This is the week of decision at Kentucky's historic Claiborne Farm, the week in which an announcement is to be made whether the two most expensive horses in the world are worth the $11.2 million breeders paid for them last year. If Secretariat and Riva Ridge prove to be duds as stallions and must be returned to the racetrack to earn their oats, their value will plummet. "I wouldn't give $500,000 for a sterile Riva," said one of the nation's top owners. "And what could a sterile Secretariat be worth? He would be very lucky to win another million on the racetrack, and if he sold for more than a million, it would be to a guy looking for nothing but publicity."
But the outlook on the two horses' fertility may not be all that black—or white. Last week the man in the know, 24-year-old Seth Hancock, the master of Claiborne, remained nervously silent. He wore a long face as he watched races at Florida's Gulfstream Park, and in his rare comments Hancock was being more optimistic than precise. "We feel that Secretariat has two of his three test mares in foal," he said, mustering a smile, "and that Riva Ridge has one of his three mares in foal." This week Hancock is to issue a prognosis to the syndicate shareholders, who have agreed to wait until March 1 for final fertility test results. The original date for such tidings was to have been Jan. 1, but on Christmas Eve the breeders were greeted with telegrams requesting a 60-day extension because preliminary tests on the two young stallions had not gone well.
California Oilman Howard B. Keck was sufficiently concerned at this news to bail out of the Secretariat and Riva Ridge syndicates. Like the other shareholders, Keck had paid 10% down in 1973. But rather than risk sending his former champion Turkish Trousers to a questionable stallion, he asked for—and got back—his $35,000 investment in the two horses and made other plans. Keck was further irritated at having gotten the dismaying news by telegram instead of receiving a report by telephone. Bull Hancock, Seth's father, had been one of Keck's partners and oldest friends. Next to skip out of the Riva syndicate was British breeder Mickey Suffolk. And at least two or three more Europeans are considering asking for their money-back guarantees.
What Hancock would like to announce, but apparently cannot, is that the Claiborne panel of veterinarians has certified both of the stallions as 100% fertile. If the vets fail to give full approval, the syndicate agreements signed last year become null and void. However, a compromise is possible calling for the renegotiation of the contracts. Lawyer Gayle Mohney, who represents Claiborne and Mrs. Penny Tweedy, the horses' owner, says, "It all hinges on working things out with the insurance company and coming up with a deal that will be so attractive nobody can refuse it."
The insurance company involved is Lloyds of London, which covers everything from concert pianists' fingers to Cunard flagships. Lloyds has been involved in horse racing for years and figured prominently in the celebrated Your Host case in the 1950s. When Your Host broke his shoulder at Santa Anita, the owner wanted to destroy him and collect the insurance. Lloyds said no. It paid $250,000 for the colt, patched him up and put him to stud where he sired Kelso, five-time Horse of the Year.
The insurance premium for animals of the caliber of Secretariat and Riva Ridge is 5% to 5.5% annually for full mortality; the owner only collects if the horse dies. For fertility insurance, an owner pays an additional 4.75% of the horse's full value. Mrs. Tweedy laid out some $500,000 for this kind of insurance for her two colts. There are probably not more than 20 stallions in the U.S. with full fertility insurance (among them: Silent Screen and Tom Rolfe).
If the syndicate contracts are renegotiated, Lloyds may settle for a lesser premium on the grounds that if Secretariat and Riva are not completely fertile, neither are they totally sterile. The syndicate members also will be asked to settle for something less. In the case of Riva Ridge, they might be offered a deal such as this: a breeder would send one mare to the horse this spring and pay $40,000 only if the mare delivered a live foal. Should Riva get 51% or more of his mares in foal, his syndication would take effect and the $40,000 the breeder paid for the 1974 service would be credited toward the $160,000 he contracted to pay for his share of the horse last summer.
Attorney Mohney says that announcements about the horses' stud potential cannot be made until a new agreement is reached over insurance. If negotiations lag, Hancock's expected statement might have to be postponed.
Tests on the two horses indicate that Riva Ridge is following in the footsteps of his half-brother, Hydrologist, who has been nearly a total failure at stud. A Kentucky horseman who visited Claiborne two weeks ago reports, "Riva apparently shows little interest in his mares, no matter what their color [some stallions have a distinct and constant aversion to mares of a certain color]. He just stood in his paddock with his head down and his tail between his legs." Riva may never make it as a stallion in part because he is too shy a breeder.
Secretariat, however, has manifested great interest in his new career. He has grown into a big, round, playful horse, and last week he frolicked like a child in his private pasture. The bluegrass was covered with snow, and Secretariat cavorted in circles, tossing his head. He flipped over on his back and rolled about, kicking his feet at the falling snowflakes. Enthusiasm, he has.