an immediate impact, with 11 bonuses paid out during the first month.

Early last month, it was revealed that the scheme had hit the milestone of 1,000 winners following the reinstatement of Aston Martini in a mares’ novices’ hurdle at Lingfield, in which the Nicky Henderson-trained mare had been originally disqualified. Over the course of those 1,000 winners, no fewer than 562 owners have landed a bonus as part of the £13.5 million that has been diverted back into racing and breeding. Industry participants have spoken of the scheme as a game-changer, especially when it comes to generating interest in fillies at the sales, and for that it is something for those involved to be proud of.