At Valentine's Day, the Thoroughbred industry's thoughts turn to the breeding shed, where farms try each year to create another Kentucky Derby winner.
This year, Louisville biotech company CreoSalus is shipping out a new drug that could help increase a mare's chances of getting pregnant on the first attempt.
With modern stallions sometimes booked to 100 broodmares or more, a mare might not get a second date with a top sire if the first "cover" doesn't work.
In the Thoroughbred world, all horses born in the Northern Hemisphere turn a year older on Jan. 1, so it pays to be born as closely to that date as possible. Horses have an 11-month gestation period, hence the traditional start of breeding season on Feb. 14.
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Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the drug SucroMate Equine to help horses ovulate. One shot, based on the hormone deslorelin, could greatly increase a mare's chance of getting the crucial timing right.
At a potential retail price of $30 to $40, the drug could save breeders big money, said Dr. Barry Simon, its developer and co-founder of the company, which began as Thorn BioScience in the late 1990s.
"It's hard to put a price tag on it, but for the price of about one day's board, you're giving the shot," said Simon, a veterinarian who also formerly managed operations at Coolmore's Ashford Stud in Versailles, which stands some of the busiest stallions in the business.
Typically, farms monitor mares to know that an egg follicle is maturing. As the mare comes into heat, they call to book a session with their first-choice stallion.
"You call on a Monday and want to come on Wednesday and Thursday," Simon said. With the new drug, "you book your spot and give the shot. About 85 percent of them will ovulate within 48 hours."
That could help breeders maximize efficiency because if the mare gets pregnant, they don't have to wait another month for her to come back into cycle and book another van ride to the stud farm.
There are few other options. A previous version of the drug, marketed by Fort Dodge, was withdrawn a few years ago because it delayed subsequent ovulation if the mare didn't get pregnant. Some veterinary pharmacies also compounded their own version of the hormone.
In 2007, CreoSalus received $750,000 in economic incentives from the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development. The company was able to complete the federal trials, and now CreoSalus has the only FDA-approved version for use in horses.
But the company has its sights set on the much bigger meat market.
According to Les Anderson, a University of Kentucky expert on cattle reproduction, about 90 percent to 95 percent of dairy cattle are bred by artificial insemination.
AI is much less common among beef cattle, except among pure breeds such as Angus, which often ship semen from top-quality bulls around the country, he said.
Anderson said the artificial-insemination rate for pigs is about 85 percent to 95 percent.
"The finite lifespan of an egg is six to 12 hours, so timing between release of eggs and sperm deposition is critical," Anderson said.
Anderson said he thinks horse and dairy farmers would be quick to adopt such a drug but that beef farms, in which cattle are often spread over large pastures in smaller herds, are more likely to stick with live cover.
"They just turn the bull out," Anderson said. "They can't overcome the hassle."
Price, he said, will be crucial. "With dairy, there's opportunity. But we're not looking at $40,000 progeny," as with Thoroughbreds, he said. "Our margins are just slim."
CreoSalus sees its next big opportunity in pigs.
"Thoroughbreds are great, but for us the bigger market is sows," said Jim Geisler, CreoSalus' chief operating officer and chief financial officer.
About 300,000 horses of all breeds are bred annually in the United States, Geisler said. But there are 5.8 million sows, and they usually breed twice a year.
The company already is working on FDA approval of a swine version, with a bovine version likely to follow. The standard for approval of drugs used in food animals is higher than for non-food animals, but CreoSalus hopes to get the pig version to market in three years, Geisler said.
Most large-scale swine operations use an "all-in, all-out" production, with whole barns of sows impregnated and birthing on the same schedule, Simon said. A pig version of the drug would allow farms to accomplish that more easily, with only one artificial insemination.
"About half of the labor on swine production units is tied up in heat detection, and they have to do multiple AIs," he said. "We've shown you can pretty much circumvent all those costs."