Home Life of the American Stallion

In the spring a Kentuckian’s fancy naturally turns to thoughts of the Derby. And so it was that GRANT CANNON, who lives just across the line in Ohio, began to think of some of the famous American Thoroughbreds and of what their colts have meant to the American imaginationand pocketbook. Mr. Cannon is Managing Editor of the Farm Quarterly and a frequent contributor to the Atlantic.

by GRANT CANNON

1

AS WITH other occupations, such as being a baseball player, circus performer, or symphony conductor, being a Thoroughbred stud is a seasonal job, starting in the middle of February and ending in the middle of June. The reasons for this schedule are both natural and artificial. In the spring, perhaps because of the lengthening days or because the spring grasses contain oestrogen, a hormone, the fillies and the mares begin periods of heat which taper off in the fall and winter. The artificial reason, and the more compelling economic one, is a century-old rule of the Jockey Club which arbitrarily sets January 1 as the birthday for all horses. This means that a colt foaled in December will become a yearling before he is a month old and will be classed as a two-year-old — when his racing career normally starts — while he is still a gangling yearling. Since the gestation period for the horse is roughly eleven months, breeders try to arrange their mating so that foals will be dropped between January 1 and the first or second week in May.

Though Thoroughbred stallions stand in every state in the Union, the overwhelming majority of the good ones live around the Chittling Switch, the racing man’s name for the Lexington, Kentucky, area. Within twenty miles of Lexington are such magnificent horse farms as Calumet, whose red and white stud barn houses Bull Lea, Citation, Sun Again, Ponder, and Faultless; Claiborne Farm with *Nasrullah (the asterisk means that the horse was imported), Hill Prince, Fighting Fox, and *Princequillo; The Stallion Station, a unique venture in specialization where only stallions are boarded, among them Roman, *Daumier, * Bolero, and Sub Fleet; and Spendthrift Farm with *Alibhai, *Bernborough, War Jeep, and Ace Admiral. And for every millionaire’s show place, there are twenty small farms owned by native Kentucky farmers, with a patch of tobacco, a field of corn, and a pasture with a band of brood mares. These are the farms which help produce the 25,000 Thoroughbreds on the American tracks today.

Some of the big racing stables produce the horses they run. Calumet, for example, both bred and raced Citation, who won more money ($1,085,760) than any other stallion; Armed, who is the leading money-winning gelding, with $817,475 to his credit; and Bewitch, who won $462,605, the most any mare has ever won. The fact that Bull Lea sired all three of these outstanding money-winners as well as dozens of other great animals, such as Coaltown, Faultless, and Hill Gail, gives the layman some idea as to why breeders attach so much importance to the stallion and are willing to pay fabulous prices for his services.

Stud fees range all the way from nothing to $10,000. A nominal fee or even no fee at all may be asked for the services of a relatively unknown stallion whose track record was not outstanding, the hope being that he will sire a winner and gain a following among mare owners. There are perhaps a dozen sires at stud today whose fee is $5000, and one, *Royal Charger, an English import, for which a $10,000 fee is asked. The term sire, incidentally, is applied only to a horse whose get have won races; the mare who has foaled winners is called a producer.

Arrangements for the service of a stallion are embodied in contracts which vary in their terms from farm to farm and between stallions on the same farm. The contract usually provides for the payment of a fee by the owner of the mare and a guarantee of a live foal by the stallion’s owner. This means that for the one fee the mare will be brought to the stallion and returned to him during each heat until she is settled with foal. If at the end of the breeding season a veterinarian has certified that she is barren, no fee will be charged. Many contracts provide that if the mare miscarries, or if at birth the foal is too weak to stand alone and nurse, the stud fee will be returned. Some owners will also return the fee in the event of twins, which are invariably poor racing prospects, and some contracts call for a lower fee if a filly is born than if a colt is.

The owner of a stallion may decide to put him to stud for various reasons. Some animals are retired to stud after a great racing career, in the hope that they can father other winners — and many a good racer has done so. Leigh Count, who won the Derby in 1928, sired Count Fleet, a Derby winner, who in turn sired Count Turf, a Derby winner, as well as Counterpoint and One Count, both of whom won the Belmont Stakes. Pensive, who won the Derby in 1944, sired Ponder, the 1949 winner. Bold Venture, who won the Derby in 1936, sired Assault, the 1946 triple-crown winner. (The three racing classics which make up the triple crown are the Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont.) And the great Man O’ War sired two Derby winners, one of them a triple-crown winner.

Other horses are put to stud because of their bloodlines — on the theory that “blood will tell.” This was certainly the reason for putting the great sire *Alibhai to stud, since because of an early injury he never even ran a race. Then there are owners who have put a horse to stud simply because they like him and want to give him a chance.

The owner of a brood mare uses the stallion’s racing record, stud fee, and bloodlines in making a selection for breeding. More important to him, however, is the number of winners the stallion has sired. At the end of each year, a compilation is made showing the number of winners and the amount of money won which can be attributed to the leading stallions. These figures can be misleading: many stallions place well up on the list because their get win the sprints early in the year when the race goes to the swift and the strong; later, when the races grow longer, they fail to endure to the end. These flashy sprinters don’t stand a chance in the Derby, the Belmont, or the Preakness, all of which are well over a mile.

2

THOUGH Thoroughbred is often confused with purebred by the layman, Thoroughbred is a breed of horses just as Jersey or Hereford is a breed of cattle, and only Thoroughbreds are permitted on the race track. All Thoroughbred bloodlines trace back through the sire to three English foundation horses of the eighteenth century: the Darley Arabian through his great-great-grandson, Eclipse; the Byerly Turk through his great-great-grandson, Herod; and the Godolphin Arabian through his grandson, Matchem. Through the dam’s side, the breed traces back to some forty or fifty taproot mares, most of whom were unnamed. Over the years, breeders have tried to formulate breeding systems which will distil from this, vast genetic stockpile colts who have the speed and stamina necessary to beat a quarter horse at his best distance and go on with undiminished speed for a mile and a quarter. It has been found that lines of Americanbred horses gradually tend to produce speedy animals which are lacking in endurance. To add endurance to our lines there is a constant stream of imported stallions from Europe — particularly from England and Ireland, where longer races are favored.

Every owner of a popular stallion is under the double pressure of collecting the maximum in stud fees for the services of his animal each season and still not booking him so heavily that it will affect his health. In making up the book for the stallion, the owner is keenly aware of the fact that his horse has around 120 days in which to impregnate all the mares booked to him. He is also aware of the fact that, on the average, it takes two or three matings for each mare got with foal.

He usually starts a young horse off with a book of around twenty mares and builds him up to where he hits a peak of forty. With forty mares on his book, a stallion will on the average cover a hundred mares in 120 days. If the mares were evenly spaced over this time there would be no problem at all. It is at the end of the breeding season, when barren mares are returning in numbers and he is used twice a day, that the whole procedure seems to grow a bit tedious for him. The stallion who has good luck in settling his mares early in the season, on the other hand, often is able to reopen his book and add one or two mares. One of the most heavily used stallions reported in recent years is *Khaled, the sire of Swaps, 1955 Kentucky Derby winner, who covered fifty-seven mares in the 1951 season.

During a heavy breeding season, most stallions lose two or three hundred pounds. The stud manager, therefore, tries to bring his animal to top condition at the opening of the season — and top condition in a stud horse does not mean fat. Fat, with most breeding animals, brings with it the danger of impotence. In the old days, stallions were exercised daily under the Saddle to keep them in good hard condition. Now the trend is to put them out to pasture each day, letting them run as much as they will and curtailing feed. The Calumet stallions, for example, haven’t had riders on their backs since the time, a few years ago, when a groom let a pretty visitor perch on Whirlaway’s back for a picture. (It was found that this groom of Calumet was also selling hairs from the fabulously long tail of Whirlaway at the rate of 50 cents per fresh plucked hair.)

Since condition is maintained by the amount of feed, each stallion presents a different problem. During the summer when the flies are bad, the animals are kept in their darkened stables during the day and put out to pasture at night. In the winter, the process is reversed; every day, except when there is sleet or cold rain (snow doesn’t seem to bother the animals), the horses are out in their paddocks and in the barn at night. At Calumet, Eugene Palmer, the stud man, watches the stallions’ weights and feeds them accordingly. “During the off season,” he said, “ we give Bull a couple or three flakes of hay during the day and three quarts of rolled oats. Cy and Sun Again get four quarts, and Ponder gets eight. In the winter we also give them hot mash a couple of times a week, and when the breeding season starts, Bull goes up to four quarts of oats and the others get almost double their off-season ration. It isn’t that Bull wouldn’t eat more if we’d let him — he’d gulp down a bushel of oats at a feeding — but he gets a belly on him like an old brood mare if you don’t cut down on his feed. Bull and Cy are the hardest to handle. They’re both lazy and won’t get enough exercise; so in the summer we just leave them out longer and let the flies keep them moving.”

There are various supplements of wheat germ oil and trace minerals on the market which are regularly fed to the stallions. Some farms add a feed of carrots during the breeding season, and some have been known to give their studs a helping of lettuce during this time. None of them, however, have abandoned oats and good pasture as the basic feeds.

The paddocks in which the stallions graze give an idea as to the cost of keeping a stud horse and also the nature of the beast. Each paddock is an acre or two in size, enclosed in a white paneled oak fence. A wire fence wouldn’t do, because the horse wouldn’t see it when running, and many a good horse has been killed or badly injured by plowing into one of them. Another added expense is that the paddocks must be separated by at least six to eight feet; so a single fence won’t do to separate paddocks. Each animal needs his own paddock because these handsome, apparently tractable stallions would fight to the death if they could get at each other.

Another constant danger in handling horses is colic — a generic term applied to all forms of bellyache. The danger lies not in the cause of the trouble, or even the pain, so much as in the horse’s reaction to it. As soon as he feels discomfort, he lies on the ground and starts rolling. This may case the pain, but it can have disastrous effects. Being a roughage eater with no rumen, the horse has developed his intestine to take care of part of the job of digestion. When he starts rolling on his back, pitching his belly from side to side, he runs the danger of kinking or twisting the intestine. When this happens, he is a dead horse. Grooms and night watchmen must constantly watch for rolling. When a horse goes down, all hands are mustered to get him up and keep him walking while the veterinarian is on his way to treat the stomach disorder.

With such attention night and day it takes plenty of manpower to care for a barn full of stallions. When February rolls around and the horse vans begin delivering mares, the work load can be handled only by teamwork. One crew of men unloads the mare, washes her, bandages her tail, and tests her to see if she is actually in heat and will receive the stallion. An ill-bred, frustrated stallion called the teaser is allowed to nuzzle her, nip at her, and go through all the basic preliminaries — usually across a stout hurdle. If she is truly in heat, these preliminary maneuvers put her in a receptive mood. If, however, she is not yet ready, she will attempt to emasculate, eviscerate, or at least lay the poor teaser out on the tanbark with a well-directed kick.

When the mare is ready she is led to the breeding barn, where the walls are padded for her protection. Here a crew of four men supervise the actual breeding, with a veterinarian in attendance to take care of any injury that might result to either animal and to make a check on stallion fertility. With each man doing his job and the animals performing well, as many as five mares can be bred to five different stallions in a half hour.

After the mating, the mares are shipped home and the stallions are led back to their stalls until their next breeding — which may be the same day or the following morning. And so, day after day, the stallion works, and by the end of the season may have grossed for his owner anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000 in stud fees.

At the end of the breeding season, the teaser is released from his tormenting job and the stallion retires for an eight-month rest. Shortly thereafter comes one of the tests of his popularity, the summer yearling sales.

First at Keeneland, near Lexington, and later at Saratoga, in New York, a strange assortment of bankers, industrialists, movie magnates, cosmeticians, gamblers, playboys, and others, with apparently nothing more in common than a large bank account and a love for horses, gather to listen to the exciting cry of the auctioneers and to bid on the young Thoroughbreds. It was at this Keeneland sale last summer that Dr. Eslie Asbury, a Cincinnati bone specialist and Thoroughbred breeder, received $80,000 for a colt by *Nusrullah, sire of the brilliant colt Nashua; and Miss Mildred Woolwine, a Kentucky breeder, walked off with $120,000 for her consignment of two colts.

When at these sales the bidding gets high and the auctioneer’s voice drops from a roar to a gentle, almost conversational pitch as he wheedles the bids up into the fabulous area, the buyers are well aware of the good mares behind the yearlings, but it is the names of such sires as Bull Lea, *Nasrullah, Roman, Man O’ War, and *Alibhai in ihe pedigree, and the knowledge of what these great sires have been able to pass on to their get, that tempts the buyers to signal the auctioneer quietly and kick the bid up another thousand.