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