Lexington, Ky. – There have been three significant booms and two baleful busts in the Thoroughbred industry over the past 30 years. Arguably the biggest boom came in the go-go years of the early-to-mid 1980s, when sales prices for elite yearlings, weanlings, broodmares, and stallion shares routinely soared into six figures. It seemed almost anyone could make money in the horse business, and many did, but irrational exuberance inevitably precedes busts, which in equine markets was precipitated by tax code changes eliminating various write-off provisions. By the early 1990s, average prices for yearlings and breeding stock compared to a decade earlier were off as much as 60 percent for broodmares and down more than 70 percent for yearlings. Horses no longer offered safe havens for parked capital.
The industry slowly recovered and eventually boomed again, but it left shattered aspirations and a sobering history for those who had considered it the next Alaskan gold rush. Some prominent farms, owners, breeders, bloodstock agents, and sales companies from the early 1980s are long gone from the scene – – victims of volatile markets, changing entertainment trends, and simplified tax codes.
And then there’s Nancy Yearsley.
Fresh out of the University of Delaware with an English degree and experience in horse showing, foxhunting, and galloping Thoroughbreds, Yearsley took her first “indoor” job as a proofreader at the old Thoroughbred Record in Lexington when the 1980s boom was launching. Energetic, confident, brash, blond, and athletic, Yearsley then and now could be mistaken for a professional golfer or tennis player, but her stifled stint as a proofreader was soon exchanged for the volatile world of trading stallion seasons and shares. Operating out of a makeshift office at the corner of Mill and High Streets and continuing to gallop racehorses, Yearsley eventually was trading 400 seasons annually and employed five people. She founded Yearsley Bloodstock Agency in 1982 and later founded Yearsley Bloodstock Insurance, becoming one of the few U.S.-based female insurance correspondents for Lloyd’s of London.
When the Thoroughbred industry headed south, Yearsley also headed south – – into Vanderbilt University’s high-intensity MBA program, but this was before the Internet, requiring Yearsley to commute from Lexington to Nashville while still managing her insurance business. The relatively straight routes along Bluegrass Parkway and I-65 afforded opportunities to catch up on her course cramming but also had hazards: “I can’t believe how many speeding tickets I got,” recalled Yearsley.