A star-studded horse – but can he perform on the farm?

After a record-breaking career on the turf, Sea The Stars is now expected to sire a new generation of racing stars. Chris McGrath steps inside the lucrative world of the stud farm
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The Independent Online

Where do great racehorses go when they retire? The answer is the stud farm, with the aim of siring a new generation of thoroughbreds capable of replicating their achievements on the turf.

This is the life that awaits Sea The Stars, whose retirement, nine days after crowning one of the sport's great careers with victory in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, was announced on Tuesday. But the rewards will be just as pleasing for the horse's owners. Welcome to the fabulously lucrative world of thoroughbred breeding.

In some respected estimates, Sea The Stars could be valued at $100m (£63m). He ticks every box: pedigree, performance, conformation, temperament, constitution. His mother, Urban Sea, won the Arc herself and has already produced Galileo, who not only won the Derby (like Sea The Stars) but has quickly proved himself one of the best stallions in the world.

Galileo stands at Coolmore Stud in Co Tipperary. His stud fee is officially "private" but each tryst is likely to cost at least €150,000 (£140,000). In times gone by, a retiring champion would be syndicated in 40 shares, entitling each member to send him one mare. But the aggressive commercialism of the modern stallion market – stimulated largely by Coolmore – has changed all that. Aided by veterinary advances, stallions can now comfortably cover 200 mares in a season – that's £28m in fees for a top stallion. And, all being well, a stallion can keep going at full throttle for well over a decade.

The likelihood is that Sea The Stars will start with a lower fee than the sort commanded by Galileo, or indeed Coolmore's bedrock stallion, Sadler's Wells, who was champion sire 14 years running. Thoroughbreds are luxury goods and after the banks hit the rocks last year, a depression struck the yearling sales.

There are only so many elite mares around, so his fee will have to be pitched at a level that leaves their owners a realistic profit margin when it comes to auctioning foals. Galileo, critically, has "runs on the board" in his second career; however marvellous a runner, Sea The Stars now has to prove himself again.

His own sire, Cape Cross, has yet to produce a stallion of any repute. And some of the greatest champions on the track have flopped unceremoniously at stud – on occasion, almost literally so. The 2002 Kentucky Derby winner, War Emblem, proved unable to meet the priapic responsibilities of a herd leader, being mysteriously indifferent when presented with a mare in season.

Then there have been cases of infertility, most notoriously Cigar, a record-breaking American champion who failed to impregnate any of the 30 mares he covered and was handed over to his insurers. Few European stars of recent years have had the virile swagger that animated George Washington, but he managed to produce only one foal before being restored to training. Sadly he lost his life in a racing accident and his unique bequest – a yearling filly – changed hands at Tattersalls only last week for 320,000 guineas.

Far greater sums, of course, have been squandered in the bloodstock market, generally as a result of its two superpowers locking antlers: on the one hand, John Magnier and his partners in Coolmore; on the other, the Maktoum brothers, most conspicuously Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai.

It was the sheikh who infamously spent $10.2m on a yearling in 1983 – a record at the time. Snaafi Dancer, as he was named, proved hopeless on the track and at stud. And it was only in 2006, at what proved the peak of the latest bloodstock boom, that Magnier saw off the sheikh with a bid of $16m for a colt at a sale in Florida. In theory, this was not quite so precarious an investment as a yearling, which is sold in the autumn without ever having worn a saddle. The sale took place in the spring, with colts being "breezed" (galloped over a furlong or so) in public beforehand. The Green Monkey melted stopwatches that day. But he raced only three times, without success, and last year retreated to stud – at a fee of $5,000.

So the whole business might seem a triumph of hope over experience. But when things work out for a stallion, his owners can profit enormously from the strange, self-fulfilling logic of the racing and breeding business. Despite his unprecedented sequence of big wins, Sea The Stars retired with earnings just short of £4.5m. So when Magnier spent $16m on The Green Monkey, he was banking on the unproven horse making it as a stallion – winning even the biggest races can sometimes be no more than a way of putting a horse in the mares' shop window.

For breeders, the one remaining decision for the Tsui family, which owns Sea The Stars, is perhaps the most critical. Where will he go to stud? Every impartial observer hopes the Tsuis will keep him on neutral soil, owing to the antipathy between the Maktoums and Coolmore.

Coolmore stallions, thanks to the peerless judgement of Magnier, have so far greatly outperformed those standing at Sheikh Mohammed's Darley stud. That may yet change, thanks to the sheikh's colossal investment in young stallions over the past couple of years. He would love to get his hands on Sea The Stars. But since both superpowers ignore foals from each other's farms, breeders are wary of any stallion likely to take one of them out of the market for foals. For Sea The Stars to achieve his potential at stud, he needs to remain uncompromised by these tribal differences.

The vibes are promising. Very few people can afford to turn down Sheikh Mohammed, but the Tsui family are thought to be considering partnership with a number of third-party Irish studs.

Meanwhile, Sea The Stars leaves his admirers with one last thought. Just how fast might he have run, if only he knew of the lifestyle at stake?