10/23/2008 11:00PM

War Emblem's sexual psyche gets makeover

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - After beginning his stallion career at Shadai Stallion Station in Japan by refusing to breed many mares and having very small crops, War Emblem, winner of the 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, is coming round as a sire.

Not only has the stallion just had a winner of the Shuka Sho, the final Japanese filly classic at 2,000 meters (nearly 1 1/4 miles), but he also has begun to breed relatively normal-sized books of mares.

After completely refusing to cover mares for the past couple of breeding seasons, War Emblem has greatly improved his stallion performance in 2008. The introduction of new management techniques such as stabling him near mares and away from other stallions, some changes in handling, and even a bit of hormone therapy have pepped up the 9-year-old son of Our Emblem.

The key evaluations that have produced the positive changes for War Emblem came from Sue McDonnell, Ph.D. She is a professor of reproduction and behavior, and head of the equine behavior lab for the New Bolton Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, and was called to work with War Emblem in Japan earlier this year.

McDonnell said that "when we arrived, he was not only uninterested in mares, he was very, very selective about which he would breed. Yet when he responded, he responded near normal."

War Emblem did not lack fertility, but his unwillingness to cover mares for the last two years had left the Shadai owners and staff disheartened, McDonnell said.

She used her studies of wild horse herd behavior to unravel some of the psychological restraints that were keeping War Emblem from breeding well.

McDonnell said War Emblem was showing "submissive bachelor" behavior, similar to the way that young stallions in the wild respond when sneaking into a herd and covering mares, then showing concern they could get beaten up by the dominant stallion.

Describing the tendencies of this behavior, McDonnell said, "If the teaser vocalizes, this type of stallion will fall apart. They have a tendency toward juvenile postures, being tentative, moving with their heads down submissively. They often get nervous enough that they defecate in the breeding shed, and that is unusual in a breeding stallion."

In addition to such a stallion's over-concern about what might be coming after him, "They often have inappropriate aggression," McDonnell said, "getting into a pattern of biting and nipping rather than going forward with breeding.

"War Emblem had some of this. He wasn't attacking mares; he was stuck on this aggression level. His handlers were really patient, but he was in a rut."

McDonnell has seen this behavior frequently, but War Emblem's "was especially challenging; this had gone on for a while and had become a habit."

She said that "getting him away from other stallions was a big part of improving his confidence; then he could be the top dog. If you get enough stallions in a place, some will behave in this way. Until they learn that the other stallions will not come and get them, they will show these odd behaviors."

When Shadai purchased War Emblem as a stallion prospect from The Thoroughbred Corp. of the late Ahmed Salman for $17 million late in 2002, nobody expected him to have issues with confidence that would impact his breeding career.

There may, however, have been some indications of an odd personality from his racing career, as War Emblem was nearly unbeatable when racing loose on the lead, but if pinned on the rail or headed early, he was not around at the finish.

Standing at Shadai farm on the island of Hokkaido for the 2003 breeding season, War Emblem proved a reluctant breeder from the start and produced only four foals in his first crop. There were 33 foals in War Emblem's second crop and five foals in his third crop.

One of those in the stallion's second crop, however, was Black Emblem, winner of the Shuka Sho last Sunday.

Black Emblem is out of the Hector Protector mare Vin de Noir, and the 3-year-old filly has won 4 of 9 starts, earning more than $1.5 million.

With these types of performers on the track and improving behavior in his role as a stallion due to McDonnell's work, War Emblem has good prospects to become a more successful sire.

By the time the changes had taken effect with War Emblem in May, the breeding season was far under way, and McDonnell said Shadai had to begin breeding War Emblem "using any mares available for schooling, and in the end I believe there were 40-some different mares that he bred, including some old, infertile mares for practice, and he ended up with 20-some pregnant. He is also covering mares on Southern Hemisphere time.

"He is not 100 percent; he is not breeding every mare with the same gusto. But he is breeding most within a fairly normal time."

McDonnell said, "I think that we know a lot more about him and about how to maintain his confidence. We are all a lot more confident that he will do pretty well next year."