When Genuine Risk's first foal was born dead last month, Bert Firestone couldn't sleep although he knows as all horsemen know that such things happen in a business where today's joy is tomorrow's tears.
Horses can't roller skate and won't sit on their haunches and beg, the way politicians and other monkeys do, but there comes one now and then so beautifully bewitching that we send Valentines and bet the rent it can outrun the dawn.
Majestic Prince was Ali on the hoof, a gorgeous athlete whose every move suggested bravado. Joe Palmer wrote that Man o' War was a living flame, as close to perfection as God could manage, and a grateful thief at the typewriter used that line when he saw Secretariat win the Belmont by 31 lengths.
Hardboots will notice an affinity here for chestnuts with splotches of white. This is, to be sure, like falling for Ann-Margret. It takes no special powers of discernment. On an April day full of sunshine and the smell of apple blossoms, Genuine Risk came walking across a field, still the golden beauty who in 1980 became the first filly in 65 years to win the Kentucky Derby.
Firestone stood in the middle of the paddock next to the broodmares' barn on his Catoctin Stud farm an hour outside Washington. "She likes these," he said, unwrapping a peppermint, and Genuine Risk plucked the mint off her master's palm.
This is the thoroughbred foaling and breeding season. Within three weeks of giving birth, mares usually are bred again. Because Genuine Risk was an exceptional runner--she was second in the Preakness, second in the Belmont--Firestone wants to breed her to the best.
What better way to start than with a breeding never before done? A Derby winner to a Derby winner. Genuine Risk and Secretariat. Firestone owns a breeding share to Secretariat, and so the match was made last spring at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky.
"I didn't do it for the romance of Derby winners," Firestone said. "There's no guarantee a foal by Secretariat and Genuine Risk will be a champion. We hope it will. It would be great if we could have a Triple Crown winner out of that combination.
"Statistics show that sons of Bold Ruler (which Secretariat is) don't do well bred to daughters of Exclusive Native (which Genuine Risk is). But Secretariat is the best racehorse I ever saw. A big, strong, neat horse. Genuine Risk isn't big, but she's neat, too. You can't always go by the statistics. We think it's a great breeding."
Firestone says there was no indication of problems with the Genuine Risk-Secretariat foal. The mare was two weeks overdue, which is not uncommon, and Firestone was out of town when, at 2 o'clock the morning of April 4, she gave birth to a dead foal, a chestnut colt with three white stockings.
John Moore, the Firestones' broodmare manager, is 41 and he's been around horses most of that time. He remembers the magic of his first foaling. "It was amazing," he said. "You see the little thing there, no life to it, lifeless, and then it comes to life. It wiggles around. It's amazing. It's amazing what happens when the foal gets up. The mare will nudge her back to the teats and nibble on her to teach her how to suck."
John Moore wishes he had a dollar for every foaling he's seen since. He calls Genuine Risk a pleasant mare, quiet and intelligent. "She thinks she's people." But the night with Genuine Risk was just another foaling night, he said. You can't get rattled at foaling time. You have to do your job right.
As soon as the foal came, John Moore knew.
Genuine Risk also knew her foal was dead.
"She got up fine. She'd look at the foal and then go away. Then she'd come back and look at it again and go away. Mares will nicker for the foal to get up. She did that. Then what they do is what she did. What they do is begin to cover it up. They'll shove the straw over it to cover it up. She did that. She knows. Then I took the foal."
Moore called Firestone, who had bought Genuine Risk as a yearling for $32,000. The Catoctin Stud office has a bronze statue of her draped in the Derby winner's roses: "Her Finest Moment." Paintings and photos of her hang on all four walls. "This is the Genuine Risk room," Firestone says happily.
He said he couldn't sleep after Moore's call. Dead foals happen, he said, maybe once in 150 births. He doesn't buy insurance on it because it is prohibitively expensive. You try, he said, to do everything right and hope it turns out right. "But there's a lot of heartache in this business."
At 8 the next morning, Firestone called Seth Hancock, the Claiborne Farm owner and manager of the Secretariat syndicate. Because Firestone has used his Secretariat season with another mare, he had no more breeding rights with Secretariat this year. Hancock offered to switch seasons so Genuine Risk could be bred back to Secretariat.
"Our concern was with the mare," Firestone said. "There was no problem at all. Sometimes after foaling, mares go to pieces. She was perfect. Now, thanks to Seth Hancock, we're taking her back to Claiborne and Secretariat."
Genuine Risk was a pinup queen who could outrun the guys. People who knew nothing about racing wrote to Catoctin Stud for pictures of her, just as they sent sympathy cards last month, and when a reporter called Claiborne Farm this week to find out if the great ones had made another try at it, the office secretary said, "Oh, don't worry. When they do, there'll be a lot of publicity on it."