At Spendthrift, it all begins in the breeding shed

Alex Macias led Notional back to his stall after a breeding session at Spendthrift Farm earlier this month.
Alex Macias led Notional back to his stall after a breeding session at Spendthrift Farm earlier this month. Herald-Leader

If horse farms are factories, as the late visionary breeder John Gaines suggested, then this is where the assembly line begins: the breeding shed.

Making horses is prosaic business. There is no moonlight, and the only roses are the ones in breeders' wistful imaginations.

Despite the storied history of Spendthrift Farm in Lexington, the breeding shed is unassuming, with barely a hint of the dozens and dozens of stakes winners conceived there — each immortalized with a brass nameplate, enough to cover 2½ walls so far.

As if that weren't enough inspiration for the stallions, hanging above is a huge photo of the great Nashua, the 1955 Horse of the Year, who went on to sire the mother of legendary stallion Mr. Prospector.

Right there, inside those walls.

"This shed works," Ned Toffey, Spendthrift's general manager, said matter-of-factly.

When Public Storage magnate B. Wayne Hughes bought Spendthrift in 2004, the barns that once housed Nashua and famous stallions Swaps, Raise A Native, Seattle Slew and Affirmed had fallen into some disrepair. The metal-and-stone shed row dubbed the "Nashua Motel" — built without wood to satisfy Lloyd's of London's concerns about insuring a horse worth $1 million — has been replaced.

The breeding shed, just a few yards from Nashua's grave, is practically hallowed ground. Or it would be if it weren't a working factory, with mares lined up outside one sliding door and stallions coming in the other.

"It's like a conveyor belt," said Wayne Howard, Spendthrift's stallion manager.

The farm's 11 stallions will physically mate with at least 1,200 mares this spring, some of them several times. The Thoroughbred is the only horse breed that is not allowed to conceive by artificial insemination; each foal must be conceived the old-fashioned way: stallion on mare.

But these days, with high-tech ultrasounds and microscopic sperm counts, very little is left to nature.

For the farm and the horses, what goes into a match is less magic than manual labor.

If it goes smoothly, it's over in minutes, as it was for Malibu Moon, first up on a Friday earlier this month to cover, or mate with, Royal Damsel. That moment of his morning cost $70,000.

Months of planning, of scrutinizing the bloodlines of stallions and mares, and the investment of thousands, if not millions, of dollars all come down to this: a well-orchestrated mounting, a few primal thrusts, and the dance is over. It's just fingers crossed for the next three years.

The whole thing is difficult work for practically everyone involved, and it's about as romantic as childbirth.

If everything worked as veterinary science and nature intend, Royal Damsel will spend the next 11 months gestating the foal that was created that morning.

Despite what the mystical alchemy known as "nicking" can predict about bloodlines and how they will cross, nobody will really know how those 32 pairs of horse chromosomes — half from Malibu Moon, half from Royal Damsel — combined until next January, when the foal is born. Then the foal won't run in a race for two more years.

For all of the importance of racing — even two minutes as exciting as the Kentucky Derby — the horse industry isn't really built on speed but on long-term investments of hope.

Breeding season, which begins in mid-February, is the engine that drives Kentucky's equine economy.

According to The Jockey Club, the record keeper for Thoroughbreds, there were 228 active stallions in Kentucky last year, and they bred almost 16,000 mares. Kentucky has more stallions and breeds more Thoroughbred mares — by far — than any other state. Of the 36,500 Thoroughbred mares "covered" last year, 43 percent of them were bred on Kentucky farms. Each successful breeding generated sales-tax dollars that will go into incentive funds for all breeds of horses.

The most popular stallions — those that produce the fastest or best-selling progeny — command five-figure or even six-figure stud fees, and they will cover hundreds of mares.

Malibu Moon is Spendthrift's top stallion. He was bred to 174 mares in 2010, resulting in 144 live foals in 2011. He is typical of the tier that sets Kentucky apart: Almost of all the stallions that will breed to more than 100 mares this year will do it in the Bluegrass.

But that could change.

Kentucky farms are worried about New York and other states that can use casino revenue to lure away stallions and mares, particularly with Kentucky's repeated failure to pass casino-gambling legislation.

Like Spendthrift, many farms put millions into infrastructure that they say is increasingly jeopardized by this economic competition. Spendthrift owner Hughes sent stallion Court Vision, who won the 2011 Breeders' Cup Mile, to stand this year in Ontario, which has slots, rather than bringing him to Kentucky.

Toffey said that of Spendthrift's 90 mares, almost a third of them will foal this year in New York or Canada instead of Kentucky.

The list of leading sires is determined by the dollars earned by a stallion's progeny, so inflated purses in New York raise the prospect of a top sire standing outside Kentucky in a few years' time.

Although many breeders, like Hughes, are clearly hedging their bets, Kentucky's hold on the breeding industry has only increased even as the market for racehorses has shrunk over the past few years with the global recession.

There may be fewer mares bred, but February remains a very busy time of year. Every morning, Spendthrift begins breeding at 7:30 a.m., then again at 2 p.m., and sometimes at 6 p.m. When absolutely necessary, breeders might make appointments as late as 10 p.m.

How do farms know when to make the appointments? Modern veterinary medicine has the timing down to a science: Vets perform ultrasounds on the mares and physically feel the ripening egg. When it's getting big, it's time to call the stud farm and book a date. Booking secretary Ashleigh Franks in the Spendthrift office keeps the "book" of planned matings, moving mares up as the weather warms and back as a cold spell hits.

After the trip to Spendthrift, there will be one last check: Thomas, Spendthrift's teaser, is a stallion whose job is simply to test how hormonally "hot" the mare is.

"It's more of a delicate art," Howard said.

If she's not receptive to his advances, then chances are this trip to the breeding shed could be an exercise in frustration all the way around.

There are some risks not worth taking: Every mare that comes in the shed gets protective boots on her back feet and a heavy leather apron on her neck to protect both animals.

Howard said, "One bad kick to a stallion like Malibu Moon could mean a lost season, a lost $5 million, $6 million."

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