By Kevin Conley
Bloomsbury -- 209pp -- $24.95
Winking sounds like pretty innocent stuff, but in Stud, Kevin Conley's examination of the horse-breeding industry, the word takes on a racy new meaning. In this world, it's a term referring to the opening and closing of the vulva, signaling that a mare is ready for the great act. And this is just one of the many spicy particulars provided by the inquisitive Conley, an editor at The New Yorker.
In fact, Stud has the makings of a torrid romance novel: As Conley says, there's frequent, often-rough sex, tons of money, gorgeous verdant settings, and over-the-top successes. But this is a nonfiction account that focuses on breeding as the linchpin of the multibillion-dollar horse industry. It's fast-paced, well-written, and informative.
The author takes us behind the scenes, from Kentucky's elite Overbrook and Lane's End farms and Keeneland auctions to a harem of semiferal ponies at the University of Pennsylvania's veterinary school. He fleshes out his story with well-drawn, quirky equine and human characters. Robert Copelan is a 75-year-old veterinarian who's a canny judge of horses. We also meet the "Doobie Brothers," members of Dubai's ruling family who have spent hundreds of millions at auctions, and the unforgettable "Bip, the penis washer," among others.
Not surprisingly, Thoroughbred stallions get plenty of attention in Stud. Recently deceased Seattle Slew, 1977's Triple Crown winner, was known for his "legendary potency," while the sex drive of Storm Cat, one of the sport's top stallions, is regarded with "awe." The appropriately named Woodman, who "actually spends the most time on the job," once bit off the thumb of his handler. As Conley reveals, "the eagerness of a teenager" and even "menace" are favorable attributes for equine Lotharios.
Despite the glamour of the track, the breeding shed is where the action begins. Storm Cat earns a stud fee of $500,000 for each act of sexual intercourse, as opposed to artificial insemination. (The latter is widely used for Standardbreds but forbidden for Thoroughbreds by the rulemaking Jockey Club.) This makes his sexual performance the "most expensive 30 seconds" in sports. But the fee is worth it: Storm Cat's offspring generated a total of more than $21 million at the track in 1999 and 2000, far more than any other stallion's. And horse racing's biggest buyers of quality horseflesh, such as the sheikhs from Dubai or trainers from the respected Irish breeder Coolmore Stud, reinforce Storm Cat's price by snapping up his progeny, hoping to create a breeding franchise with a successful stallion of their own.
Conley notes that each pairing can make or break a breeder, particularly small operators. And for Thoroughbreds, standing at stud mirrors the trajectory of their racing careers. At first, the only bidders are those willing to make a long-shot bet. But by the fifth year, a stallion's "stud fee begins to reflect the true market value of his offspring." Chalk up another victory for family values--or at least the value of family. By Karin Pekarchik