At 20 minutes before midnight on February 11, 2008, a 123lb equine star was born.
That foal, born in box number 5 at the Banstead Manor Stud near Newmarket, England, went on to be become the world’s greatest ever racehorse, worth an estimated £100 million (Dh603.7 million).
Now, six years later, there are more than 120 pregnant dams waiting to give birth to the next generation of that four-legged champion, Frankel.
In December, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, paid £4.2 million at auction for the retired thoroughbred Dancing Rain, once described as “hopeless” by her trainer but who went on to win the 2011 Epsom Oaks.
But it was not the dam herself that the bidders wanted, it was the foal she was carrying, sired by the mighty Frankel.
The foal is expected to be born this week. Two of his foals have already been born and, along with the owners of the other pregnant dams, wait with bated breath to see if they have the next Frankel.
Yet astonishingly, in the high stakes world of thoroughbred breeding, there is no real guarantee that a great racehorse will go on to sire other great racehorses.
“There is a saying in horse racing that a stallion rarely produces a horse as good as himself,” says Geoffrey Riddle, The National’s racing correspondent.
“Frankel is the best horse in the world, he is unbeaten. He is one of the greatest horses of all time, if not the greatest horse of all time. He’s going to be hard pressed to recreate a horse as good as himself.”
Frankel, owned by Prince Khalid Abdullah bin Saud of Saudi Arabia and trained by the late Sir Henry Cecil, was from an incredibly successful bloodline and unbeaten in a 14 race career. He was sired by the retired Irish thoroughbred Galileo, who won six of his eight races including the Epsom Derby and the Irish Derby Stakes. His mother — or dam — is Kind, another Irish-bred thoroughbred sired in 2001.
“If you look at horses like Galileo, he has produced some exceptional horses in his time,” says Mr Riddle.
“He bucked the trend and produced a horse better than himself, but if you can get a portion of Frankel’s brilliance and fuse that to a mare such as Dancing Rain, the thinking is you will get a good thoroughbred.
“Then again, Galileo also produced horses that never won and produced horses that never ran. It is a guessing game, but there is a strong body of science behind it.”
From his first stud last year Frankel has a recorded fertility rate of 95 per cent, meaning he successfully impregnated 126 of the 133 mares he covered, for a £125,000 stud fee each time.
“The dynamics of the breeding industry dictate that how successful offspring are on the track and how much they achieve at sales, determines what happens to that price,” says Mr Riddle.
“If all these horses fail at the track, that price will have to come down, but that isn’t for another couple of years. Having said that, he has attracted the best mares. If in the first crop he gets some very good horses, that price will go up dramatically.”
In the 1980s, Northern Dancer’s stud fee hit US$1million (Dh3.67 million) because of the success of his offspring, which includes Frankel’s paternal grandsire, Sadler’s Wells.
If Frankel’s high fertility record continues for the next 15 years of his stud career, he could produce between 80 and 150 offspring each year.
In what initially sounds like a romantic move, Frankel covered his first mares on Valentine’s Day last year. But the process of breeding thoroughbreds is very far from romantic.
Stallions are usually brought out to mate between three or five times a day and measures are taken to ensure neither the stud or mare can harm the other. The mare’s inoculation history is always checked and breeders make sure she is in her peak ovulation period.
All insemination happens the natural way and artificial insemination is not permitted. It sits alongside cloning and embryo transfer in the list of unapproved practices in The Jockey Club’s rule book.
The club only allows registration of a foal that is “the result of a stallion’s breeding with a broodmare (which is the physical mounting of a broodmare by a stallion ...)”.
It also stipulates that natural gestation must take place and the delivery must be from “the body of the same broodmare in which the foal was conceived.”
The common arguments against artificial insemination are genetic diversity, economics, and less so, tradition. If a stud could impregnate a much larger number of mares, there is a real danger that the gene pool would shrink, with the owners of mares preferring to reproduce using only the most popular stallions.
By limiting the number of mares a stud can cover, it makes sure that there are more than just a few stallions producing foals each year.
With regards to economics, the more mares a horse can impregnate, the lower the stud price, and in turn, the decreased values of its foals.
With regards to breeding, just as with pedigree dogs, there are criticisms that generations of selective breeding has led to a certain level of inbreeding damaging to the thoroughbred’s health.
Animal Aid UK, the country’s biggest animal rights group, produced a 2006 report titled Bred to Death, which attacks the selective breeding practices of the horse-racing industry.
“The breeding trend now is to select for speed — at the expense of skeletal strength and general robustness,” it states.
It also refers to the “obsessive focus” on the bloodline of Northern Dancer, a 1960s North American flat-racing champion.
Evidence of inbreeding can be seen even in champion horses such as Frankel. Northern Dancer is both his paternal great grandsire, and his maternal great, great damsire.
But so far there are no plans to change the rules of The Jockey Club, meaning Frankel’s stud fee will remain high, and all eyes will be on his first round of foals, including the one due this week from Sheikh Mohammed’s Dancing Rain.
“Frankel was perhaps the greatest horse to ever race over a mile,” Mr Riddle says. “If he can translate that ability to producing race horses in his ilk, it is exciting because you could have up to 50 to 100 of his prodigies down the years being exceptional race horses.
“If we look at the foal that Sheikh Mohammed is about to receive, it’s going to be by Frankel and out of Dancing Rain, two exceptional race horses. If that foal doesn’t amount to anything it still has the blood and the genes of the parents and that can be passed down again. All is not lost if a horse doesn’t amount to anything on the track.”