Breeding racehorses is big business. It can also be unpredictable. A star on the racecourse, may turn out to be a flop on the stud farm. That’s why MS Amlin’s David Ashby – who heads up MS Amlin’s specialist worldwide horse insurance business – provides his clients with help from some of the world’s leading horse fertility experts.
The legendary racehorse Cigar won 16 consecutive races. He also won the affection of the American public, and his owners almost $10million in prize money.
Americans took him to their hearts as his record-breaking run of victories progressed.
After all, there can’t be many horses who get a police escort down Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue to Madison Square Garden, for a retirement party before the National Horse Show.
His proud owners must also have been looking forward to reaping the rewards of his second career as a stallion; to hopefully sire yet more champions.
Sadly, the horse also has another, less happy claim to fame.
He was infertile.
Despite the best efforts of vets, fertility experts and of course the horse himself, he didn’t get a single mare pregnant. His owners were insured, but that was little compensation for the disappointment they must have felt when they discovered Cigar was infertile.
Many breeders are just in it for the love of the sport and thrill of producing good horses; whether it’s for high-end flat races, or a country point-to-point.
The horse was eventually retired to a farm in Kentucky, where he passed away at the grand old age of 24.
Stories like this highlight the unpredictable nature of the bloodstock business, and no-one is more familiar with these ups and downs than MS Amlin’s David Ashby.
He has worked in bloodstock insurance since the 1980s and is a keen owner, rider and competitor.
“The story of Cigar shows that things can go wrong, and when they do, we’re here to try and help our clients find a solution.
“They know they can pick up the phone at any time and I can point them in the right direction,” says David. “We understand bloodstock and breeding, and our team is keenly involved in the world of racing and horses.
“Often we’re here as a sounding board, as generally speaking we understand the market and understand horses. Our clients know they can just pick up the phone and I can help them straight away.”
And when things go wrong he turns to world-renowned experts like Dickson Varner.
He is a professor at Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science and heads up one of the world’s leading teams dedicated to equine reproduction. He has cemented its reputation as an international leader in stallion fertility research and patient care.
When valuable stallions don’t perform as expected, its people like Dickson and his team that provide the knowledge and support to get to the root of the problem.
So when David recently invited Dickson to give a talk in the Lloyds of London library, leading lights from the breeding and insurance industry flocked to listen to him talk about his work.
Dickson told how he and his research team travel around the world to assess and improve stallion fertility. This work includes determining the optimal methods for freezing and preserving semen, diagnosing the quality of semen, and evaluating stallions’ breeding capabilities.
“We probably have the strongest team worldwide in the area of stallion reproduction,” Varner says.
Stories like the Cigar saga, highlight the unpredictable nature of the bloodstock business. At the top end, breeding is big business, with top stallions able to earn their owners millions in stud fees.
Introducing your mare to the legendary Frankel – whose fine unbeaten record on the track has been more than matched by his performance at stud – will set you back around £175,000 a time.
But many breeders are in it for the love of the sport and thrill of breeding good horses, whether it’s for high-end flat races, or a country point-to-point.
For Dickson Varner it’s unravelling the mysteries of equine reproduction and the challenge of finding the cause and possible solution to the problem. He shared several case studies and success stories which demonstrated the complexities of his work.
And he’s a man who clearly loves a challenge. As well as talking about his work, the audience heard about his love of the cowboy life and his background, growing up in a family that ran a rodeo.
He told his audience that as a certified American Mountain Man, he heads to the Rocky Mountains each year to live in remote areas for about a month, outfitted in buckskins and moccasins, with only the resources available to the mountain men of the early 1800s.
Varner rides horseback with a couple of friends, covering several hundred miles across the wild Rocky Mountains with a pack mule, compass, knife, tomahawk, and flintlock firearms.
David added: “He’s a fascinating character and he gave us some unique insights into the way they go about their work.”
As we spoke, David was about to set off for Kentucky for the Keeneland sales, where the world’s top breeders vie for the best bloodstock. And they will all be hoping that somewhere down the line a legend, like Cigar might emerge. And they know if, like Cigar, something does go wrong, they have David and his team to call on.