'Stud': How horses, if not books, are made

February 24, 2002|By Stephen R. Proctor | By Stephen R. Proctor,Sun Staff

Stud: Adventures in Breeding, by Kevin Conley. Bloomsbury. 209 pages. $24.95.

This book started life as a New Yorker story about the world's No. 1 stud -- the Kentucky stallion Storm Cat, who spends his retirement cavorting with the world's finest mares and earns $20 million a year for his troubles.

Such a life -- one that would seem to be rich with possibilities for a gifted writer. But, sadly, this is one of those stories -- Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild also comes to mind -- that works brilliantly in a magazine but strains to become a book.

The problem becomes apparent by Chapter Four, where Conley takes an inexplicable detour to drag readers along on a tour of the yearling sales with a track veterinarian skilled at buying horses. By the end, he's resorted to "interviewing" a stallion through a psychic.

In his acknowledgements, Conley thanks his co-workers for listening to tales of horse sex over lunch. That, basically, is all Stud offers -- in every conceivable (forgive me!) variation from Kentucky farms where the sex is real, if scripted, to Standardbred operations where stallions mate with a doctored pommel horse so semen can be extracted and shipped Priority Overnight to waiting mares.

What's missing is a narrative line, any sense of what the story is about or why it is being written.

This is not to say the book is without its charms. Conley is an engaging writer, and he takes the uninitiated into a world where 30 seconds of sex is at the heart of a high-stakes game whose payoffs -- and losses -- can be in the millions.

His insights can be amusing. He points out, for example, that in a business where profits and losses hinge on the health of Thoroughbred mares, odd topics are likely to dominate meetings, everything from cervical "incompetence" to venereal disease.

"Often," he writes, "one of the parties at such a business meeting will have his hand lodged some two and a half feet up the rear end of a horse. It is surprising how quickly this comes to seem normal."

Conley also has an eye for fascinating details. Readers will learn that the muck raked from Storm Cat's stall -- and presumably the others at his owners' Overbook Farm -- is sold to the Campbell's Soup Co., which uses it to raise mushrooms.

Or that some stallions -- like the greatest of them all, the late Northern Dancer -- are too small to mount even an average-sized mare and have to work from a hill known in the trade as the "pitcher's mound."

Or that every Thoroughbred descends from one of three horses imported to Britain from Arabs and Turks in the 16th Century, and that the General Stud Book that traces this lineage is 35 years older than its royal-family counterpart, Burke's Peerage.

In the end, though, the reader wants more -- and Stud fails to deliver.

It winds up being a series of chapters loosely sewn together by a common thread. Some sense of Conley's intent shows up, again, in his acknowledgements, where he thanks his wife, Amy, "who showed me from the very beginning that this was a love story."

If that's what Conley was thinking, he never found a way to make it work. The result is a book that's hard to love.

Stephen R. Proctor, The Sun's deputy managing editor for sports and features, has been involved in the operation of a thoroughbred-racing stable for nearly a decade and has been known to wager money on horse races. His office is decorated with photos of Seabiscuit's great match race against War Admiral.

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