This is the week of decision at Kentucky's historic Claiborne Farm, the week in which an announcement is to be made whether the two most expensive horses in the world are worth the $11.2 million breeders paid for them last year. If Secretariat and Riva Ridge prove to be duds as stallions and must be returned to the racetrack to earn their oats, their value will plummet. "I wouldn't give $500,000 for a sterile Riva," said one of the nation's top owners. "And what could a sterile Secretariat be worth? He would be very lucky to win another million on the racetrack, and if he sold for more than a million, it would be to a guy looking for nothing but publicity."
But the outlook on the two horses' fertility may not be all that black—or white. Last week the man in the know, 24-year-old Seth Hancock, the master of Claiborne, remained nervously silent. He wore a long face as he watched races at Florida's Gulfstream Park, and in his rare comments Hancock was being more optimistic than precise. "We feel that Secretariat has two of his three test mares in foal," he said, mustering a smile, "and that Riva Ridge has one of his three mares in foal." This week Hancock is to issue a prognosis to the syndicate shareholders, who have agreed to wait until March 1 for final fertility test results. The original date for such tidings was to have been Jan. 1, but on Christmas Eve the breeders were greeted with telegrams requesting a 60-day extension because preliminary tests on the two young stallions had not gone well.
California Oilman Howard B. Keck was sufficiently concerned at this news to bail out of the Secretariat and Riva Ridge syndicates. Like the other shareholders, Keck had paid 10% down in 1973. But rather than risk sending his former champion Turkish Trousers to a questionable stallion, he asked for—and got back—his $35,000 investment in the two horses and made other plans. Keck was further irritated at having gotten the dismaying news by telegram instead of receiving a report by telephone. Bull Hancock, Seth's father, had been one of Keck's partners and oldest friends. Next to skip out of the Riva syndicate was British breeder Mickey Suffolk. And at least two or three more Europeans are considering asking for their money-back guarantees.
What Hancock would like to announce, but apparently cannot, is that the Claiborne panel of veterinarians has certified both of the stallions as 100% fertile. If the vets fail to give full approval, the syndicate agreements signed last year become null and void. However, a compromise is possible calling for the renegotiation of the contracts. Lawyer Gayle Mohney, who represents Claiborne and Mrs. Penny Tweedy, the horses' owner, says, "It all hinges on working things out with the insurance company and coming up with a deal that will be so attractive nobody can refuse it."
The insurance company involved is Lloyds of London, which covers everything from concert pianists' fingers to Cunard flagships. Lloyds has been involved in horse racing for years and figured prominently in the celebrated Your Host case in the 1950s. When Your Host broke his shoulder at Santa Anita, the owner wanted to destroy him and collect the insurance. Lloyds said no. It paid $250,000 for the colt, patched him up and put him to stud where he sired Kelso, five-time Horse of the Year.
The insurance premium for animals of the caliber of Secretariat and Riva Ridge is 5% to 5.5% annually for full mortality; the owner only collects if the horse dies. For fertility insurance, an owner pays an additional 4.75% of the horse's full value. Mrs. Tweedy laid out some $500,000 for this kind of insurance for her two colts. There are probably not more than 20 stallions in the U.S. with full fertility insurance (among them: Silent Screen and Tom Rolfe).
If the syndicate contracts are renegotiated, Lloyds may settle for a lesser premium on the grounds that if Secretariat and Riva are not completely fertile, neither are they totally sterile. The syndicate members also will be asked to settle for something less. In the case of Riva Ridge, they might be offered a deal such as this: a breeder would send one mare to the horse this spring and pay $40,000 only if the mare delivered a live foal. Should Riva get 51% or more of his mares in foal, his syndication would take effect and the $40,000 the breeder paid for the 1974 service would be credited toward the $160,000 he contracted to pay for his share of the horse last summer.
Attorney Mohney says that announcements about the horses' stud potential cannot be made until a new agreement is reached over insurance. If negotiations lag, Hancock's expected statement might have to be postponed.
Tests on the two horses indicate that Riva Ridge is following in the footsteps of his half-brother, Hydrologist, who has been nearly a total failure at stud. A Kentucky horseman who visited Claiborne two weeks ago reports, "Riva apparently shows little interest in his mares, no matter what their color [some stallions have a distinct and constant aversion to mares of a certain color]. He just stood in his paddock with his head down and his tail between his legs." Riva may never make it as a stallion in part because he is too shy a breeder.
Secretariat, however, has manifested great interest in his new career. He has grown into a big, round, playful horse, and last week he frolicked like a child in his private pasture. The bluegrass was covered with snow, and Secretariat cavorted in circles, tossing his head. He flipped over on his back and rolled about, kicking his feet at the falling snowflakes. Enthusiasm, he has.
Secretariat's problem is with his sperm. He has been tested six times and these tests, according to the Claiborne vets, showed similar results—immature sperm in differing amounts. This being the case, the vets have no alternative but to declare the horse not fertile, at least in the stringent terms of the syndicate contract. The experts would like to hedge their findings, since Secretariat has been bred to four non-thoroughbred mares and two of three of these have been tested in foal. The outcome of the fourth breeding is still pending. But Lloyds does not want a qualified answer. It is demanding a yes or a no. The vets cannot stretch the truth enough to declare that Secretariat has perfectly normal sperm.
At the first hint of trouble with the Tweedy stallions, discussions began concerning the possible cause of the problem. Since both horses came from the same barn, Trainer Lucien Laurin was queried about medication used while at the track. He assured everyone that the champions had not received unusual or dangerous treatment.
This could be quite true, but questions are now being raised throughout racing about what is referred to as usual treatment. Increasingly, racehorses are receiving heavy doses of drugs, vitamins and steroids. In the old days there was less racing, and horses could rest from October until March. Now with classic colts competing year-round, track veterinarians are pressed by trainers to keep their runners constantly in top shape. Not nearly enough study has been devoted to the effects of booster medication. Many trainers have no idea what a vet is using on their animals and could not care less as long as the treatment is legal. The vet, in turn, has little concern over the effects on the horse after his racing years are over. He figures there will be other vets to treat the horse at the breeding farm. Modern steroids do help thoroughbreds remain at their physical peaks, but few people know what effect this medication may have on the genitalia. Similarly, the repeated use of hormones may diminish a horse's breeding capacity.
But is Secretariat really less than he might be? Claiborne has had trouble with stallions before. A few years ago while testing Reviewer and Big Joker (both, incidentally, sons of Bold Ruler, as is Secretariat), resident veterinarian Dr. Floyd Sager reported the presence of spermatogonia—immature sperm cells—in their semen.
In Reviewer's case, Dr. John MacLeod, now professor emeritus of anatomy at Cornell University Medical College of New York Hospital and by everyone's standards the world's foremost authority on male reproduction, was called in by one of the Claiborne vets, Dr. Walter Kaufman. MacLeod found no evidence of spermatogonia or any immature sperm cells in the slides or in the semen of Reviewer. There is now doubt in some minds—and there definitely is in the mind of Dr. MacLeod, though he has not been asked to look at the Secretariat and Riva Ridge slides—that what the Kentucky vets are identifying as spermatogonia in the two horses is not that at all.
"Semen," Dr. MacLeod explains, "is not always a criterion of a horse's fertility." Some colts, like Derby winner Tomy Lee, test well but then produce only nine foals in six years. The real test is whether or not a stallion can get his mares in foal.
"There is a mystery in the Claiborne findings," MacLeod goes on. "I think they are imagining things and seem to be talking without facts. I do not think they are seeing spermatogonia at all, and the reason I don't think so is that these are the primordial—or granddaddy—of all cells in the testes. They lie deep down where they give rise to all the other germinal cells in the testes. Now if Claiborne vets saw spermatogonia in the ejaculate of these horses, it would mean to me that the testes of Secretariat and Riva Ridge had been subjected to such brutal insult that it would have rendered them totally sterile. If the claim is made that spermatogonia are present in the ejaculate, it is not likely that they are fertile animals."
Lloyds does not take defeat kindly, and if the syndicates try to collect on fertility insurance, the company is not going to pay up without a fight. For starters, it might call in Dr. MacLeod, who has been consulted on troublesome stallions—Twenty Grand, Alibhai and Capot, to name a few—for decades. And Lloyds will conduct its own investigation. If a man runs his yacht onto the rocks, the firm does not pay off without finding out, for example, if he was clutching a shaker of martinis in the wheelhouse. The worst that could happen would be for Lloyds to sue the Tweedy stable for mismanagement of the horses so as to render them incapable—or partially incapable—of breeding.
Not quite as bad a situation would be for Lloyds to pay off: the firm then would own the horses. It could sell them back to Penny Tweedy for further racing, sell them to anyone else who was interested or race them under the company colors, possibly in Europe.
The best that can happen is that both animals will be given more time to prove their fertility and that the contracts will be renegotiated. "It's tricky, but I'm not nervous," says Trainer John Nerud, whose Tartan Farms is a member of the Secretariat syndicate. "I'm sure he'll handle his mares and fill his book. I'll take my chances."
Virginia breeder Taylor Hardin, a member of only the Riva Ridge syndicate, takes another view: "I should have gotten out at the first report, because now if we are given bad news on Riva, people like me have an awfully tough time trying to get a service to a proven stallion at such a late date. The breeding season has already begun."
"If you believe in Secretariat," says Elliott Burch, trainer for Paul Mellon, "you stay and take your chances. That's what we're doing."
The current crisis is causing a growing rift between young Seth Hancock and Penny Tweedy. It began on the day when Secretariat and Riva Ridge landed at Bluegrass Field in Lexington. When Mrs. Tweedy looked out the plane window and saw a large group of reporters, she was so angry that she declared she would not let the horses off the plane until they left. Later she relented but was snappish to those who tried, in vain, to interview her. Of course, Mrs. Tweedy did not get the least bit angry with the writer—Bill Nack, Secretariat's Boswell—she had brought on the plane.
Later, at the farm, the colts were tranquilized before they were turned out in their private paddocks. "We had to do it," said Claiborne Manager Bill Taylor. "You just don't turn out colts who are fresh off the track like that. They're liable to run through a fence or something." But, said Taylor, Mrs. Tweedy got angry about the tranquilization, which is a standard procedure on most farms. Taylor said she told people that the horses were not being treated properly, that the Claiborne staff was "inhumane." Later that month when Mrs. Tweedy visited Lexington to speak at a stud managers' course, she did not take the opportunity to go to Claiborne—12 miles away—to see the horses.
Last weekend Penny Tweedy was at her house in Long Island. Asked for comment on the status of Secretariat and Riva Ridge, she declared, "I think any discussion is premature. I have nothing to say." Nonetheless, a great deal is being said.