03/25/2003 12:00AM

For War Emblem, breeding just a bore

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - When Shadai Stallion Station in Japan bought 2002 Kentucky Derby winner War Emblem for more than $17 million last year, it looked like a good investment in a champion 3-year-old and classic winner. But making the deal may have been the easiest part for Shadai, which so far hasn't been able to convince War Emblem to actually mate with most of the mares presented to him.

War Emblem, a notoriously aggressive colt during his racing career for the late Prince Ahmed Salman's The Thoroughbred Corporation, apparently has little interest in the mares. His difficulty, first reported online Tuesday by The Blood-Horse, does not involve a fertility problem but stems from a lack of libido.

War Emblem, a 4-year-old by Our Emblem, covered his first mare on March 9, nearly a month after the breeding shed opened, and has covered only five mares since then. The farm has booked about 200 mares to War Emblem this year.

A Shadai representative declined to comment on War Emblem's status.

But the farm is in negotiations with its insurer in an attempt to recoup some of its investment in the stallion. It is not clear what the horse's future would be if his owners in Japan are able to reach a settlement, but it is usual practice for insurers to take ownership after paying out a claim on a horse.

One potential complication in War Emblem's case is the fact that his problem does not stem from infertility, a condition that is routinely covered by insurance. Libido problems, according to Lexington-area equine insurers, are not usually written into policies, which more often require certification by two vets that a stallion is "infertile, impotent, or incapable of covering mares due to accident, sickness, or disease."

War Emblem's low libido is the latest bad news for the farm, owned by the Yoshida family. Last year, three of Shadai's stallions died, seriously depleting what had been the most impressive stallion roster in Japan. Sunday Silence, the 1989 Horse of the Year and legendary Japanese sire, died in August, following the deaths of El Condor Pasa and End Sweep, both considered highly promising young sires.

Libido problems are not unheard of in young stallions, although experts agree that it is unusual for such issues to linger. Lack of interest can trace to physical pain or illness, a change in environment, or simply a horse's youth and inexperience.

"The first questions you ask in this kind of case are 'Is he sore? Is he hurt? Does it hurt him to stand on his hind legs? Does he have a bladder infection, for example, that's making a urethra painful?'" said Steve Johnson, the president of Margaux farm.

But lack of libido can also stem from psychological conditioning, and most stallion farms go to great lengths to introduce and accustom young stallions to the breeding procedure.

Johnson noted that farms can do some things to encourage a stallion's libido, including stabling the horse within view of arriving mares or the breeding shed, where he can see mares in heat and watch other stallions at work.

In many cases, a young stallion will overcome initial libido problems, as did 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. The subject of a then-record $12 million syndication deal at Lexington's Spendthrift Farm, Seattle Slew paid little attention to mares when he first arrived in the breeding shed in 1979.

Johnson, who was Spendthrift's broodmare manager at the time, recalled that "the tension was so thick you could chip away at it" when Slew approached the shed.

"He'd come out and just stand and stand and stand," Johnson said. The farm's management and breeding shed staff devised a procedure that involved letting the stallion stand near the shed and watch as mares in heat passed by to be bred to other stallions. A nurse mare in heat also was kept standing near him. When the stallion eventually became aroused, the shed would quickly replace the nurse mare with Slew's assigned breeding mate.

Seattle Slew overcame his shyness with patient handling and went on to be one of the world's top stallions. That fact might give hope to the Yoshida family that owns Shadai.

"Sexual behavior is a learned thing," Johnson said, adding that he didn't know of a stallion who was unable to overcame a low libido. "A lot of times it just takes patience and time."