A stud is born
The sex trade doesn't get any more lucrative than this:
Kentucky Derby-winning stallion Fusaichi Pegasus, worth
$64-million, is now servicing mares at $150,000 per 'booty call.'
IAN BROWN went to Lexington, Kentucky, a town with a permanent
case of horse fever, to see Pegasus get his wings
By IAN BROWN
Saturday, March 10, 2001
The first day in the professional sex life of Fusaichi Pegasus, the most expensive stallion in the history of thoroughbred racing, begins at 8:30 in the morning on Valentine's Day, 2001, in the confident company of Name of Love, a dainty but savvy six-year-old Irish mare. The act costs the mare's owner $150,000 (U.S.) and lasts approximately 30 seconds, about a quarter the time it took Pegasus to win the Kentucky Derby the previous May. Five thousand dollars a second, or a wage of $18-million an hour: nice work if you can get it.
Which is all to the good; the freshman is learning fast. But even Pegasus's precociousness with mares can't dispel the faint odor of anxiety in the breeding shed at Ashford Stud farm in Lexington, Ky.
It's the smell of the $64-million shelled out for Pegasus by John Magnier, Ashford's reclusive Irish owner -- more than anyone had paid for a stallion in the 300-year history of throughbred racing. The Roman emperor Caligula was so fond of his horse Incitatus that he built the beast an ivory stable and procured him a wife named Penelope. But $64-million for a horse? Even the land at Ashford, 2,000 acres of impeccably upholstered bluegrass at up to $20,000 an acre, is worth less than what Magnier had thrown at 1,200 pounds of horseflesh.
Is the horse even fertile? Could he be another Cigar, the ironically named $25-million stallion who turned out to be shooting blanks in the shed? Cigar was insured, and so is Pegasus, but the Cigar debacle was embarrassing all the same. And how will the offspring of Pegasus perform at the racetrack, thereby affecting his stud fee? No one can insure that.
If Ashford is ever going to see that money back, even at $150,000 a bang, Pegasus has to get working. At 6:30 a.m., in his stall, a luxurious 20-by-20-foot box of oak with two windows, he eats the breakfast half of his daily feed: 22 pounds of oats, sweet feed, high-fat finisher, beet pulp and rice-bran oil. At 8 a.m., Larry Anthony, his groom, slips him into his leather halter.
The horse is a eugenicist's fantasy: tall (16.2 hands), with a small white blaze between his alert, wide-set eyes; high bay back darkening to black in the legs; the famously quick feet tipped with white fore and aft on alternate sides; and of course the haunches, that beefy stallion backside; the body of a fullback, the face of an actor, Walter Payton by way of Liam Neeson. The 90 pounds he's gained since saying goodbye to the fast life barely show.
A hundred yards from the stallion barn, mares begin to arrive in horse vans at the breeding shed. Stallions begin to stamp. Pegasus can hear them too.
There is only one hitch: Woodman, the first horse to breed this morning, is taking his time. Woodman is known to be a romantic. Every stallion has its quirks. Storm Bird, the famous sire of Storm Cat, the current reigning champion stud, needed 20 jumps to breed a single mare. He was hopeless. Seattle Slew, winner of the Triple Crown in 1977, was so fond of gray mares his breeders had to space them out, lest he shunned all others.
At last, they want Pegasus. "C'mon buddy," Larry says, leading the courser down the short rubber brick path to the breeding barn. "Booty call."
Five minutes later he's back, job done. In the horse world, that's known as aggressive breeding. In the horse world, the more you have sex like a teenager, the better you are. Two hours later, after his daily stroll and a 15-minute lunge at the end of a rope, Pegasus is sporting another erection. "Hey," Larry says, "put that that thing away, will you?" It looks like a rubber shillelagh. It is a little frightening.
From the air, Lexington looks like an expensive green blanket: endless tracts of well-pressed bluegrass stitched together with miles of identical four-plank fence. Horses reign here. In April and October, when race meets are held at Lexington's Keeneland racetrack, 25,000 railbirds line its exquisite green oval every day -- 10 per cent of the city's population.
The Bluegrass Airport, named for the famous green carpet that lies over the bed of limestone that makes the grass so nourishing for horses, is located on Man O' War Drive. There's a Thoroughbred Chevrolet and a Bluegrass Bank. Lexington and the surrounding towns of Versailles (pronounced "Versales") and Paris (pronounced "Paris") are the figurative (and almost literal) scrotum of every winning thoroughbred line in North America. You can't go anywhere in Lexington without stepping in horse lore.
Pegasus grew up here, bred and raised by Arthur Hancock at Stone Farm in Paris. Hancock is himself one of two sons of Bull Hancock, a legendary breeder who imported the stallion Nasrullah to the United States. Nasrullah begat Bold Ruler; Bold Ruler begat Secretariat, who begat the Triple Crown in 1973. Arthur thought he'd take over his father's operation, but he was a wild kid, and the farm was left instead to his younger brother Seth.
So Arthur started his own operation, Stone Farm, just down the road. By 1982 he'd done what his father couldn't, and bred a horse that won the Kentucky Derby, the most famous race in America. Then he did it again. But his great stroke was buying a filly named Angel Fever. She was a promising racehorse in her own right, a sister to a Preakness winner, and a grand-daughter of Northern Dancer. Hancock set her up on a date with Mr. Prospector who, until he died last year at the age of 29 (116 in horse years), was the most successful racehorse factory in the land. The result was Fusaichi Pegasus, "the best-looking colt I ever saw," Hancock has often said. "I nicknamed him Superman."
At the tuxedo-studded yearling auctions at Keeneland the following July, Hancock sold Pegasus to a Japanese businessman named Fusao Sekiguci for $4-million. Over the next two years, Pegasus won six races -- most famously the Derby, which he finished almost at a canter -- and came second twice, once in the Preakness. Had he not run a bad Breeder's Cup in November last year, he would have been horse of the Year.
But by then he'd been sold again, this time for $64-million to John Magnier, the principal of Coolmore Stud, the global breeding and racing empire based in County Tipperary, Ireland. (Ashford Stud is Coolmore's U.S. operation.) Some people thought Magnier was crazy. But as racing has exploded in Japan and the Middle East, foreign owners have exported the best horses from America, thinning Kentucky's famous bloodlines. High-priced yearlings flop more often as racers than they used to, and the horses that do win tend to have middle-class pedigrees, which often mean middling performance in the stud barn. Magnier is betting that Pegasus has come along just when the horse world is looking for a savior.
And even Pegasus might seem like a bargain before long. Ric Waldman, the syndicate manager at Overbrook Farm where Storm Cat, the top stud in the country, shares his DNA for $400,000 a dollop, says "we're not far from a horse being worth $100 million."
By two in the afternoon, it's time for the new boy's second bout in the breeder. The mare, a six-year-old named Midnight Line, is already standing in the padded blue wash stall, having her tail wrapped and her vagina rinsed and inspected by Paraic Dolan, Ashford's farm manager, and Doc Norman Umphenour, the house vet. "I'm a boxologist," Paraic explains in his five-pound Irish accent, as he fingers the mare's nethers for stretch and give. "Of course, I use the word 'box' scientifically." He's like an attentive concierge, making sure the hotel room is just right for the next celebrity guest.
At last Midnight Line is ready for the breeding room, an airy pine space with a vaulted ceiling and a viewing window through which owners can watch the action. It's the size of a six-car garage and three times as high -- a big, quiet room, part church, part gymnasium, as befits a boudoir for an ancient, godlike race. A video camera sits high on a wall, recording events for insurance purposes.
Everything is soft: the floors are carpeted with green nonslip rubber, on top of which is piled a six inch layer of julienned automobile tires. Thick rubber mats lie on top of that, should the stallion need the leverage. (Northern Dancer, a famously short horse, needed a ramp as well.)
Gently, the handlers tie Midnight Line's hind hooves into a pair of padded leather booties the size of boxing gloves. That way, if she kicks Pegasus, the blow will be softened.
Whereupon Ken makes his entry.
"Ken is in pristine condition this morning," Paraic says, leading him in. "He's been out all night rolling in the field." Unlike Pegasus, who's polished to a deep mahogany thoroughbred gleam every day, Ken is a grey and pee-yellow Appaloosa mix, a hillbilly yob. He sleeps outdoors, and even has chin hairs. With his hooded, persistent gaze, Ken bears a definite resemblance to Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones.
Ken's job is to test each mare, to see if she's ready for her stallion. His formal title is "teaser." A mare's owner can artificially induce estrus with hormones and keep the stable lights on to simulate longer spring days, and Doc palpates every mare that comes in. But Ken is more reliable. What Ken has to do is sniff the mare's hindquarters, and see how she responds. If the mare is actually in estrus, and ready to breed, she'll present her hindquarters to him, and maybe even wink her vagina. If she isn't ready, she'll kick him in the groin. Perhaps this sounds familiar.
This mare is also a maiden -- a virgin. So Ken -- this is his favourite thing -- is allowed to "jump" her, to test-mount her. But as soon as he's up, and before he's in, he's pulled off. To make sure K-Mart Ken doesn't accidentally penetrate the mare, he's also wearing a leather apron under his belly. He wouldn't be out of place dressed up as a butcher on Halloween at a gay S&M bar in Greenwich Village.
And how long has he been performing this thankless task? Four years, since he was 3. The only time he actually gets to have sex is with a few brood mares each year.
And yet, every time Ken has to dance his tease -- and with 16 stallions in Ashford's stables, that can be 25 times a day -- he comes bounding into the breeding shed almost at a mini-gallop, head down and eyes up, convinced this is going to be his lucky day. It never is.
"Ken's life reminds me of my adolescence," I say to Paraic. This is the sort of vexing thought one has in the breeding shed, where horses are a parallel race whose purpose is never unclear the way human lives sometimes are.
"I dunno," Paraic says. "Horses masturbate. He's probably out there now, havin' a coupla whacks. Anyway, he's a pro in a different way. That little whore, he gets off on it. He does! He wouldn't do it otherwise. There's a bit of S&M in him. If a mare kicks him off, he can't wait to get back in there. And it's all in the stomach. He gets hammered. He's the fall guy."
Just then the Doc wanders over. "Who? Ken?"
"Yeah," Paraic says.
"Yeah," Doc nods, absently adjusting himself through his jeans.
None of this would be happening, of course, if the Jockey Club, the governing body of thoroughbred racing, permitted artificial insemination. Instead, partly to ensure thoroughbred bloodlines, and partly to limit the number (and thus raise the value) of thoroughbreds, the Jockey Club insists that registered racehorses be conceived by you-know-what -- the Jockey Club calls it "by natural cover." The result is the fabulous economics of thoroughbred breeding.
According to Stuart Fitzgibbon and Charlie O'Connor, two of the self-described "pimps" who sell Ashford's stud services, Pegasus is booked to cover 140 mares between now and July, when the North American breeding season ends. (As recently as 15 years ago, no stallion danced with more than 50 mares a season.) If 70 per cent of the coverings take, and 70 per cent of those yield live mares -- reasonable assumptions -- Pegasus will have earned more than $10-million in stud fees his first year out.
If Pegasus's offspring perform well, and if he stays at it for 15 years, he could ejaculate at least $150-million in his lifetime -- three times the value of Tiger Wood's endorsements. If Coolmore flies him to its Australian harem to breed the other half of the year as well (though Pegasus may be too valuable to risk it), the figure could nearly double.
(As of today, of the 14 mares bred to Pegasus who are far enough along to be able to tell, 10 are pregnant -- a very strong result for so early in the mare-breeding cycle, which on its own begins in May.)
Still, those are big ifs. The horse business is notoriously risky, just gambling dressed up in a fancy hat. Then there's the problem of flooding the market with too much of the Pegasus magic; the more yearlings he produces, the less valuable they become. And some horsemen, such as Ric Waldman at Overbrook (owned by William T. Young, the man who invented JIF peanut butter), have more serious concerns about breeding each of a few superstuds to 150 mares a year. "We're concentrating too many of the same bloodlines and forcing excessive inbreeding," Waldman says.
But to a global breeder like Magnier at Coolmore, there're no such thing as narrowed bloodlines. horse racing in Japan and Macao and Australia and the Middle East is huge and getting huger. Coolmore services the whole world. "That's the the whole thing," Stuart Fitzgibbon maintains. "Mr. Magnier doesn't want to spend $70-million every time he wants to buy a proper racehorse. He wants to breed his own. You want to breed it, race it, and retire it to stud. It's the dream. To create something from" -- and here he held his hand out, and made an O with his fingers -- "nothing." From dust, like -- well, you know.
One night after watching stallions have sex all day I got invited out to dinner in Lexington by a guy I'll call Johnny. Johnny's 40, and a fully paid-up member of the Lexington establishment. He told me to meet him at Dudley's, the favorite restaurant of the horsey set. It was full of locals, including Johnny, six of his friends, and his wife Josie, a slow simmer who grew up in Louisville. She had a west Kentucky accent, a languid slo-mo drawl that made her sound as if she was speaking in two time zones at once. In Josie's mouth the word "hi" has at least three syllables, two of which are turning on a hot spit.
After dinner they were heading back to Johnny's to drink champagne, and after that they were going to a party. It was Thursday night. Johnny works for his father in a well-established Kentucky business and graduated with high honors from an Ivy League college. But during race meets he heads straight for the clubhouse at Keeneland racetrack at 3:00 in the afternoon.
Johnny loves to bet, always has. "A couple of days a week during race season," he told me right away, "my Mom would come and take me and my sister and my brother out of school to take us to the track to teach us how to bet." He can take or leave the Kentucky Derby in Louisville on the first weekend of May, when 125,000 screaming maniacs go to a horse race. But he goes to nearly every Breeder's Cup, and he's soldered into Lexington's horse-gossip network.
He can tell you why Calumet Farms, which produced three Triple Crown winners, fell upon hard times, and why Spendthrift Farms did, too. (In that case, "Wall Street didn't understand the cycle of the horse industry. Which is make a lot of money fast, and then nothing.") But he claims to love the horses most. "The centre of racing is the sport, not the betting. I can go to the track and not make a bet and still have a great day."
"Oh," said a woman who had just arrived. "When has that ever happened?" She was one of the 85-mile-an-hour blondes you see fairly often in horse circles in Kentucky. Then she sat down and turned to me. Flustered, I told her that I'd just seen Pegasus breed.
"How big is it?" she said. "Is it this big?" She spread her arms as wide as they went.
"No, not that big," I said. "About two feet."
"Well, a girl can dream, can't she? Anyway, I'm sure he's got a big ass." She turned away.
She made me nervous. She made me think of Ken. In fact, she made me feel like Ken. Ken had been on the front page of the Lexington Herald-Leader that very morning.
"Well," I stammered to Josie, Jimmy's wife. "I like Ken."
"Oh, yeeeehhhhaaahhhhhh," Josie purred, peering over the top of her drink from some other world. "Who duzzn't?"
Later, driving back to my hotel, I was distracted, thinking about why people become so obsessed with horses, whether it was for the money or the gamble or the animal -- and I got lost. I got so lost I got frightened. Then it hit me: I'd been afraid the entire time I was in Lexington. Afraid of getting lost, afraid of having an accident on the narrow roads, afraid of the stallions when they came too close. Afraid of the blonde, especially. Afraid of nature itself.
But compared to a stallion, who isn't? Swift knew that: he made the Houyhnmhnms, the race of horses, the heroes of Gulliver's Travels. Horses have no choice but to seem nobler than we can ever be. Horses are what they are, pure Nature. They perform like top athletes, but they don't know greed. They have no need for opinions; their passions are controlled, though never denied; they don't apologize or lie. They don't want money, and they don't fear death. And they've been on earth, in one shape or another, for 40 million years. By the time I found my hotel, I even admired Ken. At least he kept trying.
"Bring in Pegasus," Paraic calls. It's half past six in the evening, time for Pegasus's third and last breeding session of the day. His final mare, Torros Straights, is also the prettiest, an elegant, leggy, haughty Irish maiden. With her anti-kick boots on, her legs slightly spread, she looks cute and nervy, a disco chick ready for action. When Ken jumped her, she didn't bat an eye. She is waiting for the real thing.
Meanwhile, Louis Quatorze, another bay stallion, is waiting in a nearby holding stable, and going crazy. He sounds more like an elephant than a horse. "We put him there to get his pride up," Paraic says. "It's like you, going to a strip club."
All six members of the breeding team are ready. The leg man, holding up the mare's foreleg so she won't buckle; the roll man, steadying her from the other side; the twitch man, with a loop of rope cranked tight around her nose, to distract and focus her attention; the tail man, holding it out of the way; another safety by the door, to catch any bolting horses; and the point man, in charge of erection direction, in shoulder length rubber gloves, standing at the business end of the mare, where with any luck Pegasus will do his deed. They're like a film crew: they don't have to do what they do for long, but they have to do it all at once, and together. You can almost hear them thinking: $64-million.
Larry and Pegasus arrive. The horse looks darker and calmer in the evening light. Two Irish girls from the office have come down to watch his final fling of the day.
"God, he's a good looking devil, isn't he?" This is Doc.
"He is," one girl agrees, never taking her eyes off the animal.
"Makes your mouth water."
Then silence. Everyone waits for Pegasus to rise. He sniffs the mare's hindquarters, sneers his lip, sniffs again. Every once in a while Larry does a visual, but it's not necessary. The landing gear is coming down.
"He does it three times a day?" someone asks.
"People say, I don't know if I could do that, breed three times a day," Paraic says. "But three different women? I could do that."
"Does doing this every day affect your sex life?" I ask him.
"Doesn't even come into it," Paraic insists. His tone suggests he's talking to a pervert. "It's not like I think, oh you bastard, you're getting it all the time and I'm not. I don't even think of it as sex, though it is of course technically sex. I just think of it as a money making thing." He has a wife and child of his own. He wants to get home to see them.
Suddenly, after two minutes of waiting, Pegasus's erection stiffens to its full length, just shy of two feet. Suddenly it's automatic. He rears up on his hind legs -- but slips off the mare just as quickly. Quaintly, his erection vanishes.
"She urinated on him a bit," Paraic says to Doc. "That's new to him." They're always trying to figure out their horses.
A minute later, a second jump. Our boy gets in, but it's too tight, and he shies away. Seminal fluid spurts from the stallion like water bursting from an industrial showerhead. That's $18,000 an ounce! On the ground!
"Nah," scoffs Paraic. "It's all pre-seminal. It's like drooling over food."
It's true: Pegasus is instantly ready again. He rears a third time. "Hold her!" Two sub-atomic explosions of air from the mare's vagina blatt through the room. Noble it is not. A neigh peals from Pegasus, like metal torquing and shearing. Finally, dancing and dodging, the point man in the rubber gloves grasps the mighty colossus of Pegasus like the last large French baguette in a bakery sale and guides the stallion into the mare.
And ever so daintily, in a quiver of thrill, as if the mare's backside is a bomb he has to defuse with his member, the haunches that won the Derby in a handstand twitch ever so . . . vulnerably back and forth. Six thrusts and 20 seconds later, the most expensive stallion in history collapses onto the back of the proud Irish mare. His hooves dangle awkwardly down her sides. He lays his long face alongside her neck, and she lets him.