Racing: A world of studs and duds

Sue Montgomery visits the home for old champions hoping for the birth of a new career
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The Independent Online
A WEEK today a six-year-old horse called Singspiel will start a tough new career. Goodbye Singspiel the racer, the gutsy little athlete who has delighted us over the past couple of years with his talent and tenacity at the highest level, and hello Singspiel the superstud, the stallion who might found a dynasty.

The operative word, however, is might. Strange as it may seem, the thoroughbred mating game - which is actually a multi-million pound industry - is fraught with uncertainty. It might be assumed that, Old Testament-style, a champion automatically begets champions but, thanks to the vagaries of Dame Nature, excellence as a runner is no guarantee of success in the breeding shed.

For the racehorses who make the transition each year - the breeding season officially starts on 15 February - racetrack hierarchy means little. Take Teenoso and Sadler's Wells, who finished first and second in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes 14 years ago. Sadler's Wells, beaten fair and square by the previous year's Derby winner, has just won his seventh consecutive sire's championship and commands a fee of pounds 125,000 a time for his services. Teenoso was as much a failure in his efforts to reproduce his talent as his rival has been a success; a visit to him is priced at pounds 1,000.

Becoming a stallion is - one could say - a whole new ball game and it is a fact that only five per cent of horses who retire to stud can ultimately be judged successful. But although not all top-class racehorses become good stallions, few wholly bad performers become progenitors of note.

And it has to be said that Singspiel, the new boy among the eight stallions at Sheikh Mohammed's palatial Dalham Hall Stud just outside Newmarket, will start with every advantage. He was not quite the very best on the track, but his racing record - nine wins and eight seconds from 20 runs in six countries - stands the closest scrutiny: at two he was promising; at three something of a perennial bridesmaid; but at four and five he had reached his full powers and netted a tremendous world-wide top-level five-timer of the Canadian International, Japan Cup, Dubai World Cup, Coronation Cup and York International.

His pedigree background is excellent; his sire In The Wings, also a top- class runner, is a son of Sadler's Wells. It is a rare successful stallion who is not well-related on both sides of his family, and Singspiel's dam Glorious Song was not only a champion runner in North America but also sister to another, Devil's Bag, and one of her earlier, less talented, sons, Rahy, has become one of the best young sires in the States.

Singspiel's temperament is impeccable; he was unflinchingly genuine in his races and as unflappable a globetrotter as Michael Palin. Sadly, his career ended in injury - a foreleg gave way in his final training spin before the Breeders' Cup Turf in California three months ago - but he has coped well with the resultant enforced confinement to quarters.

Seeing him last week as he was led out on a rein by his devoted attendant Tommy Sheridan it was apparent that he has lost none of what devotees of anthropomorphism might call his belief in himself. He is not a big horse - but then nor was his great-grandsire, the legendary Northern Dancer - but top horses, whatever their size, tend to come with built-in attitude. Singspiel, who is used to being the centre of attention, pricked his ears and came towards the camera like an old pro.

He, though, will not actually be aware of the toughness of his future career; the stresses will be in the minds, and possibly the bank balances, of the humans. His immediate task will be to see to the needs of some 60 comely, blue-blooded brides being lined up for his attentions over the next three months or so; compared with galloping for a lung-bursting mile and a half round Tokyo racecourse, a dawdle.

Turning a racing colt, incidentally, into a stallion is not merely a matter of chucking a copy of the Kama Sutra into his box and saying, "Go get 'em, boy". During his years in training he will have been required to keep his baser instincts towards the fairer sex under control, and some horses take a bit of time to shake off their inhibitions. And once they do, it is each to their own. The former Dalham Hall resident Dancing Brave was, apparently, decorous to the point of coyness, sometimes taking half an hour or more to get on with it; in contrast Singspiel's present studmate Polish Precedent is so quick and efficient that his idea of foreplay might be: "Brace yourself".

The thoroughbred breeding industry, which produces more than 11,000 baby racehorses in Britain and Ireland each year, runs on a system of arranged marriages and dowries. The mare owner - the breeder - chooses a mate he thinks might suit his or her mare, and pays a fee to the stallion owner. The date of the start of the breeding season may have hearts 'n' flowers connotations, with its proximity to St Valentine's Day, but it was chosen for a practical reason. Get the calculator out; the gestation period of the horse is a shade over 11 months, and the official birthday of racehorses is 1 January. So it's best if they are not born in December; such foals would become yearlings when only a few days old.

It will cost each breeder pounds 25,000 for a mare to attend Singspiel's court, to be paid if she is pregnant on 1 October. If she loses her foal after that, tough.The fee makes him the most expensive of this year's unproven Romeos (the Irish Derby winner Desert King and 2,000 Guineas hero Entrepreneur are priced at 17,500 guineas; the sprint champion Royal Applause is pounds 6,500; the St Leger and Gold Cup winner Classic Cliche pounds 2,500) but there is no shortage of takers.

Almost without exception the country's leading breeders are represented, their well-performed or well-bred mares include Meon Valley Stud's Bella Colora, The Queen's Phantom Gold, Velvet Moon from Newgate Stud, Cliveden Stud's Shadywood and Sheikh Mohammed's own Ela Romara and Love of Silver.

Crunch time for those who produce for the commercial market will come in the year 2000, when Singspiel's first yearlings appear at auction, though it is probably fair to say that, assuming the Sheikh is still operating here, that he would not be against giving a good price for any likely types sired by one of his favourite horses, not only to race them but pour encourager les autres.

The racing ability of Singspiel's sons and daughters will not be known until 2001 at the earliest, when his first two-year-olds appear on the track. And although he did win in his first season, he got better as he got older, so it will probably be fairest to give him a number of years to prove himself. He may not get that luxury, however. This business, just like much of modern life, is subject to the changing whims of instant gratification and fashion.

The breeding industry is a long-term gamble from both sides of the fence. But if he does beat the odds and make it, a successful stallion can become a rare money-spinner.Sadler's Wells covered 163 mares last year and though he is the dearest, he is one of more than 30 at Coolmore, Europe's largest stallion station. Get that calculator out again.