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.”
Prices for Arabians are down 50% in the last three years, Gregory said. Horses with the best breeding and confirmation, however, still bring more than $100,000. Auctions for such animals are elaborately staged extravaganzas, with buyers in formal attire. The horses parade across a lighted stage while a band plays and free liquor flows. Bob Hope entertained at one event.
At the other end of the price scale are male horses who lack both show-ring beauty and the blue-blooded lineage needed for a career at stud. Such animals are gelded, making them easier to handle, and fetch as little as $500.
What separates a handsome Arabian from an ordinary one?
“I’d have to put type first,” said Marlowe. “Type means a fine, pretty head, a big eye, an arched neck, a relatively short back from withers to point of hip and a nicely arched tail. Another thing is athletic ability. We love to see a big, high, flashy trot. To some extent, that can be taught, but some are born with it more than others.”
Originally bred for travel and warfare in the deserts of Arabia, the horses are known for their distance ability. Some compete in cross-country endurance races up to 100 miles long.
But David Haus, who leases the 250-acre Rivendale Ranch in Newhall, found that not all Arabians inherit the breed’s stamina.
Last year, Haus’ colt Panaasch won a 5/8-mile race at the Ferndale Fair in Northern California. This year, the owner sent the horse east to compete in the 1 5/8-mile Arabian Derby at Delaware Park.
“The distance was just too far for him,” said Haus, who nonetheless sees racing as a boon to breeders.
The Burbank firefighter and his wife fit the profile of the Marlowes and many other Arabian enthusiasts. Over a 12 year-period they have moved from Burbank to Acton to Newhall, each time securing more land to keep and breed horses. The couple own 25 Arabians and board 25 more horses, including other breeds.
In a census last year, the Washington-based American Horse Council found that Arabians outnumber thoroughbreds both nationwide, 620,000 to 533,000, and in California, 94,000 to 70,000. Quarter horses are the most populous breed, numbering 1,852,000 nationwide and 101,000 in California.
No figures are kept on the number of horses--Arabians or others--in the Valley area.
In the last 10 years, both the thoroughbred and quarter horse businesses experienced a boom and bust in prices, although not as extreme as that of the Arabians.
The cost of keeping an Arabian varies according to the owner’s use of the horse.
Marlowe said he spends about $100 a month in feed, shoeing, insurance and veterinary bills for each of his 15 horses. Placing Panaasch with a Delaware-licensed trainer cost Haus $1,000 a month. Unlike race track trainers, show trainers need not be licensed.
“Training can be expensive,” said Millie Simic, owner of a boarding facility in the Rancho section of Burbank. “To put the horse with a trainer, you’ll pay $300 to $500 or $600 a month. Just boarding is $200 month and up.
“One thing about the Arabian breed is that the people can train the horse themselves,” she added. “They show naturally. They’re intelligent, very athletic and very pretty. It’s really a family horse. People have them in their backyards all over the Valley.”
Nat Gorham, publisher of the Palo Alto-based Arabian Horse World magazine, said the industry has been hurt by an image of Arabian owners as wealthy.
“It keeps people away, and it’s just not true,” he said. “A very common scenario is that a couple buys one for their 13-year-old daughter; five years later, she finds boys and the parents find they want to be Arabian breeders.”
Phil and Donna Marlowe said it is a love of Arabians rather than the hope of riches that keeps them mucking out stalls and paddocks.
One recent morning found Donna walking the filly Gypsy Music in circles at the Marlowes’ oak-shaded ranch. The horse had colic and wanted to lie down.
“If they get onto their side, their intestines can twist up and really cause problems,” Donna Marlowe said.
In a nearby exercise corral, Phil Marlowe was encountering a different problem with KJ Kassandra. The gray mare also had digestive trouble, but reacted with wide-eyed nervousness. Several times, she threatened to jump the corral’s steel-pipe fence.
Donna Marlowe watched her husband reassure and halter the spooked mare.
“Before the horses, our marriage was the typical thing,” she reflected. “He’d go play golf and I’d play tennis. We didn’t do much together. Now it’s different.”