05/20/2001 11:00PM

Hancock victim of Kentucky breeding crisis


WASHINGTON - Many superior Thoroughbreds reside at Arthur Hancock's Stone Farm in Paris, Ky., but the breeder was especially excited about one who was barely a lump of protoplasm.

It was a foal being carried by the mare Angel Fever, a foal who would have been born with the most regal of bloodlines had a mystery disease not devastated the Bluegrass Country.

Hancock and a partner had bought Angel Fever, the sister of Preakness winner Pine Bluff, for $525,000, and in 1997 bred her to the stallion Mr. Prospector. The mating produced a colt so powerful and athletic that Hancock dubbed him Superman long before he made racing history. When Hancock sold him at auction, the colt brought a bid of $4 million - the highest price for a yearling since 1985 - from a Japanese businessman who named him Fusaichi Pegasus. He won the Kentucky Derby and subsequently was sold in a transaction that placed the colt's value at $60 million.

Angel Fever had thus established herself as a virtually priceless broodmare and Hancock wanted the pedigree of her next foal to be as close as possible to that of Fusaichi Pegasus. Because Mr. Prospector had died, Hancock bred her to the great stallion's son, Seeking the Gold, sire of the best horse in the world last year, Dubai Millennium.

The fee was $200,000 - for a live foal. After the mating on March 21, an ultrasound disclosed Angel Fever was in foal. "You hope she's going to throw another running sonofagun," Hancock said. A multimillion-dollar sonofagun, too.

Neither Hancock nor his fellow breeders could have imagined that an as yet unidentified disease was going to sweep Kentucky's breeding farms, killing hundreds of foals and fetuses so far. Television news reports have featured dramatic shots of newborn foals fighting for their lives, but for the most part the bad news has hit breeders as dully as it did Hancock.

Mares at Stone Farm are routinely examined by a vet on the 42nd day after mating. On that day, Hancock walked into his office and saw his manager looking glum. Sadly, she informed him: "Angel Fever's empty." The foal was gone; the fetus, in the breeder's words, had been reduced to "a jellylike substance."

Hancock cursed his bad luck but accepted it as a normal part of his risky business. But he soon learned that this was anything but normal. Five other mares on Stone Farm aborted; three gave birth to foals who lived only a few days.

Breeders throughout Kentucky were having similar experiences and by late April the industry knew it had a crisis - with no explanation. The most common theory is that an unusual spring - with a frost followed by three weeks of hot, dry weather - might have produced a fungus in the breeding farms' famous grass. The fungus in turn would create toxic levels of chemicals that interfere with the foaling process. But this is only a theory. At a meeting attended by hundreds of horsemen last week in Lexington, Ky., researcher Roger Allman told the worried breeders: "I have seen contradicted every theory I have heard postulated."

Whatever the cause, the effects have been widespread and devastating. As many as 700 mares - one-fifth of the total in central Kentucky - might have lost their fetuses. The economic impact is said to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Even the effects of a single lost horse may be devastating to the people involved. When Angel Fever miscarried, the breeder to whom Hancock signed a live-foal contract lost out on a $200,000 stud fee. Hancock lost a Thoroughbred who could have sold for millions of dollars at a yearling auction; in a high-overhead business, a breeder needs these occasional windfalls to offset the costs of operation and the many horses who don't pan out. And what might this animal have accomplished and earned on the track?

And what of all Kentucky's other lost foals? "The effects of this will be ongoing for several years," said Dan Liebman, executive editor of The Blood-Horse magazine. "Three years from now, you'll see the impact if people are now losing sons and daughters of stallions like Deputy Minister and Storm Cat and A.P. Indy."

Hancock admitted he has spent many sleepless nights as a result of these events and he said, "We've had one blow after another, but sometimes your bad luck is good luck. We've got time to breed Angel Fever again this spring and maybe this time we'll breed a Triple Crown winner. You've got to stay optimistic."

(c) 2001, The Washington Post