City Paper is not for tourists
Five years ago this weekend, the great War Emblem won the Preakness. He’s since been, well, outed. When War Emblem’s name comes up around the water trough these days, talk turns to whether or not the horse is gay.
Sure, he’d spent his youth running for roses and coveting large purses, always in the company of men in colorful silks. The alleged evidence of War Emblem’s preferences, however, all comes from his post-racing dalliances. Or lack thereof.
War Emblem, who also won the 2002 Kentucky Derby, retired from racing several months after he finished eighth in that year’s Belmont Stakes, thereby failing to win the Triple Crown and the immortality that goes with it. But when it comes to the sport’s so-called jewels, two out of three ain’t bad.
Much like their athletic counterparts with only two legs, equine stars get all the chicks. Horses—unlike, say, Shawn Kemp—just have to wait until they retire to get any action. So there was a massive market for the Derby and Preakness winner in the breeding community. War Emblem, bought for $900,000 a week before his Derby win, was re-sold for $17 million in late 2002 and quickly shipped off to Japan in hopes of reviving that nation’s limp racing industry.
Out of the gate, the Shadai Stallion Station was charging, and getting, about $65,000 from mare owners for a stall session with the great American champion.
Horsepeople have an obsession with proper bloodlines.
“Everybody wants to own a half-brother or sister of a winner,” says Paul Randall, a Maryland-based sales coordinator for Bluewater Sales, a full-service thoroughbred-sales agency that works all the major racing auctions in the U.S.
So those on other branches of War Emblem’s family tree also cashed in on his track fortunes. Until the victory in the Derby, his father, Our Emblem, was regarded as a middle-of-the-pack stallion, standing at Murmur Farm in Darlington, Md., with a stud fee of just $5,000. (For comparison: Current hot stud Storm Cat commands $500,000 per roll in the hay.) Even at that rate, the farm was having trouble finding owners willing to pair their mares with Our Emblem. But after the Churchill Downs run, offers to buy the winner’s dad came in from around the world.
“Our phone started ringing right after the Derby,” says Audrey Murray, who with her husband Allen has been running Murmur Farm since 1953. “And it really started ringing after the Preakness.”
The Murrays had paid a reported $250,000 for Our Emblem in late 2001. A week after the 2002 Derby, they turned down a $4.5 million offer to buy Our Emblem. And a week before the Belmont, with the Triple Crown still hanging in the balance, the couple accepted $10.1 million from a Kentucky syndicate for their stallion. Racing is a gamblers’ world, and the Murrays were in effect betting that Our Emblem’s son wasn’t going to win the Belmont. Because if War Emblem had won, even the eight-figure amount for his dad would have been an undersell.
“That was a once-in-a-lifetime situation,” says Allen Murray. “The money wasn’t something we’d ever dreamed of. Owning and selling that horse were the highlights of my career.”
That bet was a wise one. War Emblem didn’t win another race after his daddy’s owners got paid. And somewhere along the way from the starting gate to the breeding shed, War Emblem went from stud to dud. After fathering 40 youngsters in 2004, War Emblem sired two foals born last year and will have no children born in 2007.
Great racing isn’t always an indicator of studliness in equines. Cigar—the Bel Air, Md.–born steed who retired in 1996 as the richest thoroughbred of all time, with almost $10 million in earnings—was a bust in the barn. Cigar was ruled infertile after covering 34 mares and impregnating none.
But War Emblem’s handlers say fertility isn’t the problem. He just doesn’t want to do the deed with members of the opposite sex.
Reports of his shed deficiencies led to rumors that War Emblem was light on his hooves. Stories on Outsports.com and recent punch lines in Jay Leno monologues insinuated as much.
Horsepeople, however, are loathe to hint any animal is homosexual.
“I’ve heard about horses that were shy in the barn,” says Randall. “Never heard of gay.”
Audrey Murray, meanwhile, says in her half century of breeding horses she’s never dealt with suspected gayness in the breeding shed.
“We had a stallion once named Caspar Milquetoast, and he only liked grays,” she recalls with a giggle. “So we’d have to tease him with a gray mare, then run the other mare in after we teased him, and that worked.”
And that reticence can also be found elsewhere in the animal kingdom.
“I’ve asked around, and our animal keepers are not aware of any homosexual behavior,” says Pamela Baker-Masson, a spokesperson for the National Zoo. (While none of the animals on her watch are on the down-low, Baker-Masson says that a lot of folks in the caged-animal business are aware that the Bronx Zoo had a pair of gay male penguins.)
Regardless of whether War Emblem is shy or flaming, he’s costing his owners a bundle. Infertility of the sort suffered by Cigar is insurable in the racing realm; War Emblem’s disinterest in the opposite sex is not. And in an effort to keep the breeding business viable and the sport at least semi-legitimate, artificial insemination is banned in thoroughbred racing. War Emblem’s owners, therefore, can’t hang pictures of Secretariat sans saddle in the horse’s stall and hope he works up a freezable load of mare fertilizer for use at a later date.
So while Storm Cat is bringing home $50 million a year in stud fees to his Lexington, Ky., handlers, War Emblem’s owners just get feed bills. Our Emblem’s DNA is no longer desirable, either. He’s since been shipped to Brazil.
Not that there aren’t any winners in the War Emblem saga. Murmur Farms’ renown skyrocketed during the Our Emblem bidding war, and the breeding operation now sponsors a race on the Preakness Day undercard at Pimlico.
“I’ve heard about War Emblem’s problems. What a shame,” says Audrey Murray. “I guess we sold our horse at the right time.”