02/16/2016 5:15PM

Simon: Haun took 'X Factor' to the nth degree


Reporter and author Marianna Haun died quietly a few days ago at the age of 70. In life, she was anything but quiet. Marianna was full of energy and ideas, talking to anyone and everyone about her passions, whether they were interested or not, and she was unafraid to pursue any theories, no matter how far-fetched the ideas seemed. Once focused on something, it consumed her at the expense of everything else. That’s why I had to fire her. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Marianna was the author of three books that looked at the size of hearts in racehorses, all revolving around her theory of the X factor, which posited that large hearts were transmitted on the X chromosome, along the dam’s side of the pedigree. Before she was the author of those books, she was a writer and photographer, though she seemed to think she was better at photography than writing when I first met her late in 1992.

At the time, I was editor of Thoroughbred Times and we were at a lowtide in our fortunes. The long, seven-year slide in the economics of breeding, stud fees, and auction prices had caused advertising revenues in magazines to plummet. Plus, the owners of Thoroughbred Times, Dick Broadbent and Peter Brant, were then involved in a lawsuit over ownership of the company. Broadbent had put his stock to Brant, forcing Brant to buy him out, but Brant was fighting it. We had little money and neither owner was willing to put in operating capital due to the lawsuit.

This is about when Marianna walked in the door, new to Lexington and looking for work. She had been a freelance writer for Associated Press and knew something about horse racing. She also said she would work for free.

As appealing as her offer sounded, it was not something we entertained. But when we lost a staff writer in January of 1993, Marianna was hired to write news and provide features. She was one of only two staff writers we had at that time.

Among her earlier claims to fame is that she helped Associated Press break the news that Secretariat had died in October of 1989. She was living in the West and passing through Lexington, wanting to photograph the Triple Crown winner. While sitting in the Claiborne Farm office waiting to be taken to his barn, she was informed by manager Gus Koch that Secretariat had died moments earlier. Marianna promptly called Lexington’s AP office and said she wanted her old office in Carson City, Nev., credited with the tip, so that’s how the story broke. No one reading the article could figure how a Carson City office was breaking this important story.

She was a good reporter, and she loved to talk. Smart, personable, warm, and always in a sunny mood, Marianna may have come across to some as a bit of a crackpot — a characteristic that gave her a unique take on things. Eventually, her inquisitiveness led her to something quite significant for the breed and breeding theories – the X factor. Not many people – no one other than her, that I know– would have pursued this theory with as much curiosity and passion as she did.

Marianna had learned that Secretariat had an unusually large heart – estimated at 22 pounds, while the average Thoroughbred heart is 8.5 pounds. This tremendous cardiovascular system, pumping oxygen into his lungs at an abnormally high rate, was clearly a source of his stamina and power. Though Marianna did not possess a scientific background she wondered if it was genetic, and began looking into it – learning that Australian researchers had studied heart size 40 years earlier and had concluded it was passed along the X chromosome. But their research never gained traction here and they never linked it to specific horses in North America.

In February 1994, she wrote a piece for Thoroughbred Times entitled The X Factor, which suggested that the large heart traces to a single mare, Pocahontas, born in England in 1837, heralding back to the great sire Eclipse. The article went into detail on the theory, examining all available research to that time, and why it was so important to the breeding world. It was a very good article.

Marianna’s problem – if you could call it that – was she couldn’t stop talking about it. It was all she wanted to research … all she wanted to write about. It consumed her.

It finally got to where she was no longer productive in her news/features job, and I finally had no choice but to let her go. I still remember helping her clean out her desk and carrying things to her car. It was hard to do to someone so good at heart.

I was persona non grata with Marianna for quite a while. I heard she hated me, even though I couldn’t imagine her hating anyone.

Then I got a call from her. Then another, and another, and another. There were periods she called every day for months. Marianna was not a grudge-holder.

Excited about the X factor, she threw herself into it full time and was writing a book, eventually published in 1996; along the way she made some important discoveries. Marianna also started measuring horses, looking at chest size to see what lines and horses carried the large heart. Although she never told me this, I believe she realized it was best for her to have left Thoroughbred Times so she could pursue her passion unencumbered.

Her first book was "The X Factor, What It Is & How to Find It: The Relationship Between Inherited Heart Size and Racing Performance," and following its publication she began picking up clients and friends who believed in her work – people like Penny Chenery, who raced Secretariat, and Kristie Jakeman. Eventually, she was advising large owner-breeders such as Heartlines Ranch on matings and selections of racing stock.

In 2001 she published a second book, "Understanding the Power of the X Factor."

And she discovered another important genetic and physical trait: Some of the Darley Arabian male line horses have only 16 ribs and five lumbar vertebrae instead of the usual 18 ribs and six lumbar vertebrae found in a normal Thoroughbred, including the Eclipse line. She noted that this skeletal frame was shared by some of the greatest racehorses – Lexington, St. Simon, Phar Lap, Hyperion, Sysonby, Secretariat, and A.P. Indy – and off she went pursuing that theory. She had to find photos of skeletal remains from museums around the world to count ribs. If I had a nickel for every time she called about a discovery about successful horses carrying this trait …

Marianna published her third and final book, "Solving the Mystery of Secretariat’s Heart," in 2013, which discusses the skeletal frame differences and attributes as well as more on the X Factor theory. She knew it would be her last book because of her declining health. It took her five years to finish, and she took great pains to make it complete and accurate.

During that time, she often checked in with me multiple times a week, with new ideas, or sometimes around the classics or Breeders’ Cup just to tell me who would win a race based on her theories. She always called before races, and she had a decent track record. I should have bet some of her choices, like Drosselmeyer in the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

She died in Lexington, Ky., on Feb. 12, having grown up in Five Points, Calif.

I remember being in the press box after the 1993 Kentucky Derby and Mack Miller, trainer of Sea Hero, who won the race at odds of 12.90-1, was being interviewed. He was talking about the events during the week and how he was feeling about his colt’s chances, and he paused a second. “You know, there was this one reporter who came by the barn yesterday and she said Sea Hero was going to win the race because he had the right genetics. She was very sure of herself.”

That was Marianna.