For sheer nobility, there is no breed on earth that can touch the Arabian, the aristocrat of aristocrats.
—The Treasury of Horses
WALTER D. OSBORNE and PATRICIA H. JOHNSON
If there is one animal perfectly suited to American tastes in the '80s—costly, elegant, ostentatious and imported—it is the Arabian horse. Looking for a steed of fiery temperament yet tractable? We've got the horse right here. Want a beast whose beauty, intelligence and versatility have dazzled heads of state for centuries? This stud's for you. In the market for a mount whose blood courses through the veins of virtually every breed of light horse extant: thoroughbreds, Morgans, hackneys, standardbreds, American saddle horses, quarter horses, Tennessee walkers and, strange as it seems, the wild mustangs of the West? The Arabian is the granddaddy of' em all.
But if exclusivity and trendsetting are your aim, whoa now, partner, you're a little late. The once exotic Arabian has gone forth and multiplied on these shores like yeasts in yogurt—a food which, like the horse, was endemic to the Middle East before fashionably gaining appeal in this part of the world. In the last four years more pureblooded Arabians have been entered in the Arabian Horse Registry in the U.S.—more than 100,000—than there had been between 1908, when the registry was opened, and 1973. Twenty-two years ago there were 20,000 Arabian horses prancing about the U.S.; today there are almost 300,000—an increase of some 1,400%. And the number of Americans owning a registered Arab has risen just as dramatically: from 11,191 in 1965 to 118,798 today.
How can you tell if a horse is an Arabian? Some identifying characteristics: Arabians tend to be smallish, averaging around 15 hands in height. Their faces are dished in profile and wide at the forehead, with diminutive, almost dainty, muzzles. Ears: pointed and close-set. Eyes: huge, pooling, expressive. Nostrils: large, the better to inhale the hot desert air. Neck: arched and long. Tail: carried high and with elegance. An Arabian's back is compact, its chest is full, its legs straight and somewhat refined, like a dancer's. Its coat: fine, soft and silky. The cumulative effect is a horse that leans more toward prettiness than brutishness, an animal one might expect to have been created not by evolution but by Disney.
Attractive as the Arabian is, the current state of madness surrounding the breed is founded on bucks rather than beauty. Madness? What other word can describe the auction of an unborn Arabian foal for $100,000—as happened last February at the annual Scotts-dale ( Ariz.) Arabian sales—a creature that might have been born with three left feet and a horn protruding from its forehead? (That would have been a find.) Now $100,000 is not exactly hay, but it's still no more than an oat in the $44,445,300 bucket of transactions that took place over eight heady days at Scottsdale, where, in a series of 10 major sales, 243 Arabians changed hands. As recently as 1968 the top price paid at auction for an Arabian was $25,000. The record now stands at $3.2 million, which was shelled out for the Russian stallion Abdullahhh in 1984. Small potatoes compared with what top thoroughbreds go for, to be sure, but thoroughbred investments can be recouped on the track. Abdullahhh, like the vast majority of Arabian horses in this country, had never won a dime at the track. All the brute could do was breed, eat and look pretty.
When the mare NH Love Potion was auctioned for $2.55 million at Scottsdale in 1984, the announcer at the sale was Harry Cooper, the Don Pardo of the Arabian world. Cooper's function at these events is to spew out gooey superlatives—"She's special and she knows it" or "Her skin is so fine it's like membrane"—during the pauses in the bidding, which allow auctiongoers time to catch their breath or secure second mortgages. "When the bidding stood at $2.2 million for Love Potion," Cooper recalls, "the auctioneer asked me to say something. For the first time in my career I was speechless. I thought, 'My God, what on earth can I say to make someone out there bid $2.3 million for a horse?' "
"Arabian horse people like to buy things," says Barbara Shuler, who organizes one of Scottsdale's more prestigious auctions. "They're a very esthetically oriented lot."
The average price for top Arabians sold at Scottsdale has risen from some $30,000 in 1974 to $478,809 last year, and few expect the trend to change at the 1986 Scottsdale sales. The whole business has been compared, with reason, to the tulipmania that struck Holland in 1634, when speculation ran amok, with buyers splurging as much as $5,000 for a single bulb. Theoretically those investors, too, were an "esthetically oriented lot," which no doubt eased the pain when the tulip market came to a crashing, bankrupting halt in 1637.
The primary beneficiaries of Arabian-mania, and among the moving forces behind it, have been Dr. Eugene LaCroix and his family, the owners and proprietors of the Lasma Arabians farms in Scottsdale and Louisville. LaCroix, 69, a retired vascular surgeon, bought his first two Arabians back in 1944 to upgrade his cattle horses. At the time there were only some 3,000 purebred Arabians in the U.S. LaCroix paid $1,200 for a filly and $750 for a stallion, and from those humble beginnings has built an empire that is worth untold millions. "Arabians are tremendously versatile," says LaCroix. "You can use them for trail riding and cattle work; you can show them in all the different categories: halter. Western pleasure, English pleasure, park, pleasure driving, et cetera. You can ride them long distances, jump them, race them or just keep them in the backyard for the kids. They're the ideal family horse."
All true. Despite the reputation that Arabians have as high-spirited mounts, they are, if treated properly, light-mouthed and superb with children. The Bedouins, who originally bred the Arabian, stabled their horses either in or next to the master's tent and raised them on camel's milk, eggs, dates and barley flour.