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Original Issue

CEM spells trouble in Kentucky

An outbreak of equine venereal disease has the breeders puzzled and worried

Penny Tweedy Ringquist, the owner of Secretariat and president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, stood by the press box at Santa Anita recently, a sheaf of notes about contagious equine metritis in her hand. "Look," she said, "I've heard enough jokes.... This thing is going to divide racing people in this country as nothing has before."

An outbreak of the venereal disease CEM had indeed done that, and at week's end thoroughbred racing had moved closer to one of the most momentous decisions in its history. The Jockey Club seemed certain to be pressured by breeders and veterinarians to approve artificial insemination, at least on a one-year trial basis in Kentucky, a move almost guaranteed to further upset a multibillion dollar industry that already found itself in chaos.

Until now, The Jockey Club, which regulates the breeding of thoroughbreds, has banned artificial insemination—which is common practice with standardbreds, Arabians and quarterhorses—because it would invite the possibility of chicanery, and create demand for only the best stallions. "We now have 7,000 stallions," Cal Rainey, executive secretary of The Jockey Club says. "Artificial insemination would reduce the number to maybe only 1,000. It also would narrow the thoroughbred family, giving us less variety."

By the end of last week, 26 horses from 13 Kentucky farms had contracted CEM. The names and reputations of some of those farms, and their owners, are among the most prestigious in racing: Nelson Bunker Hunt's Bluegrass Farm; Brownell Combs II's Spendthrift Farm; John R. Gaines' Gainesway Farm; Maxwell H. Gluck's Elmendorf Farm. Hunt probably owns more racing stock (some 600 runners) than anyone in the world; Combs' Spendthrift is home to Nashua, Gallant Man, Raise A Native, Intrepid Hero, Proud Clarion and Sham, in addition to Wajima, Majestic Prince and Caro, the leading sire in France two of the last three years. Spendthrift also will be Seattle Slew's home upon his retirement later this year. Gluck, the former U.S. Ambassador to Ceylon, has enjoyed brilliant success as an owner-breeder; horses that he bred earned $4.6 million during 1976 and '77.

The names of some of the horses that have CEM are world famous. Two years ago, Youth won the Washington, D.C., International, Canadian International and French Derby while earning $669,286. Lyphard, a French import standing at Gainesway, brought a syndication price of $6.6 million, and Caro is worth $4.6 million. The Commonwealth of Kentucky also released a list last week identifying "suspected" stallions. The biggest name on the list was that of Wajima, the strikingly handsome bay son of Bold Ruler, who had a short, spectacular career as a runner before being retired to stud without receiving the affection and honor the racing public wanted to give him. Sold for $600,000 as a yearling—it was an unheard-of price at the time—Wajima became the top U.S. 3-year-old of 1975 and then was syndicated for $7.2 million—$1.2 million more than Triple Crown winner Secretariat. That September at Belmont Park, Wajima had won the Marlboro Cup by defeating a field that included Forego, Ancient Title, Foolish Pleasure and Royal Glint, four members of racing's select "Millionaires Club."

There is also concern that Majestic Prince, who won two-thirds of the 1969 Triple Crown, nine of 10 lifetime starts and is the sire of unbeaten Sensitive Prince, an early Derby favorite, may have CEM.

When CEM was first detected in Kentucky four weeks ago, tremors shook the Blue Grass, and they will continue to do so because owners and breeders know-how devastating the CEM outbreak was that afflicted Ireland. England and France last year. As more cases turned up in Kentucky, panic rolled along Paris Pike and up the driveways of the splendid farms that border it. At one point, California considered not allowing any of its horses to be shipped to Kentucky, a ruling that would have prevented Affirmed, and others, from running in the Derby. There was a widespread rumor that the Derby would be canceled. Transportation of horses from breeding farm to breeding farm in Kentucky was halted, and only mares located on farms where their intended mates were also stabled could be bred. The breeding ban, however, was scheduled to be lifted this week under strict state guidelines, centered on treatment and examination.

The breeding business involves many millions of dollars. In the last decade the prices of yearlings sold at the summer sales at Keeneland and Saratoga escalated beyond belief. Saratoga's average for more than 200 horses went from $22,145 in 1967 to $57,310 in '77, while Keeneland's went from $20,812 to $86,631. Between 1975 and 1977, a dozen yearlings were purchased for more than $400,000 each. The CEM outbreak has led to a lot of finger pointing at John R. Gaines, 50, of Gainesway Farm, and Brownell Combs II, 44, of Spendthrift. Last fall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture banned the importation of horses from those European countries where CEM had broken out. Shortly before the ban went into effect, Combs had Caro shipped here from France and Gaines imported Lyphard. Both were tested in Europe for CEM and found to be negative. Each was tested again in the U.S. and the results showed no signs of CEM. When CEM, which is highly contagious, was discovered in Kentucky, the talk was that the two stallions had come to the U.S. on the same plane.

In fact, Lyphard, who had been standing at stud in northern France, was shipped on a 727 by himself. Caro, who had been standing in the South of France, had followed Lyphard to this country on a chartered 707 10 days later, just beating the deadline imposed by the USDA, according to Gainesway veterinarian Dr. Chris Cahill.

Combs is vice-chairman of the Kentucky Racing Commission. During the last few weeks he says he "barely remembers sleeping. It's been maddening. Hell, yes. I know people are saying Gainesway and Spendthrift brought the disease into this country. We're the guinea pigs and taking all the heat. I pray CEM is only on our farms, but I can't believe it. Not with this disease. The testing for CEM is in no way complete yet, nor is it accurate. There are too many unknowns remaining. I suspected that metritis was here last breeding season and I had some horses tested that proved negative.

"What do you do? My God, in this business your word is everything. If CEM breaks out on somebody else's place, I'm not going to say, 'See, I told you so.' I'm going to feel sorry for whoever it might happen to. This thing has the whole industry in panic and it should have, but a cure must be found. I've already lost a lot of this breeding season and a lot of money. If the season is extended until the end of July, or something else happens. Spendthrift might be able to come out all right."

Gainesway Farm is just a three-minute drive from Spendthrift and is also a next door neighbor to C. V. Whitney. Last week John Gaines looked harried, concerned and tired, as well, he might because four of the stallions at Gainesway (Youth, Big Spruce, Apalachee and Lyphard), as well as one mare, had CEM. The stallions at Gainesway command high prices. Bold Bidder, for example, gets $30,000 for one successful breeding service; Blushing Groom and Lyphard, $35,000; and Youth, $40,000. During a single breeding season any of those stallions might be capable of producing as many as 40 offspring.

Through most of the finger-pointing, Gaines has remained quiet. "The only harassment that I have taken has been from myself," he says. "I'm only a trustee and my responsibilities are to my syndicate members and the facing industry as a whole. I have truly never believed that CEM could be contained on an industrywide basis, as things stand presently. Current tests are just that, tests. There are still so many unknowns. In 75% to 85% of the cases, the disease seems transmitted through sex, but the other 15% can come from humans carrying the disease from horse to horse by unclean clothing or equipment. Last year we sent our top veterinarian to Europe to study CEM, and it cost us $75,000 to find out all we could about it. Yet we still don't have either the answer or all the facts. But we've sure got the problem."


Caro, once the leading sire in France, and now at Spendthrift Farm, has come down with the highly contagious disease.


Spendthrift's Combs is enduring sleepless nights, pointed fingers and some probing questioning.