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American Pharoah And The Horse Sex Industrial Complex

The history of horse breeding dates back centuries and is much, much weirder than you can possibly imagine

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Illustration: Tara Jacoby
May 06, 2016 at 12:27 PM ET

American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner in more than 30 years, is taking to his post-racing life quite well. But, as Joe Drape of the New York Times reports, retirement doesn’t mean the champion gets to relax.

Now that he has been put out to stud, Pharoah is busy siring what many hope will be the next generation of Triple Crown contenders. While genetics isn’t everything in horse racing, Pharoah’s customers are banking on his championship pedigree to the tune of $200,000 for each of 160 mares he will cover (a horse-person word for “have horse-sex with”) this season.

While humans have bred horses for various reasons—hunting, agriculture, war, etc.—for thousands of years, breeding for sport as we know it today dates back to 17th century England under Charles II, an obsessive horse racing fan. His successors William III, Queen Anne, and George I kept horse racing as a royal tradition, and by 1727, horse racing was popular enough in England to spawn the Racing Calendar, the first horse racing trade publication, advertising race results and upcoming events for the English public.

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Practically all of the thoroughbreds we watch at the tracks today can trace their genetic lines back to the horses Charles II and his successors imported to England to kick off their horse racing empires. A genetic study performed in the early 2000s found that the 500,000 contemporary thoroughbreds are descended from just 28 “founder” horses, and a whopping 95 percent can trace their Y-chromosome back to one “superstud,” the Darley Arabian, born in 1700.

The name “Darley” refers to Thomas Darley, a Brit serving as consul to Syria at the turn of the 18th century who, according to his own account, bought the horse from Sheikh Mirza. There are differing stories over the price paid for the superstud, either 300 gold sovereigns or a flintlock rifle.

Believe it or not, the Syrian version of this story is a bit different. Sheikh Mirza wrote to Queen Anne to claim that the horse was “foully stolen” by “British sailors.” Adding to the confusion, the colt was not shipped from its home in Aleppo but rather was transported first to Smyrna in Turkey before embarking for Britain.

In response to the controversy, the buyers claimed that the Sheikh was simply feeling seller’s remorse. The Brits, who have never felt particularly inclined to return things taken from that part of the world, naturally kept the horse. While the Darley Arabian never raced, he lived until the ripe old age of 30 and covered mares for 15 years in England, creating the vast line of succession that remains today.

The value of a stud, as such, often has less to do with its racing results than its parentage. Since 1791, the British have recorded pedigrees of thoroughbred horses in the General Stud Book, a practice that has been adopted in the United States and Australia as well. The more prestigious the lineage, the higher the stud fee. Even though American Pharoah has the Triple Crown under his belt, his starting stud fee of $200,000 per mare isn’t the highest rate in America this season.

Tapit, a horse with just two major wins (and none in the Triple Crown races), rakes in a cool $300,000 per mare thanks to the huge names in its pedigree: Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew (great-grandpa) and Secretariat (great-great-grandpa) on his father’s side, and Nijinsky II (great-grandpa), an English Triple Crown winner, and Northern Dancer (great-great-grandpa), winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 1964, on his mother’s side.

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Even at the low end of thoroughbred breeding, stud fees remain in the thousands of dollars. As such, owners of mares conduct extensive research before choosing a stud. They use metrics like “Dosing Index,” a convoluted mathematical formula that spits out a ratio of speed-to-stamina for a hypothetical horse based on its pedigree. While these numbers can be useful to determine whether the horse will be better at distance or in sprints, as with human sports, statistics can’t fully solve the problem of how to build a winner. The authors at Bloodstock Research Information Services write of Dosing Index:

A DI of 1.00 and/or a CD [center of distribution] of 0.00 are supposed to represent the “ideal balance” of speed and stamina in a pedigree.  It has been statistically proven though that there is nothing the least bit “ideal” about the racing performances of horses with such “ideal” numbers.

Once a decision is made, the horse sex can finally begin. To determine if a mare is in heat and at the proper point in her estrous cycle—her peak period of sexual receptivity and fertility—breeders use “teasing,” an aptly-named process in which the breeders put the mare and stallion in a room together and see how horny the mare gets. It even has a scale, developed by Dr. Thomas Riddle of Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital, measured by gauging the mare’s reception to the tease:

0 – Out of heat

1 – Change of attitude (for example: quieter, less ear pinning)

2 – Winking vulvar lips

3 – Breaking down (urinating) after a short time

4 – Breaking down immediately

Once the mare shows she is ready, the covering begins. But for a number of reasons, things don’t always go smoothly from there.

Centuries of inbreeding have resulted in infertility in a number of thoroughbreds. The most prominent example is Cigar, a descendant of Seattle Slew who won just under $10,000,000 for his owners in a highly decorated career. Cigar covered 34 mares but failed to produce any offspring; it was eventually found that his sperm were misshapen and immobile. A team of scientists was put on the case: Cigar’s sperm was sent to laboratories on three different continents and Cigar himself was given a six-acre paddock to himself in the hope that living a low-stress lifestyle would fix the problem. (It didn’t.)

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That problem, at least, is covered by insurance. Cigar’s owners and breeders received a record $25 million from insurers when he proved infertile. The problem presented by War Emblem, winner of the 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, was not so easily solved.

From the beginning, War Emblem simply showed little interest in mares, as he only covered five of the 200 mares he was booked to cover in 2003. He wasn’t the first stallion with such issues—Seattle Slew had similar problems when he was put out to stud, and the farm’s broodmare manager told ESPN, “The tension was so thick you could chip away at it.”

Patient handling eventually cured Slew of his problems, but the Japanese breeders who purchased War Emblem weren’t so lucky. “Will War Emblem Have Sex?” became a beat in horse racing journalism for over a decade, and his continued unwillingness to cover the mares brought to him prompted widespread speculation as to the nature of his problem.

His breeders thought he might be “too smart.” Some thought he needed to spend more time around mares. He was stabled entirely with mares starting in 2010, a tactic that resulted in 44 foals that year, but once again, disinterest returned, as he produced just 13 in subsequent years before he was pensioned in 2015.

“The questions remain,” John Wilkinson of Horse Collaborative wrote after War Emblem was returned to the United States to chill in retirement for the rest of his days. “Is he really just that particular? Traumatized? Homosexual? Asexual?”

Dave McKenna of the Washington City Paper covered these questions in 2008 and found that “Horsepeople, however, are loathe to hint any animal is homosexual.” Paul Randall, sales coordinator for a thoroughbred sales agency, told McKenna, “I’ve heard about horses that were shy in the barn. Never heard of gay.” Audrey Murray, one of the owners of War Emblem’s father, said she had dealt with pickiness but never homosexuality, “We had a stallion once named Caspar Milquetoast, and he only liked grays, so we’d have to tease him with a gray mare, then run the other mare in after we teased him, and that worked.”

Infertility and impotence are covered by insurance; disinterest is not. As such, the Japanese breeders who purchased War Emblem lost out on about $13,000,000 per year — his $65,000 stud fee multiplied by the 200 mares a stallion typically covers in a season — simply because War Emblem literally couldn’t give a fuck.

There is no better proof that despite the meticulous planning and calculations that go into the industry, horse sex can be as much a gamble as horse racing.