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Breeding's dangerous pas de deux
LEXINGTON, Ky. - When visitors from around the world came to pay homage to Nashua at Spendthrift Farm in the 1970's, the man who presented the horse to them was nearly as famous as the stallion: stud groom Clem Brooks.
Brooks would bring the horse out, tell his guests about Nashua's accomplishments, and warn them not to be offended if Nashua ignored them. "That's the way kings are," Brooks would say. "They don't talk to just anyone they don't know. Not unless they are with one of their real good friends, such as me."
That last line was intended for the laugh it would always bring. But what Brooks said was true: His job was to be part psychologist, part mentor, and part valet to the sport's most powerful, dangerous, and valuable animals.
A generation after Brooks's era, Thoroughbred breeding has become a billion-dollar industry involving global shuttling and 200-mare books. Today's grooms wear gear branded with distinctive logos instead of soft flat caps. But under the corporate lacquer of even the biggest farms, stud grooms from California to New York perform their jobs much as they did a hundred years ago.
That's largely because the Thoroughbred business bans artificial insemination in favor of the traditional live cover, which requires stud grooms and stallion managers to perfect the art of mating thousand-pound animals.
In or out of the breeding shed, a stud groom's relationship with his stallion is a political exercise, an endless negotiation over power between man and horse. The groom's job when it is noticed at all, appears deceptively simple. But horsemen know better. A stud groom does most of his work knee deep in straw in a 16-foot-square area with a snapping, temperamental beast. He is the crucial link between the stallion and the shed. How he connects with his horse can make the difference between a successful mating and a disaster.
A stallion such as Storm Cat, who stands for a $500,000 fee, can theoretically gross nearly $58 million with a single-season book of some 115 mares (he'll actually make less than that, because some breeders have bought lifetime breeding rights to him).
Kentucky grooms, who generally care for three or four horses, make about $350 to $580 for a 48-hour week, plus benefits like a 401(k) and free housing, in some cases. But pay scales and responsibilities vary from state to state. At Circle H Ranch in Murrieta, Calif., manager Mark Winslow said the going rate was about $450 a week, including free housing and utilities. However, Winslow said, "one guy can groom as many as eight horses."
Regardless of where they are, many of today's stallions are not so much kings as executives, but their grooms, like Brooks, are still their confidants.
'Here I am!'
Walking toward Claiborne Farm's breeding shed, stallion manager Jim Zajic lets Seeking the Gold prance on the end of his leather lead shank, announce himself with a screaming neigh and rearing up on his hind legs.
Zajic, 54, has been at Claiborne for seven years, and he knows all about Seeking the Gold.
"Oh, he'll scream and holler," Zajic said. "He's a horse that talks the talk but doesn't always walk the walk. When he leaves his stall and you put his breeding bridle on him and he walks down the shedrow, he knows where he's going. He'll tell the girls, 'Here I am!' But when he gets down to the shed, he'll just look off into Never-Never land.
"It takes him 10 minutes to get ready to breed, and when he's ready he wants to get up there right away. So he'll mount the mare, and he'll enter two or three times, but then he'll dismount whether or not he's bred the mare. It's what I call foreplay, and it's a pain in the neck."
On a schedule that demands the farm breed about eight to 10 mares an hour, equine foreplay can be time-consuming. But finding out what a stallion wants, and providing it, is worth it in the long run.
An uninspired stallion may "jump" a mare several times but take longer to actually "cover" her, or ejaculate, and that wastes time. So Zajic determines what each stallion likes, then tries to provide it. In Seeking the Gold's case, that means, among other things, a mare that hasn't been palpated before coming to the shed. It does not mean friendly nuzzles.
"Unbridled always liked to tease the mares a little bit when he would get ready to breed the mare," Zajic said. "He'd stand beside the mare and nuzzle over her hip and kind of below it, like this, on what I call the 'soft spot,' down by the gaskin. But not too low, because some mares don't like that. You know what the boys like, but you have to figure out pretty fast what the mares like, too.
"Seeking the Gold cares nothing for teasing. If he doesn't cover the mare on the third time, he's lost count. So then he's confused. Then you have to bring him right up where he can look the mare right in the eye, and he gets kind of a mean look in his eye, and then he'll get interested again."
Zajic's subtle eye for a stallions' preferences got some help from Bobby Anderson, Claiborne's head stud man when Zajic, a former trainer, first arrived from Canada. "One thing he said, which I recognized from my days as a trainer, is 'When they walk in here, let them tell you what they like,' " Zajic said. "He showed me tricks, little tricks."
Those tricks can be highly psychological, as in the case of Devil's Bag, who likes to "charge his batteries," as Zajic puts it, by watching another stallion breed first. But there are physical tricks, too, sometimes involving equipment like the breeding roll, a thick roll or two of cotton or foam that handlers put between the stallion and the mare's rump during breeding to prevent an uncomfortably deep penetration.
"But stallions get used to that roll, and they like breeding to it," Zajic said. "The whole thing is mental. It all boils down to finding out what the horses like and trying to bring that out of them."
The point, of course, is to make the stallions as efficient as possible, so that more mares can move through the shed, creating more income for the farm and the stallions' shareholders.
Kentucky's farms have developed the art of managing a stallion's libido and breeding efficiency, pushing the traditional book size from 50 to 75 to 216, the mark held by last year's leading sire, Thunder Gulch, during his 2001 season. And that's just in the northern hemisphere. Some stallions, including Thunder Gulch, shuttle to Argentina, hemisphere summer. Athough they tend to be smaller than Kentucky's, California's book sizes have also increased. At Circle H, Turkoman covered about 78 mares in 2001 in what manager Mark Winslow said was the farm's largest book.
Thicker books make a stallion profitable quicker, but stud grooms and stallion managers - and the horses they care for - pay a price: increased hours and to some extent greater danger.
In order to accommodate more mares in the traditional February to mid-July breeding season, stallions breed in both the morning and afternoon, and sometimes in the evening too. More conservative farms, including Claiborne, which generally try to hold the line at a maximum of 100 mares, argue that large books and shuttling only tire a stallion.
It's not just the stallions that are under pressure these days. So are mares, said Bill Sellers, stallion foreman at Lane's End Farm in Versailles, Ky. That's risky when breeders send mares that might be, as Sellers put it, "borderline receptive" to a stallion and therefore more likely to kick - and potentially injure or kill a man or stallion.
"I understand the economics of it," said Sellers, 43. "Probably the hardest part of our job is determining whether a mare is safe to breed. But the fact of the matter is that they're going to keep coming, and we have to try to get them covered and try to get them in foal."
"It's true that every time you make that round trip to the breeding shed, you're putting your horse in some peril, because something can happen," said Winslow.
The sexual act itself is remarkably clinical, a revelation that surprises the occasional owner who arrives at the breeding shed slightly embarrassed to view his investment at work.
A breeding session is more like a feat of engineering than a large-scale moment of passion. It involves four to five stallion managers and grooms. With few exceptions, such as Sandy Hatfield at Three Chimneys Farm, most stallion managers and grooms are men. They handle a variety of duties: holding the mare's head, manning the mare's tail or the hobbles that prevent her from lashing out with a back leg, holding the stallion's head, and helping the stallion with navigation, if necessary.
If something goes wrong, there's little to rely on but a lead shank and your own turn of foot.
"The communication conduit is a 36-link brass-chain shank on the end of a 10-foot strip of leather," said John Williams, former farm manager at Spendthrift Farm. "In that regard, I've never seen anyone better on a shank than Clem Brooks."
Williams remembers Brooks once breeding Bold Hour to a tense maiden mare. Brooks appeared so focused on the stallion that Williams warned him the mare might blow. But Brooks simply said "She'll kick where I was." He already knew what was coming and knew that he would be quicker than the mare. That agility, Williams said, is critical in times of danger.
"You get a stallion in a breeding shed, let me tell you something, he's got something on his mind, and you're in the way," Williams said.
But if all goes well, the stallion might take less than 10 minutes to do his job, from nuzzling to the obligatory post-breeding rinse in Ivory Liquid soap and water.
Most of a stud groom's day involves grooming, feeding, bathing, and sometimes exercising the stallions, as well as cleaning the barn and polishing halter brass.
But even the mundane duties can be dangerous. At Lane's End Farm in Versailles, Ky., Kingmambo's groom, Steve Brown, once got bitten in the head when he briefly turned away from a horse he was brushing; he needed 13 stitches.
It could have been worse, according to Williams. He saw Affirmed grab a young groom by the arm and savage him so badly the man went into shock; Kennedy Road once grabbed a man by the stomach and took him right down to the ground in a stall, a sometimes fatal position for a groom.
But there are few truly vicious stallions. All require careful attention at all times, Brown said, but it's also important for a horseman to educate a stallion, to prevent everyday activities from becoming dangerous.
Brown, 40, recalls that it took him three years to teach the notoriously willful Kingmambo not to break away from Brown at the paddock gate.
"I had surgery on my shoulder where he'd torn ligaments from pulling away," Brown said. "He'd be in charge if I didn't let him know he couldn't be in charge. He's tough; if he was a person, he'd be running some major company, making a million dollars a week."
"I'm his teacher," Brown said. "I'm trying to teach him a way that he can have a good successful life, so that he won't get hurt or have people want to hit on him."
"I'm a calm guy, and the guys I hire are calm," said Circle H's Winslow, who said he takes inspiration from one of his own teachers, California horseman Bill Gifford. "He always used to say that someone who beat on a horse wasn't intelligent enough to know how to get that horse to do something. I've always remembered that. You can't beat on them or shank on them all the time."
In that sense, the relationship between stallion and groom is a delicate balance of power that requires compromise.
"There are certain things I don't even attempt to do," Brown said of Kingmambo. "I can't touch him from his knees down to his front ankles. He doesn't want you to touch them and will almost go down on his knees if you try. So I don't touch them. If they get terribly dirty, I hose them, but I don't touch them, and he doesn't bite me."
That kind of horse sense, Williams said, will never go out of style, even in the modern era of mass racehorse production.
"The real old Kentucky stud grooms like Clem Brooks, those guys were horsemen long before I ever got here," Williams said. "These guys didn't have Phi Beta Kappa keys hanging from their watch fobs, but they knew how to stand a horse up properly. Could recite to the last penny how much Nashua earned. Those guys were priceless.
"It's a different era now, but we still need that horsemanship."