Just another day at the stud farm.
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.
Joel Achenbach is a reporter for the Washington Post and the author of the new book, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher.
Illustration by Hillel Halkin.