Updated on 09/18/2011 8:28AM

Argentine market a new game


SAN ANTONIO DE ARECO, Argentina - A visitor to Haras De La Pomme, one of the top Thoroughbred breeding operations in Argentina, might feel slightly disoriented as he watches some of the farm's yearlings walk by.

Here is a colt by Thunder Gulch, winner of the 1995 Kentucky Derby. Here is a son of Honour and Glory, who won the prestigious Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park. Here is a filly by the late Hennessy, winner of Saratoga's Hopeful Stakes and a top international sire. Here is another youngster by Thunder Gulch. And another. And another. Are we really in the heart of Argentina's horse country, 70 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, or are we in Kentucky?

"You are seeing the globalization of the horse business," said Oscar Calvete, manager of the farm owned by Samuel and Guillermo Liberman, a father and son with far-flung business interests and the passion for horses that is common in this country.

Argentina has a long and rich horse tradition, but in recent years the country's top breeders agreed that they had to scrap part of the tradition to become successful players in the global market. Their decisions, combined with some well-timed good fortune, have created a strong worldwide demand for Argentine Thoroughbreds.

People in the United states might wonder why Argentina would want to change a thing. Over the years, Argentine horses have distinguished themselves when they have been exported to the Northern Hemisphere. Bayakoa won the Breeders' Cup Distaff and was named the champion female racehorse of both 1989 and 1990. Paseana was named champion female in 1992 and 1993. Candy Ride delivered one of the best single performances of the last decade when he won the 2003 Pacific Classic, running 1 1/4 miles in 1:59.11. And, of course, in 2006, the Argentine-bred Invasor won the Breeders' Cup Classic and the U.S. Horse of the Year title.

The roots of this success go back more than a century, when a prosperous Argentina imported high-quality Thoroughbred stock from Europe. The breeders here were never interested in producing fancy pedigrees, however. They wanted horses with stamina, good conformation, and toughness. Trainer Ron McAnally, who brought Bayakoa, Paseana, and Candy Ride to the United States, said, "I believe the Argentine horses are more durable, and they stay sound longer."

But horse buyers around the globe today are more interested in speed and precocity than they are in stamina and durability. They seek these qualities by buying the offspring of recognized stallions whose genes promise speed. Argentina's breeding industry was out of step with the world.

A few years ago, Northern Hemisphere stallions began to cross the equator to stand at stud during Argentina's breeding season, and the leaders of the horse industry saw that this was the wave of the future. Two years ago, Haras de la Pomme and three other big farms joined forces to import high-class stallions and to create a new facility, La Mission, where they would be bred to local mares. Nicolas Quintana, general manager of La Mission, said, "Everyone wanted to try to put Argentina into the international marketplace." Now the sons and daughters of quick horses like Hennessy and Honour and Glory were supplanting the offspring of obscure, stamina-oriented Argentina stallions.

As these developments were unfolding, Invasor provided worldwide advertising for the country's breeding industry. Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid al-Maktoum of Dubai had bought the colt after his sweep of Uruguay's Triple Crown, and horse owners from around the world were trying to emulate his success. Invasor himself possessed a typically unglamorous Argentine pedigree - his sire, Candy Stripes, had been a failure in the States - but buyers were now getting the chance to purchase the offspring of North American stallions and Argentine mares.

Most of the buyers were Arabs. Facundo Bunge, president of La Pomme, observed that they initially were looking for solid, established racehorses, but then started speculating on youngsters who had won only a race or two. La Pomme owned a 2-year-old filly named Love Dancing (a daughter of the North American stallion Salt Lake) who had earned about $20,000 after winning her first two starts, including a Grade 3 stakes. The farm wasn't eager to sell, but Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum made an offer it couldn't refuse: $1 million. Such lavish offers have been commonplace. McAnally, who bought so many good Argentine horses in the past, lamented that he has been priced out of the market.

"The Arabs are regularly paying two and three times what the horses are worth," he said. "Invasor is going to keep them coming back."

These are heady days for a racing industry that used to feel that the rest of the world was ignoring it. But based on the U.S. experience, Argentina should view with some caution the changes it is making to its industry.

Like any other businessmen, horse owners have to heed the desires of their customers. But when breeders put too much of an emphasis on speed, precocity and pedigree fashion, and they no longer strive to produce horses who are sound and well conformed, their product suffers in the long run. This has happened over the last 30 years in the United States, where the average racehorse now makes only 6.3 starts per year and the careers of many good horses end before they complete their 3-year-old season. Argentina needs to be part of the modern horse industry, but it shouldn't reject altogether the principles that let it produce Bayakoa, Paseana, and Invasor.

(c) 2008, The Washington Post