Saddlebred stud seeks young mare.

Prolific breeding ability. Horsing around preferred. No phone calls please.
Thursday, May 3, 2007 | 2:13 p.m. CDT; updated 1:12 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

This story also appears in Vox Magazine.

On a balmy morning in late March, Columbia horse breeder Jim Stewart enters his eggshell and cobalt-colored fiberglass shed that serves as a stable to check his business’ newest addition.

“How’s my baby doing?” Stewart asks Tasty Champagne, a mare who delivered the night before. Tasty dips her head to the side, flapping her mane to reveal the wobbly but upright colt nursing at his mother’s breast.

The starting line

Most saddlebreds, which unlike thoroughbreds are mostly used for show, can trace their ancestry to one or both of two prolific stallions: Harrison Chief or Gaines’ Denmark, both of which came from families descending from Messenger, a thoroughbred who prolifically bred more than 120 mares a year. According to the American Saddlebred Association, more than 60 percent of saddlebreds are related to Gaines’ Denmark, a stallion from just before the Civil War. Harrison Chief followed a few decades later and was known for his trotting ability and as founding sire of the five-gaited show horses. Stallion Burbon King, born in 1900, combined the blood of the Denmark and Chief families and dominated in both breeding and show. A Missouri tradition Missouri, and particularly mid-Missouri, has a historical connection to saddlebred rearing and a rivalry with Kentucky breeders that goes back hundreds of years. Saddlebreds first became recognized as a newer breed in the 1700s when they were known as the “American horse,” the mixing of thoroughbred and easily gaited horses such as the Galloway and Hobby horses brought by the British colonists, according to the American Saddlebred Association. Kentucky was the first stop for the horses, which were used to fight the British and Indian allies in the War of 1812. But then St. Louis hosted the first major horse show in 1856, a regular prominent horse display that was later reinstated following the Civil War. In 1903, Tom Bass, a Mexico, Mo., horse trainer born a slave, helped popularize saddlebreds at the prestigious American Royal horse show in Kansas City. The American Saddlebred Horse Museum was opened in Bass’ hometown in 1970 with late 1800s champion stallion Rex McDonald buried beside the museum. Will Shriver, raised at New Bloomfield’s Callaway Hills Stables, is the most famous of the champions that continue to be bred on the stables’ 500-acre grounds. Stewart says he developed a love for saddlebreds when he was a young boy growing up in Columbia. He was fascinated by Stonewall King, a decorated champion honored with a dedicated monument at Boone County Fairgrounds.

“Hello, big stallion,” Stewart greets the unnamed newborn.

About a hundred feet from the stable, the colt’s father, known professionally as Gypsy Santana, paces in his pen. The prolific 13-year-old saddlebred stud with a chestnut-colored body and a black-haired mane has sired nearly 250 foals since he retired from a successful show career a decade ago. Gypsy stands 16 hands tall (a measurement used with horses with 4 inches equaling one hand), or 64 inches and weighs 1,250 pounds. Many of his offspring are also prizewinning show horses, and the demand for a Gypsy baby, as Stewart calls them, keeps Stewart’s crew in a constant breeding whirlwind during spring.

Most often, Gypsy’s semen is collected and shipped overnight in a container maintained at 5 degrees Celsius and made specifically for horse sperm. The package travels across the country to horse owners betting on a champion foal. The sperm’s motility, or measurement of its motion and ability to reach an unfertilized egg, and pregnancy success rates are so high that Gypsy is referred to around Stewart’s farm as “Jackpot,” his stable name that also describes his stud fee demand of $2,500.

Saddlebreds are raised for show and are most often bred through in vitro fertilization because it is easier to ship semen than a live horse. Saddlebred stud fees can go as low as $100 to $200, according to advertisements found on saddlebred Web sites such as Horse Show Central. But popular stud sperm ranges from $1,000 on up to $10,000, says Fred Sarver, president of the American Saddlebred Association and manager and breeder of Leatherwood Stud farm in Paris, Ky. According to Sarver, the fee is decided based on the stallion’s performance record, bloodline and results from competing offspring.

Thoroughbreds, like those foaled for this week’s Kentucky Derby, must breed au naturale to avoid cloning in this lucrative business. Bob Curran, spokesperson for The Jockey Club, says his office declines to explain this rule outside of court and refers to a prepared statement that says banning cloning and artificial insemination best serves the thoroughbred industry. “A foal must be the result of a stallion’s breeding with a broodmare (which is the physical mounting of a broodmare by a stallion),” says the Principal Rules and Requirements of The American Stud Book, which ensures correct pedigrees for thoroughbreds. The stud fees are much higher due to the thoroughbred racing industry and because it is a high-money business. For instance, popular thoroughbred stud Mr. Greeley’s fee was listed as $75,000 this year, and nearly 20 stallions will breed for more than $100,000.

Gypsy’s studly success stems from his prolific breeding ability and his decorated show offspring. Tending to the stallion’s calling consumes most spring and summer days on Stewart’s land in southern Columbia off Rock Quarry Road, a livelihood that began nearly 20 years ago.

Stewart, 70, ambles from stable to house to storage shed on this March day, mumbling orders to hired help Chris Eftink and Jordan Naeger while watching for the arrival of a mare and her owner from Versailles, an hour away. A live breeding is scheduled for today, and Stewart says it won’t be the typical seminal collection. “We’re usually a lot more technical,” he says.

Eftink grabs Gypsy’s halter, nudging his nose through the leather. “Hey, you have a lady friend coming; you have to be clothed,” he says.

Stewart looks in on the new colt again. He reappears out of the stable’s darkness and into the springtime sunlight. He gazes to the yearlings in a nearby pasture and announces he has to make a phone call. Gypsy’s breeding appointment is now an hour late.

Gypsy’s posse

Until the mare arrives, other work awaits. Naeger and Eftink pamper the brooding mares with a hay-bale breakfast, three with bulging bellies in pregnancy’s late stages, all harboring Gypsy’s offspring.

A week-old baby, born March 14, tags along beside her mother. Her name is Gypsy’s Irish Flame, and her shiny auburn coat bounces above the backdrop’s uneven jade hills. “Jim plans on keeping her,” Eftink says. “She’s a show-quality horse.”

Even Lewis, the blond teasing pony, who spends his days scamming on the female horses, has a job on the Stewart farm. Lewis stalks the mares to help Stewart identify which ones are in heat so they can help tease Gypsy during semen collections. Lewis hails from a sale barn and maintains a nonpedigreed chip on his shoulder. The mares not only shrug off Lewis’ courting advances, but they also kick at the pony half their size. Frustrated, Lewis jealously picks fights with Gypsy.

Gypsy’s affinity for kicking up mud causes splatters of charcoal dribble across his back’s burnt chocolate canvas, which is framed by his contrasting midnight mane and tail. Electric wires rising above the wooden fence interrupt the pastoral picture, but Stewart insists they keep the randy stallion contained and the mating controlled.

A regal lineage

More than a dozen years ago, Stewart bought Gypsy’s mother, Calarama Gypsy Lady, from her owner in St. Mary’s. Gypsy’s father, Sultan Santana, was one of the first saddlebred stallions believed to be sold for $1 million, Stewart says. Gypsy’s brother is retired at Horse Park in Lexington, Ky., representing the American saddle horse breed category.

Gypsy competed for three years, beginning with taking the Grand National Yearling Class at the Boone County Fair in 1994. But Stewart knew Gypsy might better serve him as a stud.

Rita Diekroeger, whose dusty blue house sits between the brooding mare pasture and the stallion pens, purchased Gypsy’s first offspring 10 years ago, a successful show mare named Gypsy’s First Edition.

Customer Jerry Cook who is familiar with Gypsy progeny trains saddlebreds and Morgans at a stable north of Hallsville. He owns three Gypsy foals, including Gypsy Allure, a six-year-old champion. “We look for a lot of go,” says Cook, describing the saddlbred showing-off characteristics such as “actions,” a high-rising leg action, which some Gypsy offspring possess.

Eftink, whom Stewart calls his apprentice and who intends to start a breeding business following graduation, was first asked about Gypsy on the MU campus in February. Eftink reached into his pocket, produced his cell phone and punched buttons to display a photo.

“Some horses are show horses, and some are futurity (with a high breeding rate), but he produces both very well,” Eftink says. “See the parallel motion of (his legs) and how high he picks up his feet? He shows off all day.”

The doctor is in

Bob Barnett of Callaway County Veterinary Clinic, who met Stewart in 1971, oversees Gypsy’s seminal collections. He has worked with more than 75 stallions through the years and boasts of his record year in 1989 when he impregnated 93 of 95 mares through in vitro fertilization. Or there was the late Sunday night drive to Washington, Mo., to save one of the nation’s top quarter horses from colic. The horse, Impressive, was insured for $12.5 million. “Before I did anything (to treat), I had to call Lloyds of London,” he recalls. Barnett talks in a loud energetic fashion. He returns phone calls at 10 p.m. and keeps a hurried schedule. In the peak of breeding season, it’s a challenge to meet up with him, but on his return from a 62-mile round trip vet call, Barnett picks up his cell phone and excitedly relays news from a successful Gypsy shipment. “I just got off the phone with a vet in Wisconsin. He said six different people shipped him semen. He said, ‘Bob, I got six equitainers (semen containers), and yours is the hottest,’” Barnett says. “Rarely do you get a vet to call and tell you that.”

Gypsy is the most fertile of all the stallions Barnett has worked with. Gypsy’s sperm is highly concentrated and has the greatest motility. In one cubic centimeter of Gypsy’s semen, motility is well over 90 percent successful, Barnett says.

One of Stewart’s customers, Janet Wolf of Columbia, has worked with different breeders for more than 30 years.

“Gypsy is a consistent producer, and those kinds of stallions are more desirable than hit-and-miss ones,” she says.

All work and no foreplay

In early February, a buyer called Stewart from Oconomowoc, Wis., and wanted Gypsy semen despite the freezing temperature of 14 degrees Fahrenheit and an even colder windchill.

“Mares don’t cycle this time of year, and we’ll have to get it artificially,” he lamented from beneath a faded green-khaki ball cap with “Gypsy Santana” embroidered above the brim. Collecting Gypsy’s semen is more difficult when mares are not in heat because a luteinizing hormone must be used to trigger ovulation. Usually, Stewart finds a mare that is “in season,” or ovulating, to stand near Gypsy to get him “fired up.”

Breeding season begins as soon as Stewart receives the first phone call in late January or early February and lasts until “people quit calling,” usually around August and September. Buyers want an early jump so they can have a colt, with a normal gestation time of 11 months, by January of 2008. Then they are able to compete in one-year-old divisions the following year, Stewart explains. But when the weather grows warmer and mares ovulate, collection becomes like clockwork in Stewart’s backyard.

A mare named Royal Proclamation is the usual tease. She’s decorated as a World Champion Producer Kentucky State Fair Brood Mare. She’s easily aroused and simple to catch and sedate, says Eftink, who is in charge of setting up collections for breeding.

Eftink leads Gypsy in short circles until Royal signals she is ready by squatting and urinating. Gypsy walks up to Royal and kicks up his front legs, but right before penetration, veterinarian Barnett swoops in like a quarterback on a snap with a temperature-controlled artificial vagina around 44 degrees Celsius and holds it just to the side of Royal’s backside. “That’s it,” Barnett encourages Gypsy into the device. “C’mon. That’s it.”

Time is crucial. Following ejaculation, Barnett jogs the AV to a nearby shed filled with lab equipment and the awaiting equitainer to be shipped. The semen is put in an incubator until the right concentration of extender — glucose, nonfat dry milk solids and amikacin sulfate — or “health food for sperm” is added for the journey. Then it is time to seal the equitainer for an overnight Fed-Ex package for shipping no later than 6:45 p.m. Once, the timing was pushed so close Barnett’s 81-year-old mother, who lives two blocks from the drop, stood with her foot in the door to ensure delivery was made in time.

King of the manor

Gypsy doesn’t receive special attention, Stewart insists. “He runs around in that half-acre lot since he was three years old,” Stewart says. “He’s very content.”

But evidence of Gypsy’s legacy litters the Stewarts’ home. Photos of Gypsy and his winning offspring illuminate nearly every room of Stewarts’ house. In the dining room a picture adorns the window ledge of Gypsy’s offspring The Lady Chablis. She earned top weanling for 2006 Limited Breeders of The Bluegrass Futurity. An entire hallway displays clippings and snapshots of the next Gypsy generation winners.

A majestic-looking 11-by-17 photo of Gypsy gazes down upon the living room television. Smaller snapshots of Stewart, his wife, children and grandchildren sit on the mantel across the room. Show trophies gleam from shelves near the dining room table.

Gypsy’s brood reaches nearly 250, and considering the asking price for a semen sample, Gypsy has been a worthwhile investment for Stewart. During the season, semen collection is a Monday, Wednesday, Friday occurrence, and Gypsy’s arousal is a lucrative business.

“I do multiple discounts if breeding more than two mares,” Stewart says. He says Gypsy services at least 40 mares, putting profits into six figures. Most marketing is done out of state from the Midwest to the Coasts, Stewart says, and the semen is often shipped to New York and California in the same week.

“Kentucky likes to brag that they have the best horses, but they buy them from Missouri,” Stewart says.

The final stretch

Two hours after the scheduled breeding time, Elvin Zimmerman of Versailles pulls up in a truck with a trailer that carries Ms. Majestic and her new foal, not yet weaned and along for the ride.

Zimmerman worked with Stewart 10 years ago and now breeds his own horses and manages his three turkey farms in rural Morgan County. He has 20 mares and brings a couple mares to Gypsy each year.

“He’s up there with the big boys,” Zimmerman says of the stud. “Marketing is different now; you have to have pedigree, and he has it.”

Zimmerman leads the ovulating mare near Gypsy’s fence so he can sniff her. Gypsy kicks his hind legs and forces his nose through the fence. He prances, sensing the impending copulation. He juts his head out as his hoof rattles the metal fence, a “clank, clank” fills the air, interrupting a rhythmic woodpecker and crow caws.

Stewart and Zimmerman take Ms. Majestic to the stable to wrap rosy red tape around her tail to avoid a whipping at Gypsy or a laceration of the stud’s most valuable organ. Then Zimmerman leads her to the grassy yard near Gypsy’s pen.

Ms. Majestic stands with her front hooves at the bottom of the sloping yard so Gypsy doesn’t have to jump so high and to prevent injury to both horses. Gypsy trots beside the fence in anticipation, then stops, neighs and kicks his heels up.

Eftink takes Gypsy’s halter and guides him to the mare, whose new foal runs around the yard in confusion.

On Stewart’s command, Eftink moves Gypsy behind her. Gypsy leans his nose to Ms. Majestic’s backside for a foreplay whiff. He raises his front two legs. “Over, over, ” Stewart instructs Eftink, to ensure penetration is accurate. Twenty seconds later, Gypsy brings his front two legs to the ground.

Gypsy munches grass before Eftink returns him to his dirt-covered pen. A stud’s workday has ended, and perhaps a champion has been made.

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