I read a passage today that struck a chord with me after a couple of days here in London. It goes:
“That the passing of our friend the horse is only a question of time, few will, we think, be disposed to deny; and however much the breeders of the animal may strive to arrest the progress of this view, the relentless figures which each succeeding year piles up against them leave little room to doubt they will ere long have to accept the inevitable… and admit defeat at the hands of the “horseless.”
That was written in 1910 in an American magazine speculating that the horse's existence in society was doomed by a new invention called the automobile.
To some degree, the prediction turned out to be correct. Over the past century, the American public has lost touch with the horse on a daily basis. Horses are no longer essential in the way that they used to be. And the reduced exposure to horses has certainly played a part in the decline in popularity of racing and other equine sports.
Still, a hundred years later, breeders of horses have not admitted defeat “at the hands of the horseless” and need not. While the breeding industry has undergone its share of suffering, some of it self-inflicted, horses remain a vibrant business the world over. It's certainly true here in England.
Whether it's the Royal Horse Guard, the steeplechase, Royal Ascot or the London carriage, the horse still holds a special place in British culture.
And that's one reason the 2012 Summer Olympics in London are so important to this country's equine industry.
Today, our group from the University of Louisville's Equine Industry Program hiked up to Greenwich Park, which sits atop a hill overlooking the city. Greenwich Park will host the equine events at next summer's Olympics, and its location is no small matter. In previous Olympics, the equine competition has often been relegated to very minor status, in part because the events were held far away from everything else. In Beijing 2008, the horse competitions took place in Hong Kong! As you might imagine, they didn't get much coverage.
The British equine industry wants to ensure that doesn't happen again. The equine arena and cross-country courses still being built for the 2012 Games are very close to the Olympic Village site, and NBC's scout team has already pinpointed Greenwich Park as a prime shooting location because of the view. To be honest, the horse events are often one of England's few summer Olympic hopes, so that obviously plays a part, but there's a concerted effort here to boost the profile of equine events for fear of losing horses from the Games altogether. There's been talk about it.
Another country that could have a major say in the future of horse sports is China. A few days ago, China lifted its 60-year ban on horse racing. Gambling won't be allowed (yet), but it's a step toward what could be a major boost for the international Thoroughbred business.
Case in point – we also met today with a bloodstock insurance underwriter. Sarah Scott works for Catlin Group Limited, a syndicate of the international insurance company Lloyds of London. Scott told us she's been getting a lot more business from Asia recently. She said the Asians are buying good horses, but as newcomers to the business, they're often paying 2-3 times what the horse should be worth. This prompted Tim Capps, the Equine Industry Program's director, to repeat a phrase a horse owner friend once used. “I spent the first five years in the business getting screwed and the next five getting even!”
Anyway, those sale prices become a problem when it's time to insure the animal because buyers are expecting Catlin to insure for the amount they paid for the horse. But Scott says her company can't afford to be “stupid.” The standard is always what the horse could fetch right now on the open market.
While there's a learning curve, the potential impact of racing in China is enormous. Scott said her company took a substantial income hit with the recent plunge in Thoroughbred auction sale prices, so Catlin has been looking to emerging markets like China and Mexico to soften the blow.
Makes me wonder, what will the next hundred years mean for man and horse?
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