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BEAUTY AND THE BEASTLY
E.M. Swift
January 13, 1986
In the past decade the elegant, graceful Arabian has taken center stage among U.S. pleasure horses. But the popularity of the breed and the huge sums a top horse like MS Baqueta (left) can command at auction have spawned practices so unsavory that they would curl the beard of even the toughest Bedouin warrior
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January 13, 1986

Beauty And The Beastly

In the past decade the elegant, graceful Arabian has taken center stage among U.S. pleasure horses. But the popularity of the breed and the huge sums a top horse like MS Baqueta (left) can command at auction have spawned practices so unsavory that they would curl the beard of even the toughest Bedouin warrior

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It is a Bedouin belief that Allah created the horse out of a handful of south wind, which he scooped up, saying: "Thy name shall be Arabian, and virtue bound into the hair of thy forelock, and plunder on thy back. I have preferred thee above all beasts of burden inasmuch as I have made thy master thy friend."

The Bedouins were a warlike and nomadic people who selected their breeding stock on the basis of speed, handling and endurance. According to legend, every Arabian horse is a direct descendant of five mares owned by an Arab chief named Faras the Horseman. In 1635 B.C., Faras was traveling through the desert with his vast herd of horses, when suddenly, far below, a stream came into sight. The herd, which had been days without water, raced toward the stream at a gallop. To test them, Faras took out his horn and blew the call to arms. Five mares returned to the call, and it was these five that served as the foundation for the breed.

Whether the legend is true or not, there is little doubt that Arabians are the oldest selectively bred equines in the world. Relief carvings of Arab-type horses have been found on Assyrian and Egyptian tombs that are thousands of years old. King Solomon was said to have owned 1,000 of the beauties. And the Prophet Mohammed ordered his disciples to take good care of Arabians so the disciples could ride forth and spread his word. Since the Bedouins believed that a single drop of alien blood would hurt the Arabian breed, they went to bizarre lengths to insure the purity of the bloodline. A mare's owner would sew her shut with a needle and thread prior to raiding an enemy camp, just in case a foe's stallion sallied forth with fanciful ideas. To these warriors, the Arabian horse was not just an animal, but a gift from Allah—the Bedouin's wealth, his lifeblood and his legacy. "None but chiefs or individuals of great wealth possess [authentic Arabians]," wrote an Englishman, William Giffard Palgrave, in 1856. "Nor are they ever sold.... When I asked how then one could be acquired, 'By war, by legacy, or free gift' was the answer."

War was responsible for much of the early dissemination of Arabian blood. Between the eighth and 17th centuries Europe was invaded by hordes of Turks, Arabs and the like, who, when they were eventually driven back, left behind swaths of death and destruction and yogurt. Also Arabians. These became the foundation stock for the horses ridden by the Spanish conquistadores, who in turn introduced Arabian blood to the New World, where today it is pulsing through the veins of the scruffy but enduring mustangs of the American West. "But the Poles were the first Europeans to recognize the value of Arabian blood," says LaCroix, noting that the Polish government's breeding program dates back to 1506. "Since Poland has no natural boundaries, they needed a horse with the endurance, speed and handling of the Arabian for defense."

It was LaCroix who helped start the so-called "Polish Revolution" in the Arabian industry—"Polish Arabians are hot-hot," gushes one Colorado breeder—when he became one of the first Americans to foray behind the Iron Curtain in search of horseflesh. On his first trip to Poland in 1962, LaCroix brought back the 6-year-old stallion Bask, a long-necked, athletic Arabian, for which he paid less than $16,500. Bask, who was fresh off a Warsaw racetrack, was an immediate sensation in America, combining near-perfect conformation with athleticism to win prestigious performance and halter championships. Bask's offspring proved as exceptional as he was. By the early 1970s, LaCroix's Lasma Arabians was firmly established at the top of the Arabian industry in the U.S.

But what really led to the Arabian boom in this country was the flair with which Lasma marketed Bask's progeny. "We'd been to so many bum auctions where the horses were just standing around, not groomed properly," says LaCroix, "that we decided if the horse could move around freely, its natural beauty would be better appreciated."

At Lasma's first public auction at Scottsdale in 1971, LaCroix tried a number of ideas that his eldest son, Gene—a champion horseman himself—had dreamed up in the best tradition of P.T. Barnum. "We wanted the horses to look good, so we got a runway, which gave them room to move," the younger Gene, 38, recalls. "We wanted some pizzazz, so we added a band and gave each horse a special song. And we wanted everyone to have fun, so we had an open bar." Nothing like a stiff belt to bring out the natural beauty of an Arabian. But the LaCroix were on to something. Twenty-seven horses brought an average of $19,822 each at that initial sale, with the top mare, a Bask daughter, commanding $56,000.

Three years later the LaCroix held Lasma Sale II. Mike Nichols, the director, was the top bidder this time, buying Basquina, another Bask daughter, for $117,500, which was a benchmark in Scottsdale's alliance—some would say m�salliance—with Hollywood. Nichols held a sale of his own in Connecticut in 1976, and didn't hesitate to use his Broadway expertise. "Mike added some theatrical things to the sale we hadn't thought of," admits Dr. LaCroix.

Theatrical? Good gracious. Smoke machines, light shows and top-drawer entertainment soon became standard fare at big Arabian auctions. The likes of Bob Hope ("Where else can you sit around watching rich Americans buy Arabs?"), the Beach Boys, Sammy Davis Jr., David Brenner, the Pointer Sisters and Shirley MacLaine began appearing onstage with the horses, and in 1977—shades of Monty! Monty! Monty!—Lasma handed over a new Cadillac to the buyer whose bid put the auction over the million-dollar mark for the first time. What did any of this have to do with Arabians? Nothing. It had to do with promotion. The big names attracted big money. Auctiongoers began finding themselves cheek by jowl with celebrities—e.g., Stefanie Powers, Bo Derek, Merv Griffin, Kenny Rogers, Jane Fonda, Paul Simon, Meadowlark Lemon, Jackie Onassis, Armand Hammer and King Constantine of Greece.

Last February at the Keg Select sale in Scottsdale, Lasma constructed a stage set duplicating a section of Bourbon Street, then unveiled the evening's entertainment, Al Hirt and the New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The band played for 45 minutes before giving way to a bevy of Arabians. The next day that whole set was torn down and replaced by a winter street scene straight out of 19th-century Poland, which served as a backdrop for the wildly successful Polish Ovation sale. Serving as direct sales agent for the Polish government, Lasma handled the auction of 19 Polish mares for $10.8 million, an average of $568,684 a head.

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