When the gates open for the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, I’ll be cheering for a bay horse named Comma to the Top. * Not because he finished second by a neck at the Santa Anita Derby. Not because he’s the most experienced runner in the field, with 13 starts. No, I’m backing Comma to the Top because he alone possesses the quality that guarantees a long career as a racehorse: He can’t produce sperm.
Comma to the Top is a gelding, a eunuch horse. If he wins, he’ll probably race for the next three years. If early favorite Dialed In wins, he’ll retire at the end of the summer, and follow in the hoofprints of 2010 winner Super Saver, who is currently servicing mares for $20,000 a spasm.
I’m telling you this so you’ll understand what you’re watching Saturday. The Kentucky Derby is not, as the NBC announcers want you to believe, the rookie debut of America’s next superhorse. The Kentucky Derby is a sperm pageant. These horses aren’t running to become the sport’s greatest champion. They’re running to become the breeding industry’s highest priced lover. It’s a race whose ultimate prize is the motivation for all male competition: the opportunity to pass on your genes to as many offspring as possible. And to do it with the most well-bred mares on the planet. The most exciting two minutes in sports is just a prelude to an even more exciting two minutes (or less) on a bluegrass country farm.
According to a study by the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, nothing increases a freshman sire’s stud fee more than winning the Derby. It adds an average of $8,843.31 (PDF) to the price of a date. If Super Saver had finished out of the money, he’d be worth 10 grand in the breeding shed, tops.
And the Derby doesn’t just increase the value of the winner’s sperm. It increases the value of his father’s sperm, too. Distorted Humor was a journeyman stud until his son, Funny Cide, won the race in 2003. After that, Distorted Humor’s fee went from $12,000 to a peak of $300,000. (A sire’s stock goes up or down depending on whether his offspring win big races. If a Super Saver foal wins the Derby, his services will be worth even more.) He started getting classier mares, too, which ensured faster foals, which, in turn, ensured high stud fees. Thanks to one Derby winner, Distorted Humor became a big-league sire.
It was a good thing, too. Someone in that family needed to make a living. Like Comma to the Top, Funny Cide is a gelding. He was, in fact, the first gelding to win the race since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929. (Derby-winning geldings are rare because the owners hope the horses will pan out as stallions. Funny Cide was gelded due to a medical condition: an undescended testicle that interfered with his stride.)
Because he was a gelding, Funny Cide had the longest career of any recent Derby winner. He ran until he was 7 years old, winning the prestigious Jockey Club Gold Cup the year after his Derby triumph. But the $450,000 purse didn’t come close to replacing the nest egg that was lost when Funny Cide lost his gonads. (2009 champion Mine That Bird was also a gelding, but his Derby turned out to be a fluke: In nine more attempts, he never won another race.)
If a horse is a stallion, winning the Derby guarantees a short career, because the increase in stud fees gives owners the financial incentive to withdraw their horses from competition as quickly as possible. A busy stallion can “cover”—the industry’s euphemism for the act—200 mares a year, so breeding him is far more lucrative than racing him. Plus, why risk a breakdown, like the one that killed 2006 winner Barbaro?
Zenyatta, the mare who won 19 races in a row from 2007 to 2010, including the Breeders Cup Classic, didn’t develop into the most dominant horse of recent years in spite of her gender. She developed into that horse because of her gender. With no sperm to offer her owners, Zenyatta raced until age 6, contributing far more to horse racing than the three-races-and-out Super Saver. Zenyatta built a fan club that flocked to the races to watch her “dance” by pawing the dirt, and she won the 2010 Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year. One of the few Thoroughbreds whose name was known beyond the racetrack, she not only transcended her sport, she transcended her species, with profiles in People and on 60 Minutes and twice finishing as runner-up as the AP’s Female Athlete of the Year (she lost to Serena Williams in 2009 and Lindsey Vonn in 2010).
But a mare can turn out only one foal a year, at most. Zenyatta’s first pregnancy, by Preakness winner Bernardini, ended in a miscarriage. Even if her yearlings sell for millions of dollars, Zenyatta won’t be as valuable as a top stud.
William Faulkner covered the 1955 Kentucky Derby for Sports Illustrated. He failed to mention the winner’s name, but Nobel Prize winners don’t need to bother with those details. Great novelist that he was, Faulkner understood the real meaning of Swaps’ victory: “This is the moment, the peak, the pinnacle; after this, all is ebb. We who watched have seen too much; expectation, the glandular pressure, has been too high to long endure.”
Comma to the Top will experience that kind of excitement only on the racetrack. But we’ll get to experience it with him, for years to come.
Correction, May 6, 2011: This article originally described Comma to the Top as a bay colt. He is a gelding. (Return to corrected sentence.)