Win breeds windfall for Md. farm

Horse racing: War Emblem's Derby victory has fueled demand for the services of his sire, Our Emblem, and improved the financial lot of Murmur Farm in Harford County.

127th Preakness

May 17, 2002|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

He stands hoof-high in a pasture of buttercups, a dark bay stallion swept from obscurity to celebrity almost overnight. When the wind blows, the golden flowers shimmer like a 14-carat field, encircled by a white board fence. Beside the fence is a flagpole. Atop the pole flies Old Glory.

What better stage for a horse named Our Emblem?

His son, War Emblem, was the choice of those few who picked him in the Kentucky Derby for his patriotic name. To everyone's surprise, the long shot ran away with the race, going wire-to-wire. Soon after they draped red roses over War Emblem in the winner's circle, the bouquets began arriving at Murmur Farm, in northern Harford County, where the champion's sire stands at stud.

Though addressed to him, the flowers never reached Our Emblem. "I kept the roses," confesses Audrey Murray, co-owner of the farm in Darlington. "He's happier with grass and hay."

The posies were only a preview. For two weeks, Our Emblem's owners have been besieged with laudatory phone calls and cards and e-mails from race fans worldwide. The onslaught began moments after the Derby on May 4 and has continued this week as the contenders in the Preakness Stakes prepare for the big race tomorrow at Pimlico.

A Michigan man wants directions to the farm to visit the 11-year-old thoroughbred. Someone else wants a keepsake - perhaps one of his halters?

A Japanese consortium, among other bidders, wants to purchase the stallion for millions. And dozens of horsemen are jockeying to line up their mares for a dream date with Our Emblem. All because he fathered the 3-year-old who won the first leg of the Triple Crown.

Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of the animal - or at least a dash of his DNA. Told that Our Emblem's dance card is full for 2002, the more determined breeders refuse to give up.

"One man calls from Georgia every day, insisting we breed the horse to his mare," Murray says. "People get very demanding. Another [out-of-town breeder] says he's from Baltimore, and that we all have to `stick together.' Of course, they all have great mares."

The hubbub has galvanized life at Murmur Farm, a mom-and-pop outfit on 133 rolling acres overlooking the Susquehanna River. Though Allen and Audrey Murray named the place for themselves, the tag befits its bucolic setting: Here, deer hobnob with grazing horses and wild turkeys may stroll through the stalls.

War Emblem's Derby run changed that. Each day brings another wave of reporters and camera crews and racing fans chugging down Price Road, a winding ribbon barely wide enough for cars, much less the caravan of horse vans ferrying their equine harems to and from the farm.

Somebody pinch Allen Murray. At 69, he has toiled a lifetime, hauling hay and mucking stalls and delivering foals in the dead of night. Now a three-minute race has balanced the books.

"It's like winning $100 million in the lottery," Murray says of Our Emblem's newfound prominence. He and his wife sit on the screened porch of their 19th century stone farmhouse, which overlooks the spread and the suddenly popular breeding barn. The phone rings. Audrey answers. It's an acquaintance they haven't seen in 40 years. Allen takes a deep breath and asks the obvious: "Does she have a mare she wants bred?"

Murmur Farm would be but a whisper, had the Murrays not bought Our Emblem for a song last fall. The Murrays won't say exactly what they paid Claiborne Farm, the Kentucky breeding behemoth whose managers lost patience with the stallion. Of his first crop of 13 foals who raced as 2-year-olds, only one had won. His stud fee plummeted from $10,000 to $7,500. When the Murrays acquired him, they set it at $4,000.

Friends tried to talk them out of the purchase. Why weren't the Murrays among the neigh-sayers? They were smitten by his pedigree - the superstar sire Mr. Prospector and brood mare of the year Personal Ensign.

"We thought, `He's got to have a good horse in there,'" Allen says. "His dam was undefeated and won the Breeders Cup."

He was right: "As soon as we bought him, things-flip-flopped. [His offspring] all started winning. He has had winners in Japan, France and England."

One of his sons, Private Emblem, won the Arkansas Derby this spring and ran 14th in the Kentucky Derby. War Emblem warmed up for his win at Churchill Downs by taking the Illinois Derby.

By then, the breeding season was under way. The Murrays raised Our Emblem's stud fee to $7,500 and stepped up his dates. The norm is two or three trips a day to the shed, with five-hour breaks in between. By the end of he breeding season in July, the stallion will have impregnated 96 mares.

As his stock rises, so do concerns for his safety during the breeding sessions. One kick from a skittish mare could damage Our Emblem's manhood. To minimize risk, Allen oversees all of his trips to the halter. "I've sedated a couple of maiden mares that I otherwise wouldn't have," he says. "Just being extra cautious."

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