La. thoroughbred bloodlines draw attention

When Designer Legs crossed the finish line at the prestigious Adirondack Stakes, she did more than win the race. She became the first Louisiana-bred filly in almost 10 years to pull off the feat.

The win has breeders in Louisiana excited about the direction the industry is heading within the state, said Roger Heitzmann, executive director of the Breeders’ Sale Co. of Louisiana.

“Our breeding program is arguably the best in country,” Heitzmann said.

Louisiana breeders will showcase their stock at the annual yearling sale at the Ike Hamilton Expo Center. The Sept. 24 sale will feature about 200 horses. Designer Legs sold at the Ike show last year.

“We give the opportunity for members and breeders across the state to have a place to sell their horses and present them as a high commodity,” Heitzmann said. “On paper, this appears to be the best sale we’ve ever had.”

Several factors are strengthening the thoroughbred industry in the state. Heitzmann said the Legislature has lessened the taxes on winnings at the track. Better horses mean better races.

“The racing industry is pretty important,” said Curt Leake, a breeder in Newellton. “You look at the Fairgrounds, Louisiana Downs, Evangeline Downs — they employ a lot of people.”

Another factor driving the industry is a strict breeding program that requires horses be born in Louisiana. Thoroughbred breeding is Leake’s passion. He tries to breed horses and sell them to people who will develop them into racers.

“Although we’re a breeder, if I send a baby to the sale and I think it’s worth more than I’m getting for it, I may just hold onto it for a year and race it,” he said.

The breeder’s association requires that breeders foal at least once every other year with a Louisiana horse. On off years, breeders can send brood mares to other places to foal. That brings in new bloodlines to the state, since the horses are still born in Louisiana.

Leake uses Kentucky stallions in his off years. He said Kentucky is the nation’s hub, and its stallions generally carry good pedigrees.

“That doesn’t mean Louisiana stallions can’t produce and keep up with them. That just means you’re current with what’s going on in the national industry,” Leake said. “I try to get a good enough brood mare to be able to send to a Kentucky stallion to be able to bring some good pedigrees and bloodlines to the state. We take a lot of pride in that.”

Leake said he finds the breeding process an intriguing game. Sometimes he tries to match two bloodlines to produce a sprinter, other times to produce a distance runner.

“You’re also trying to put a product out there that’s marketable,” Leake said. “The better quality you put out there, the better chance it’s going to have to prove your brood mare. Hopefully if it can run it’ll come back to you.”

Leake estimates about 35,000 thoroughbreds nationally and 3,500 in Louisiana, which is lower than other years. He said the economy has taken a toll on the industry since most people work with horses as a hobby, not for their livelihoods.

Heitzmann and Leake, who has a horse in this year’s Ike sale, are optimistic things are turning around. Heitzmann said Designer Legs’ success will highlight the sale this year.

“It helps the sale drastically. It brings attention to where people are buying those types of horses,” Heitzmann said.

Because of the economic downturn, fewer horses have been bred in recent years. However, if the industry is back on the upspring, Heitzmann said the sellers could benefit from higher prices driven by demand.

Ike manager Mike Wilkes said people with a lot of money will come from all over the world to West Monroe for the annual sale. Horses can sell from $50,000 to more than $100,000.

“Some people may not come for anything else but the sale, but they’ll see our city and our facilities. You never know what it might do for us in the future,” Wilkes said.