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Arabian : A Once-Skyrocketing Market Has Plummeted for Those Durable, High-Stepping Horses of 'Black Stallion' Fame

December 31, 1987|MIKE WYMA | Wyma is a Toluca Lake free-lance writer.

All Phil and Donna Marlowe wanted was a relaxing hobby that, with patience and careful management, might grow into a money-making business.

They loved their one Arabian horse, so, in 1977, the Marlowes sold their Valencia home, bought more horses and a two-acre ranch in Canyon Country and started a breeding operation.

They may as well have started a tulip farm in the 1630s in Holland, before the astronomical rise and subsequent crash of tulip prices. Instead of finding a hobby that provided stability and dependable economic growth, the former savings-and-loan executives watched prices for Arabians skyrocket, then plunge even more quickly.

Phil Marlowe considers himself lucky. Although he did not make a fortune, neither did he lose one. But he admits to having dreams that crashed.

"For some part of the time, we weren't realistic," he said. "At the time of the half-million and million-dollar horses, we were dreaming of having those horses."

Committed to Arabians

During the high-flying early and mid-1980s, the best Marlowe-bred Arabians fetched prices of $10,000 to $20,000. Two months ago, the couple sold six horses for an average of $3,000. Although Marlowe termed the animals a cut below the earlier ones in quality, he said they nonetheless brought about half their former value.

The couple, however, remain committed to Arabians, those high-stepping horses with highly arched tails. The panache of the breed--the star of the hit film "The Black Stallion" was an Arabian--has made devotees of a sizable number of people in the San Fernando, Simi, Santa Clarita, Conejo and Antelope valleys.

At shows, some held in the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank, owners wear top hats and $500 English riding suits while leading their mounts through walking and trotting routines.

"People talk about Arabians being in a slump," said Marlowe, a former president of the 330-member San Fernando Valley Arabian Horse Assn. "But it's not a slump so much as it's reality setting in. Up until three years ago, there were some badly inflated prices being paid for these horses.

"At this point for us, it's still a deficit operation," Marlowe said of the breeding business, which he subsidizes with work as a data-processing consultant. "What we're trying to do is build a band of brood mares that we can breed every year. One day down the road, we'll reach a point where they'll support themselves and maybe us a little."

Hope for Stable Prices

Although that day may be further off than the Marlowes once hoped, many Arabian owners and breeders contend that the nose dive in prices has ended. And the recent introduction of Arabians to race tracks promises to bring purse money into the industry and attract new owners.

Thirty-six betting races for Arabians were held this year on California's county fair circuit. The number is small, but two organizations are pressing state legislators for more race dates. Six months of steady Arabian racing already exists on a Florida-Delaware circuit.

"We're going to put every one of our young horses in race training," said Bill Gregory, who, with his wife, Terry, manages the Arabian division of the 1,342-acre Ventura Farms.

Owned by David Murdoch, a businessman with wide holdings in real estate and other interests, the ranch is in Hidden Valley near Westlake Village. Gregory said Murdoch owns 285 Arabians and has perhaps 50 more, which belong to clients, to be bred. Plans call for construction of a $750,000 training track to prepare horses for racing, but only if a dispute with the Ventura County assessor's office is settled to Murdoch's satisfaction.

Murdoch said he will move the farm if he does not get fairer treatment, Gregory said.

Taxing the Horses

Whereas Los Angeles County taxes only quarter horses and thoroughbreds that race, Ventura County Assessor Jerry Sanford also taxes show horses. Owners, including members of the Conejo Valley Arabian Horse Breeder's Assn., have protested the taxation and values assigned to the horses. They complain that Sanford's office uses inflated prices of a few years ago in setting the worth of horses.

"We're working on a compromise right now, but it's still in the assessment appeals process," said Sanford, adding that appeals are heard case by case.

"Each horse does have its day in court," he said.

Besides Ventura Farms, Murdoch owns the nearby Sherwood Valley Equestrian Center, a 30-acre riding area with stables. He intends to turn the center into a "horse country club," available to buyers at his 700-home Lake Sherwood development, which will also include a golf course and marina.

Gregory said Murdoch's Arabian operation (the farm also raises Santa Gertrudis cattle and Welsh Black Mountain sheep) may lose money this year.

"We had a very strong profit year in '85," Gregory said. "1986 was extremely good considering that the market was slipping. I believe we turned somewhat of a profit. 1987 will be a question mark."

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