New York Breeders Deal with the Coronavirus Pandemic

By Bill Heller

New York breeders, like everyone else in the world, are dealing with the new reality of the Coronavirus pandemic and its ripple-down economic effects as best they can, even as that reality seems to change every single day.

“You’ve got to adjust and do what you can,” Joe McMahon of McMahon of Saratoga Thoroughbreds said. “We have a lot of people who bring mares to be bred here.”

Accordingly, his farm has taken measures to protect its 19 employees. That includes social distancing with people arriving at the farm to breed their mares. “We’ve asked them to stay in the car to limit the exposure for the people who work here,” McMahon said. “We tell them to please stay in your vehicle. We will unload the dam. We’re limiting all the visitation. We’re limiting people coming to the barn.”

The response to that? “There’s been no negative reaction,” McMahon said. “I think everybody’s in the same boat. Our employees live here at the farm. We feel that is safer to our employees to limit their exposure to the people who are not here all the time.”

The timing of the pandemic couldn’t be worse for breeders. “We can’t reduce our work force because it’s the busiest time of the year breeding mares,” he said. “Right now, it’s not feasible.”

McMahon has also limited exposure to delivery carriers. “Fed-ex comes every day,” he said. “We’ve told them to not come into the office. Leave whatever package it is outside.”

What he can’t do is eliminating contact with veterinarians. “The veterinarians come every day,” he said. “We can’t do anything about that. We’ve already had 50 some foals. We have over 100 mares due. There’s work here for a veterinarian every day. We can’t limit that.”

Another measure McMahon has taken is suspending X-rays for his yearlings. “All we can do is keep people off the farm,” he said.

At Rock Ridge Stud in Columbia County, Lere Visagie is also taking precautions for his eight employees. “The breeding shed is obviously a concern,” he said. “We are limiting exposure to anyone coming to our farm. No paperwork. They have to be faxed or e-mailed. When they come to the farm, they open their trailer. They take their horse off the van. They give us the horse. We breed the horse and give the horse back. This is peak time, these two months. We have to be proactive to minimize the exposure any way we can.”

Of course, there are realities on a breeding farm which can’t be diminished. “We’re still working with horses and foaling,” he said. “When you’re breeding, you have to be close. It’s a constant effort. There’s social distancing, yes. The workers don’t go off the farm other than going out for lunch.”

Dr. Jerry Bilinski of Waldorf Farm in North Chatham, said his 12 employees rarely work together. “They do stalls one at a time,” he said. “They’re not in there together. Most of them are from Guatemala. They work as many hours as they can and they go home. They don’t go to movies or bars. They don’t do a lot of socializing. The only thing they do is lunch. I think the chances of exposing them is pretty minimal anyway.”

The impact of the pandemic on everyone’s economy will be anything but minimal. “I think we’re going to see long-term effects in this business,” McMahon said. “Racetracks shut down. People don’t have opportunities to race their horses. No breeder awards. No stallion awards. For an awful lot of breeders, we don’t Know when the sales will be, whether it’s going to be shortened or canceled. That’s going to have an impact. Who knows what the long-term effect will be on the entire business if it goes on for three months?”

Asked how he’s handling this crisis personally, McMahon said, “I’m by nature a pretty positive person. But I’m realistic. I know there’s going to be effects on our business. There has to be. All I’m trying to do is limit the effect. That’s all we can do. We’re planning for a down year. This is gong to be a big economic loss. I’m not concerned about going out of business or getting sick. And I’m not going to just sit around and wait. What am I going to do? Life goes on. You have to do what you can do.”

Posed the same question about how he’s handling this crisis personally, Visagie said, “I’m still trying to figure out how this is going to shake out. I don’t know how we’ll weather this. Level heads will win out. You have to really look at how this will affect the entire business, because business now is on hold.”

Visagie said that so far, the pandemic hasn’t greatly affected the number of horses on his farm. “Right now, we’re pretty full,” he said. “But there won’t be a market this year. It will be a down year. That being said, there will be a market for horses to be bred. We just don’t know when. We have to think clearly and make sound business decisions going forward. Keep being level-headed.”

Bilinski says his age and occupation gives him perspective on the pandemic crisis. “Being older, I’ve been through World War II, Vietnam, the Kennedy assassination and the gas crisis,” he said. “I remember the gas crisis. I thought I would have to go around in my horse and buggy to make vet calls. I’ve seen the Strangles outbreak. That was a disaster. After four or five weeks, it goes through the barn and stops. What makes this more of a concern are the media reports. I’d like to see how many people died every year from the normal flu. Nobody had a big concern about that.”

So he’ll continue to do whatever it takes. “Breeding goes on,” he said. “Shipping goes on. This will change. This is just another bump in the road. As with everything else, time will heal anything.”

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