By JAMIE SEARS RAWLINGS
LEXINGTON, Ky. — In an exciting back stretch run, filly Abel Tasman came from behind pace to defeat favorites Paradise Woods and Miss Sky Warrior, in the 2017 Kentucky Oaks.
Sitting in the hallowed stands of racing’s legendary Churchill Downs, her equal-part owners Clearsky Farms and the China Horse Club celebrated the victory. For some, the horse’s win signaled a trend in the horse industry – China’s growing interest in horses of all types, including Thoroughbreds.
In a positive step to meet that demand, Kentucky horse industry leaders stood together on Dec. 4 to praise the repeal of a two-year ban of live equine exports from the United States to China. Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles called the move a “game-changer for Kentucky’s horse industry,” when the repeal was officially signed by U.S. and Chinese officials in early November.
“It’s estimated that the Chinese are buying $20 (million) to $30 million dollars of horses imported each year, and we think that Kentucky stands to benefit tremendously, as we already are responsible for two out of three horses that are exported out of the United States each year,” Quarles told Kentucky’s Spectrum News at the press conference.
“We believe that China was the last untapped market that had a trade barrier. Anytime that Kentucky has opened up market access to another country, it’s going to benefit our farm community.”
The repeal was the result of efforts spearheaded by Quarles, federal government officials and leaders of the horse industry, including the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Unit (APHIS), the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders (KTOB), the American Quarter Horse Assoc., Keeneland Assoc. and U.S. Livestock Genetics Export to assuage China of its concerns of Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA) – which prompted the ban in 2015.
“As America’s leading exporter of live horses, Kentucky breeders are very pleased about China’s decision to permit a resumption of trade with the United States,” said Chauncey Morris, executive director of the KTOB. “We are very grateful to the People’s Republic of China for providing us the opportunity to demonstrate how we protect our horse population.”
For those in the industry, China’s ban was perplexing because of the United States’ strict EIA testing laws for horses. “EIA is not a realistic problem,” said Tom Thornbury of Keeneland.
“Most horses in the U.S., to ship from state to state, are tested for EIA,” he said, noting the industry standard blood test for EIA is called a Coggins test. “You can’t get on a major racetrack anywhere in the U.S. without a negative Coggins test. Our horses are tested on an annual basis and, in fact, to get to Keeneland for a sale or for a race, there has to be a negative test within the past six months.
“We are very diligent to address EIA. We in the U.S. do not have a problem, and I think we convinced China of that through this effort.”
Frank Cook, a professor in the Department of Veterinary Science in the Gluck Equine Research Center at University of Kentucky, and an expert in the field of EIA, echoed Thornbury’s statement.
“The disease, as such, is not really a problem in the United States within what we would call tested populations,” he said, noting that tested populations include any animal that moves and/or competes. “These particular horses are tested over and over again with extremely low incidents of EIA. They literally find just a handful of cases a year in those populations.”
According to Cook, the disease, which is a distant cousin of the human HIV virus, is generally found only in untested populations of horses. He notes one outbreak of the virus in Montana currently, where horses have remained on one farm their entire lives and, therefore, were untested.
Opportunity for Kentucky
For Thornbury and Keeneland, the world’s largest Thoroughbred auction house, the new trade agreement is expected to funnel some of the money that Chinese citizens are spending on horses back into the Bluegrass State, which is the leading exporter of live horses with $195 million, or 65 percent, of total U.S. exports.
“At the Keeneland sales annually, we sell to between 40 and 50 countries around the world that race,” Thornbury explained. During its three 2017 sales, the auction house sold 5,940 horses for more than $538 million.
Thornbury is keeping his eye especially on the China Horse Club, co-owners of Abel Tasman, to become players in the U.S. Thoroughbred horse war. “These people have begun to buy horses all over the world,” he said. “They play at the upper end because they are wealthy people.”
Despite purchasing and racing horses all over the world, he believes that the United States, and Kentucky in particular, holds a special attraction for the club or horse owners. “I do think they are having the most fun in the United States,” he said.
“They love the Kentucky-bred horse because the race tracks in China are dirt tracks, and the Kentucky-bred horse is a speed breed bred primarily for dirt tracks.”
Thornbury did caution that he doesn’t expect the floodgates for horses being shipped to China to open quite yet, however.
“China, although they love horses and there’s a lot of wealth there due to the fact that capitalism has taken hold in the country – there’s great interest in owning horses now, those folks want a lifestyle that includes owning horses – but at the same time, although there have been to my knowledge at least four major racetracks built in mainland China, they don’t allow pari-mutuel betting in China,” he said.
“As far as a market, it will be a gradual market as horses are imported to China from Kentucky, but at the same time, this recent change in protocol as far as acceptance of American horses in China will offer greater opportunity I think, to ship horses, that includes all equine breeds bred in Kentucky, includes Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, sport horses, hunter jumpers and all the elements of equitation.”
“The market for the Thoroughbred horse is limited by the fact that there is no pari-mutuel betting yet,” he said. “We hope that China accepts pari-mutuel betting, and then the green light would go on and I think there would be a huge rush of horses into China to populate these racetracks.
“Right now we are looking at opening the doors, which is wonderful. It’s great news for breeders, it’s great news for businesspeople.”