The first step on the ‘Road to the Kentucky Derby’ is…

Sep 16, 2017 Jennifer Caldwell/

…the breeding shed.

That’s right. A lot goes into preparing a Kentucky Derby runner before he/she even enters the starting gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, but the absolute first stop is the breeding shed.

Some may think breeding takes place in beautiful pasture fields. A stallion (male horse) is turned loose with a herd of mares (female horses) and voila! 11 to 12 months later out pops a cute little foal (baby horse).

Nope, sorry. The idyllic vision of Mother Nature taking her course has been refined into a highly scientific and managed process.

First of all, the mare is checked out by a veterinarian to ensure she is healthy enough for breeding. Then the job of choosing a compatible stallion begins. Many factors come into play, such as whether the foal is to be sold or kept for racing, stud fee, pedigree, conformation, etc.

Once a stallion is chosen, a contract is signed between the mare owner and the stallion owner. Most mares are bred under what are called “live foal” contracts, meaning the stud fee is due when the mare gives birth to a live foal.

But first, she must take a trip to visit her chosen suitor. That’s right, in Thoroughbred breeding the mare goes to the stallion, not the other way around. She is checked to determine when she comes into heat, which lasts anywhere from three to seven days, and is brought to the breeding shed.

Soon after the stallion is brought into the building. Trained professionals handle both the mare and stallion, the pair get down to business and a few minutes later the deed is done. The mare leaves and is checked 14 days after ovulation via ultrasound to see if she is pregnant.

The stallion, meanwhile, awaits his next conjugal visit. Most breed a maximum of three mares a day, but before the breeding season is done, some stallions will have bred upwards of 100 mares. Some are even then shipped to farms in the Southern Hemisphere for their breeding season, which differs from the Northern Hemisphere season that begins in February.

And thus, the long, complicated “Road to the Kentucky Derby” begins…not with a race, but in breeding sheds all over the world.

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