PARIS — Forget daffodils or robins: In Central Kentucky, the true sign of spring is a pasture full of fuzzy foals.
It's March, and Adena Springs, the leading Thoroughbred breeding farm nine years in a row, looks like a nursery, with long-legged babies peeking with big eyes around protective mamas. Every so often, a brave one will wobble over to sniff at a newcomer before scooting back to nurse.
Like all babies, they don't want to get too far from the next meal.
And it's a myth that horses only sleep standing up: On a warm spring day, foals like nothing better than to stretch out on tender grass, as an 18-hour-old filly by Ghostzapper did while her mother, Cozy Gain, kept careful watch.
In a nearby paddock, heavily pregnant Delta Princess waited to deliver her next million-dollar baby by Distorted Humor. (Delta Princess foaled a colt about 1:30 a.m. March 13.) Adena Springs owner Frank Stronach bought Delta Princess in November at the annual Keeneland breeding stock auction for $2.6 million; one daughter, Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic winner Royal Delta, sold later that day for $8.5 million. Another, a weanling by Smart Strike, sold for $1.6 million.
Even million-dollar babies have to learn walk. But after only a day or two, they are off and running around the paddock, learning what those legs are for.
"Sometimes people say racehorses are forced to run. They should see them out here," said Eric Hamelback, Adena Springs' general manager. "Foals are just born wanting to run."
Although it's almost impossible to tell at this stage who will make it on the track, that doesn't stop anyone from looking for signs of greatness.
"That's a nice horse right there," Hamelback said, eyeing a well-built Awesome Again filly. Her mother, My Marchesa, earned a pat. "You did good, old girl."
From birth, foals are handled daily so they get comfortable around people. And every day, as they go out to pasture in the morning and come in to their stalls at night, the little ones are checked from top to bottom.
Mostly, though, the foals are left to grow and to learn from their mamas how to be horses. Mama eats grass, so the foal tries it, too. Mama rolls in the field ... and it turns out that feels pretty good.
"We try to let them be as much of a horse as possible," Hamelback said. "At the track, they don't get to be. ... We try very hard to let them be as natural as possible, and let the mares alone as much as we can."
When it comes to foaling, it is hard to improve on nature.
Adena Springs Foaling operations. Video by Mark Cornelison | Staff
About the best anyone can do is stay calm and pull a little. Adena Springs has a veterinarian on staff, but for top-flight mares, the farm takes the extra precaution of having a horse trailer hitched up and standing outside the barn. At the first sign of dystocia (literally "difficult birth," usually with the foal in a poor position), the mare can be whisked down the road to Rood & Riddle, a 20-minute ride away.
Thankfully, such trips are rare, because catastrophes — such as the death last year of broodmare of the year Primal Force as a result of complications after foaling — are wrenching for everyone involved. Primal Force, the mother of Breeders' Cup Classic winner Awesome Again and Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Macho Uno, is buried in a place of honor at the farm, near where her sons stand as stallions.
Most births are simple and quick: a mare's water breaks, and a groom wraps her tail and leads her into a larger foaling stall. Within 20 to 30 minutes, there's a wet foal lying on the clean straw, under ordinary heat lamps, getting acquainted with its mother and the world. Within a few hours, it will stand and nurse.
Foals come when they come, and rarely when it's convenient.
Just ask night watchmen at Adena Springs, who spend hours checking mares and waiting.
Mares are grouped into barns by due date, and as their time gets close, they are checked for signs: Are their teats filling out? Are they "waxing" colostrum, the crucial pre-milk that imparts immunities? Are they eating normally or are they restless?
Mares usually foal at night, but not always.
"A handful happen during the day, but they're flight animals, and they're going to foal in the dark," Hamelback said. If they can wait until a thunderstorm for cover, even better.
That means a lot of watching. Mares usually have an 11-month, 11-day gestation, and births are timed for after the first of the year, when all Thoroughbreds celebrate their birthdays for racing purposes. Foaling season begins in mid- January and lasts until mid-June. At some farms, the foals might come several a night for weeks.
In 2010, 8,335 Thoroughbreds were born in Kentucky at farms large and small, according to The Jockey Club. That was about 28.2 percent of the North American foal crop of 29,600 that year. But the foal crop has shrunk as the market has contracted, partly due to the global economic downturn that struck in 2008.
The Jockey Club estimates that 22,500 foals will be born in the United States in 2012; if Kentucky holds onto its 2010 percentage, about 6,300 foals can be expected here. But farms worry that breeders will ship mares to New York to take advantage of millions in new purse money and breeders' incentives from slot machines.
Adena, which has won seven of the past eight Eclipse Awards as Breeder of the Year, stands stallions in New York and has divisions in Canada and Florida.
The changes in market can be felt even on an operation the size of Adena: Four years ago, Adena had about 760 broodmares; now that's down to about 180. Hamelback said that until a few years ago, it wasn't unusual to foal close to 200 babies each spring. This year, Adena expects to foal about 120 at its Kentucky farm.
Some will be sold at future auctions, but some families — the foundation lines — are special to Stronach, such as the Holy Bull filly born to Cargo, the mother of 2000 Preakness winner Red Bullet.
Stronach usually likes to keep those, Hamelback said. Call it sentiment or superstition. Or just having a good eye.
Either way, it has worked for Adena and Stronach, who has won five Breeders' Cup championship races, all with homebreds.
To horse lovers, all the foals in the fields are "spring beauties," who in 2015 will be racing for roses and silver trophies. One out of 22,500 will win the Kentucky Derby — and maybe even a Triple Crown.
"You can tell by conformation if they're going to have a chance," Hamelback said. "It's a cliché to say you can't measure their heart, although now literally you can. But what you can't tell is how hard they are going to try. Some are more competitive than others. ... You can't measure their 'want to.'"