03/14/2007 11:00PM

Absurdity becomes reality


NEW YORK - The retirement to stud last week of Holy Roman Emperor was a disheartening milestone in the annals of Thoroughbred breeding and racing and in the relationship between those two intertwined pursuits.

Thirty years ago, truly great racehorses such as Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid had full championship campaigns not only at ages 2 and 3 but also at 4, when their earnings barely met the insurance costs of keeping them in training. Even so, their owners wanted them to race for the public and for immortality, and simply because that's what you were expected to do with a good horse.

Shortly after that, the yearling-sales market exploded, and fewer top 3-year-olds have returned to race as older horses ever since. At least most had full campaigns as 3-year-olds, but then in recent years it became acceptable to retire classic winners long before autumn. Cynics joked that the next step would be to retire them before spring.

The joke became real when Coolmore Stud announced last week that Holy Roman Emperor, Britain's second-best 2-year-old of 2006 and second choice in futures betting for the 2000 Guineas, was being retired before making a single start at 3. It was part of a bizarre swap of stallion prospects. George Washington, whom Coolmore had retired in November at the end of his 3-year-old campaign, had proven infertile at stud this winter and now Holy Roman Emperor has taken his place. Last week he was a colt being readied for the classics; now he's a stallion who has already covered his first mare.

George Washington and Holy Roman Emperor are both sons of the late Danehill, the dominant sire in Australian breeding and now Europe's hottest sire line as well. George Washington had been standing for 60,000 euros (about $79,000), and Coolmore, which breeds some of its stallions to more than 200 mares a year, had dozens of bookings to top mares lined up for him. Rather than forfeit the stud fees and anger its clients, it simply wheeled another well-bred son of Danehill onto the assembly line.

"It's a sickener, but it's a business decision," Aidan O'Brien, who trained both sons of Danehill for Coolmore, told the British press. "The lads [Coolmore's owners] have been in business a long time and have a lot of very important clients."

On those terms, it may have been a sensible financial decision, and perhaps Coolmore should be commended for characterizing it as nothing more or less. Unlike some other early retirements in this country, there at least was no doubletalk about phantom injuries tragically forcing a horse to the breeding shed. Nor should Holy Roman Emperor's youth and inexperience affect his success at stud. Two of this country's greatest sires, Hail to Reason and Raise a Native, went to stud after injuries cut their careers short, and Danehill's sire, Danzig, raced only four times.

All of those runners, however, had legitimate career-ending injuries, whereas Holy Roman Emperor is believed to be the first completely sound classic prospect sent to stud after only a juvenile campaign, simply to generate fees a year sooner. It marks a new low point in what the breeding community considers an acceptable racing career. Holy Roman Emperor started seven times from June to October last year, and never raced beyond seven furlongs.

It's almost enough to make one wish that every country had rules as strict as Germany's, where stallions are required to have raced without medication, be free from conformational defects, and to have raced for at least two seasons. Under such a system, of course, Danzig would never have gone to stud and there would have been no Danehill, George Washington, or Holy Roman Emperor.

George Washington could be the silver lining in this whole episode. A brilliant miler who ended his career on a down note finishing sixth in the Breeders' Cup Classic in his career finale, the infertile former stallion may now return to training. There's a fitting if surreal circularity to it all: An unproven racehorse is retired prematurely to replace a stallion who now must become a racehorse again.

What's next? Perhaps the 2-year-olds-in-training sales could be renamed stallions-in-training sales, with juveniles who can breeze a furlong in 10 seconds sold the next day and immediately retired to stud. Of course that sounds so preposterous it could never happen - which is exactly what people would have said not so long ago about the possibility of a perfectly sound and healthy 3-year-old being retired to stud in March.