Just another day at the stud farm.
By Joel Achenbach
Posted Friday, March 28, 1997
In horse country, everyone will always remember precisely where they=20
were and what they were doing when they first heard the news that=20
Cigar was shooting blanks.
Tragedy is part of horse racing, but this cut to the heart of the=20
business, the ancient and profitable enterprise of breeding. Every=20
thoroughbred in America is the descendant of one of three=20
stallions-the Darley Arabian, the Godolphin Barb, and the Byerly=20
Turk-brought to England from the Middle East three centuries ago.=20
Cigar had brought honor to the bloodline. He had won 16 consecutive=20
races and been named Horse of the Year twice in a row. He was the=20
most celebrated thoroughbred since Secretariat. Surely he would make=20
a monster stud. At the Breeder's Cup last fall, says Claire Khuen, a=20
Pennsylvania thoroughbred owner, "People were talking about wanting=20
to have little Cigarettes."
Cigar retired after the Breeder's and went to Ashford Stud in=20
Kentucky for what should have been the most important and satisfying=20
work of his career. His stud fee fetched the farm $75,000 a pop.=20
Cigar had mares lining up around the paddock. Everyone wanted a piece=20
of that code. A few weeks passed. The mares did not come into foal.=20
"Some horses that come off the racetrack are slow to start," said the=20
farm's manager, hopefully. But then the veterinarians looked at=20
Cigar's sperm under the microscope and discovered the horse's=20
appalling little secret. His sperm were slackers. They had no=20
motility whatsoever. Many were shaped abnormally. This incredibly=20
fast and strong and durable thoroughbred, heroic of stature and stout=20
of heart, was a genetic dead end.
The news broke simultaneously with the story that Scottish scientists=20
had cloned an adult sheep. An enterprising reporter for the New York=20
Post called Cigar's owner, Allen Paulson, and managed to get a quote=20
to the effect that perhaps Cigar could be cloned. The thoroughbred=20
community quickly protested. It turns out that cloning would violate=20
Rule 1(D) of the American Stud Book, which reads:
To be eligible for registration, a foal must be the result of a=20
stallion's natural service with a broodmare (which is the physical=20
mounting of a broodmare by a stallion), and a natural gestation must=20
take place in, and delivery must be from, the body of the same=20
broodmare in which the foal was conceived.
It's a shocking provision. Everything else in today's society has=20
been converted to mass production. One would think that there is a=20
more modern way to breed a horse, something involving hydraulic=20
machinery, vacuum tubes, pumps, stainless-steel vats, perhaps even=20
Cigar was foaled at Country Life Farm, just north of Baltimore, and I=20
drove up to check out some horse breeding up close. Country Life Farm=20
is as pastoral as it sounds, smelling of grass and hay and horses.=20
Adolphe Pons bought it in 1933 and passed it on to his son Joe, who=20
is an amiable old gentleman now, padding around in a "Cigar Ran Here=20
=46irst" cap and looking like you could not pay him a million dollars=20
to get worked up over anything. He passed the reins to his kids,=20
notably Josh Pons, who is 42 and seems to run the place, although=20
there are Ponses everywhere. The place is dense with humans and=20
horses, as though fecundity is contagious.
Josh Pons is a serious businessman. I remarked that the rules for=20
breeding seem rather "low-tech" for this day and age. He looked as=20
though he wasn't sure if he liked the sound of that term. It's=20
difficult work, he said. It's also risky. It takes four or five men=20
to handle the horses as they breed. His top stallion is worth $1.5=20
million, and could be disabled by a swift kick from a mare. "If she=20
were to hit the stallion in the penis, we'd be out of business," Pons=20
As it happened, a jumpy mare named Canada Miss had come onto the farm=20
to breed this very morning. She was 9 years old and a maiden. She'd=20
never had a horse on her back. Her owner, Barbara Gardi, stood by=20
nervously. "It's like my baby. My big baby," Gardi said. A farm=20
employee warned her to be prepared for what was coming up: "It is a=20
little =8A"-the employee paused-"violent."
Everyone at the farm was wary of Canada Miss. She'd come there the=20
day before, for schooling, and she had been balky. A veterinarian had=20
reached inside and confirmed she was in heat, but after nine years of=20
racing, she might not grasp the concept of being "covered," as they=20
say, by a 1,300-pound stallion.
=46irst, the horsemen brought out a teaser horse. A teaser horse is the=20
warm-up act, an important but ultimately expendable creature. This=20
one's name was Popeye, and he was a gelding. Popeye nuzzled and=20
licked the maiden on her left flank. She urinated, a sign that she=20
was ready. A horseman held a "twitch" that covered her mouth, while=20
another man held her left front leg with a strap. Two more men stood=20
at her flanks. Popeye reared up and plopped on her back and there was=20
a sudden grunting and whinnying and with both hind legs Canada Miss=20
bucked and threw Popeye off her back. "Poor little girl. This is all=20
new for her," said her owner.
Josh Pons did not like this. He wasn't going to let his prize=20
stallion get near this creature until she got tranked. The=20
tranquilizer took a few minutes to take effect. Canada Miss started=20
to look a little sloppy. Another teaser came out of the stud barn,=20
this one named Dew. Dew was no gelding-he had all the equipment.
Dew tried to mount her, but she bucked away.
"He's a little scared right now. The mare doesn't look like she's=20
ready and he's not standing there with a giant hard-on ready to knock=20
her down," said Pons. One notices that Pons doesn't mince words. No=20
one around here is guilty of being pretentious.
Obviously, the traditional breeding method is a lot harder than just=20
letting a couple of horses loose in a pasture and waiting for nature=20
to take its course. And it's a far sight harder than artificial=20
insemination. Pons said that if AI were allowed-as it is with=20
standard-bred horses-breeding would be a one-pony trick.
"Instead of a teasing chute we'd have some sort of a riding bronco=20
bull, a leather mare. The stallion would mount it, and a veterinarian=20
would collect the ejaculant in an artificial vagina," he said.
The prohibition is more than just tradition. It's good business.=20
Artificial insemination would create a rush on sperm from a select=20
few champion stallions. Midlevel stallions would see their stud fees=20
Dew, the teaser, finally mounted Canada Miss. The process is not=20
gentle. Two horses mating is a lot of meat in motion. Four men had to=20
control the horses, and one of these men, Eduardo, had the most=20
critical job of all, which is to reach with his right hand and grab=20
Dew's erect penis, which is thick as a baseball bat and almost as=20
long, and pull it to one side to prevent penetration. When it comes=20
to consummating the act, Dew don't.
Pons noted that poor Popeye, the gelding, has been tugged to the side=20
like this so many times that he's developed a pronounced curvature.
"He's got a bent dick," Pons said.
=46inally it was time to bring out the breeding stallion, Allen's=20
Prospect. His stud fee is $10,000 and he averages 1.7 covers before=20
the mare is in foal-an excellent batting average in the horse=20
business. He emerged from the barn whinnying and stamping his feet.=20
Eduardo was now wearing a helmet, a defense against biting. The=20
horsemen washed the stallion's genitals in soap and water and led him=20
to the mare. By now the old man, Joe, had wandered up, and he was the=20
only one who looked at peace. "He's a good breeding horse. He won't=20
mess around." The four horsemen held the mare. Allen's Prospect=20
mounted her, and the horsemen on either side guided his penis into=20
the mare and held onto it while the horses brayed and whinnied and=20
huffed-more than a ton of towering bucking horseflesh-and, after=20
about 30 seconds, the stallion ejaculated and instantly slipped out=20
of her and headed back to the barn.
"It's very draining physically and emotionally," said Josh Pons as he=20
drove around the farm in a golf cart a few minutes later. He said=20
studs get hurt, top broodmares get sick and die, foals are born dead.=20
Nothing is easy. It's the nature of thoroughbreds: They're not bred=20
for their reproductive ability-they're bred for speed. Critics say=20
even this isn't really working, that racing times have reached a=20
plateau and the thoroughbreds may have even regressed in quality,=20
watered down by excessive breeding in the boom years of the 1980s and=20
the use of medication that masks physical frailties.
While the horses run in place genetically, the racetracks themselves=20
are falling behind the rest of the gaming world. Racetracks are=20
getting clocked by casinos, lotteries, riverboat gambling, and slot=20
machines. Pons is not sure if Country Life Farm will pass to yet=20
another generation of Ponses. "If it's a dinosaur game and everyone's=20
betting at the casinos instead of the racetrack, we're out of=20
=46rom the farm I drove to the racetrack, Laurel Park. I've been to=20
Gulfstream and Hialeah and Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, and they=20
all maintain some resonance of their grand past. At Gulfstream, you=20
enter in a broad boulevard between rows of royal palms. At Hialeah,=20
there are old fountains and broad porches and perfectly landscaped=20
gardens. Laurel Park has none of that magic. The entrance road is=20
bumpy and crude. The facility has been rebuilt various times over the=20
last 81 years, but now just looks cobbled together in addition to=20
being old. On this particular Saturday, only a few thousand people=20
were scattered in the stands. Many were watching TV monitors showing=20
simulcasts of races at some other track. They weren't completely=20
A woman smoking a cigarette outside the office turned out to be Lois=20
Ryan, the track's director of public relations. She said Laurel's big=20
problem is that the governor won't allow slots. Tracks in Delaware=20
have slot machines now, and they're pulling in billions of dollars in=20
revenue, jacking up the purses for the races and siphoning away both=20
the fans and top racehorses. Philadelphia Park is getting=20
video-lottery terminals, as will tracks in West Virginia. Plus the=20
racetrack, as broadly imagined by the public, suffers a reputation of=20
seediness. It's not true, she said. It's clean and lively, she=20
insisted. Soon they will bring in costumed characters, so kids will=20
have something to do.
Up in the press box, the handicapper, Clem Florio, 67, looked down=20
from his lofty perch as the horses meandered toward the starting gate=20
for the sixth race.
"It doesn't have the glamour that it did," Florio said. "It had=20
glamour! You'd see people go from nothin' to the big time!" He grew=20
up in Queens, right next door to Aqueduct. Routinely there'd be=20
30,000 or 40,000 people at the track on a Saturday.
"We had a tradition along the Eastern Seaboard of horse players.=20
Every corner had a bookie," Florio said.
"It was the only game in town."
Tradition alone can't compete in the churning marketplace of American=20
gaming. Maybe racing could use a few cloned Cigars. Something.=20
Anything. For the seventh race at Laurel, there were only seven=20
horses in the field. The next race would have nine horses, and the=20
one after that only six. Six horses is not much of a field. You know=20
a racetrack is on hard times when it can't even get horses to show up.
=46or some general foreplay, see HorseWeb, a comprehensive site for the=20
equiphile (www.horseweb.com/horseweb.htm). When you're ready to get=20
down to business, penetrate the Web site of the World Breeding=20
=46ederation for Sport Horses (www.bcm.nl/wbfsh/wbfshalg.html). If=20
you're in the market for frozen horse semen, you must shop the goods=20
at TechnoFoal (www.technofoal.com/). Finally, see Cigar 's official=20
home page for a retrospective on his track record=20
Joel Achenbach is a reporter for the Washington Post.