02/28/2012 2:10PM

Zenyatta: Wait for first foal combines science, art, and anticipation


LEXINGTON, Ky. − For racing fans, the 2012 foaling season is particularly special. For the first time, two female Horses of the Year will produce their first foals. One already has − Rachel Alexandra, the 2009 Horse of the Year, foaled her Curlin colt at Stonestreet Farms in Kentucky on Jan. 22. Now the world awaits a second “royal” birth, that of Zenyatta’s Bernardini foal at Lane’s End Farm, also in Kentucky. The 2010 Horse of the Year’s estimated due date is March 9, but, as any breeder or night watcher can tell you, pinning down a first-time broodmare’s initial foaling date is not easy.

Predicting the birth of any foal combines science and art, taking into account such varied factors as the initial breeding date, the daily or even hourly condition of the mare’s udder, and, yes, the phase of the moon. Most equine births take place at night, and, horsemen say, a full moon seems to encourage foaling − the event breeders have waited almost a year for.

“My clients ask me, ‘When do you think my mare will foal?’ and I tell them, ‘That’s why I have a night watchman,’ ” said Winter Quarter Farm owner Don Robinson, who oversaw Zenyatta’s birth to Vertigineux on April 1, 2004. “If I knew, I wouldn’t need one and could handle everything myself. And I’d actually prefer it.”

The long wait and the thrill of anticipation are familiar to Thoroughbred breeders around the world, whether they wait up with their mares themselves or await a manager’s midnight phone call announcing a foal’s arrival, the moment that pedigrees on paper take living form. Especially for those who sit through the night watching for signs of imminent labor, the season between January and early June is an exercise in patient endurance.

“This year, I don’t know whether it’s the weather or the stars, but the mares have tended to be extremely late in foaling, two and three weeks overdue,” said Tammy Jacobs, 50, who so far this year has attended 13 of 28 planned foal births at her Legend Land Farm in Shortsville, N.Y. “So you get a little anxious and worried, but you can’t fool Mother Nature. You just have to hang in there and tough it out.”

There are no dinners out, no family vacations, no commitment that will take them off the farm. Robinson, 64, said that sacrifice is worth it.

“I adore it,” he said of foaling season at his Lexington farm. “Hope springs eternal. The magnificence of it all. The fact that you get this young racehorse out, if you’re lucky, and you’ve waited a year and made these plans. It can just go so wonderfully, and then it can be really awful. We’ve all had those terrible times where you lose a mare or a foal. You finish a night like that and think, ‘Why do I do this? This is just so rough.’ But overall it’s compelling for me. It’s not a spectator sport. It’s about as close to the natural world as you can get.”

After an 11-month gestation, it takes only about 20 minutes for a foal to emerge, eyes open, into the world. It’s an anxious time for breeders that can end in great joy and pride − or, sometimes, in tragedy. Fortunately, for many breeders there is advanced veterinary technology close at hand, and, in times of emergency for mare or foal, that can make all the difference between life and death. Malpresentations or other abnormalities can cause a range of complications that are categorized under the heading dystocia, the term for difficult birth.

The key is identifying and tackling problems early.

“The only bad call you make to a veterinarian is the one you don’t make,” said Dr. Stuart Brown of Lexington’s Hagyard Equine Medical Institute. “The quicker we recognize anything that isn’t going right, the better. The longer mares linger in phase two of labor, when they’re really pushing and having a lot of massive contractions to deliver a foal that’s not in the correct presentation, the harder it is to correct the malposition.”

Veterinary options for correcting a foal in the wrong position can range from simply turning the foal manually at the farm to Caesarean section at a clinic.

“At a hospital, we can tranquilize or even anesthetize the mare so she can lie in a recumbent position, and we can assist in a vaginal delivery,” Brown said. “Sometimes we can do the patented ‘mare in the air’ routine, where we’re able to anesthetize the mare and raise her hind legs so that we can cause the foal to slide back into her uterus, fix the malpresentation, and then deliver the foal with our assistance with minimal trauma to the mare and maximal opportunity for the foal to have the most normal delivery under the circumstances.”

Brown, 47, sees some 400 foals a year, a figure he estimates rises to about 5,000 for the Hagyard practice as a whole, which includes a neonatal unit. That means equine reproductive vets share their clients’ busy schedules and social sacrifices during foaling season.

“It’s 24-7 for a good 5 1/2 months,” Brown said. “Veterinarians are aware that farms with mares that are foaling may need you at the drop of a hat, so you’re willing and ready. You don’t let your phone or pager get very far away, and you don’t stray very far from your vehicle or equipment. Personally, I don’t dread it. It’s the culmination of all the work you did 11 months ago. Now you get the appreciation for what everybody’s put into this, the thoughtfulness and planning to get this vibrant new entity that’s full of the hope, dreams, and wishes of the people who’ve invested in this opportunity, financially but also physically and mentally.”

For New York breeders like Jacobs, the 2012 foaling season carries higher hopes this year, because it is the first to take place since gaming subsidies to New York-bred purses became a reality. Thanks to new revenue rolling into the Resorts World Casino at Aqueduct, the state’s breeding fund could reach $17 million this year.

“I think in a year or two, after that revenue starts getting into people’s pockets and people start getting back on their feet, it’s going to be wonderful,” Jacobs said. “There’s lots of hope that the value of our horses has increased and that the value of our foals has increased.”

Beyond the commercial aspirations, foaling season also brings Thoroughbred breeding back to its most fundamental and primitive moment. That’s something many breeders also cherish.

“You have your good times and your bad times, but if we didn’t love it, we wouldn’t be here,” said Jacobs. “Your life is the barn. But it’s a nice, quiet time, too. You can’t go anywhere, so you pick up that book you’ve been longing to read or pick out the little things you’ve been wanting to get done around the house or barn.”

“It’s the essence of the farm life to be there for foaling,” said Robinson, who expects about 30 foals this year. “I usually like getting up in the middle of the night and going to a foaling. It’s that first breath that really gets me. Just to see that foal come alive, from underwater to taking air is exciting and very moving. Foaling is the seed of promise, where promise becomes flesh.”