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Thoroughly Bred Now

War Emblem's success goes back to Our Emblem

June 03, 2002|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DARLINGTON, Md. — Four days after the Preakness, late in the afternoon at Murmur Farm, the phone rang in Audrey and Allen Murray's office. On the other end was a man with a mare in Georgia, wanting to breed her to Our Emblem.

A sire that had not even been a singles hitter for two years in Kentucky, Our Emblem became an overnight slugger with the victories by his son War Emblem in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and the Murrays, who bought the then-unwanted stallion cheaply last November, were by mid-May accustomed to a deluge of calls. But this entreaty from Georgia was especially pushy.

Softly and politely, Audrey Murray told the man that Our Emblem was booked up for the rest of the current breeding season, which ends July 1. About five different ways, she told him that this was the case.

"How many mares will he wind up having?" said the man, making one more desperate try.

"Ninety-five," Audrey Murray said.

"Well," he said, "that's an odd number, an unlucky number. Why don't you make my mare No. 96?"

"Well, if I counted them again," Murray said, "I'd probably find that I have 96 already. Look, I'm doing a [newspaper] interview and I have to get off. It's just impossible to add one more mare. Just the other day, we had to turn down a mare from Kentucky, and she was a producer of a Grade I winner. The poor horse can only do so much. We have to protect him."

While Murray was taking this call, her husband was with a contingent from Kentucky that included Doug Cauthen of WinStar Farm. They were watching Our Emblem breed to his third mare of the day. Less than a week later, WinStar and its partner, Taylor Made Farm, announced that they had bought Our Emblem for $10.1 million. The 11-year-old stallion's next breeding season, which begins Feb. 15, 2003, will be back in Kentucky, where he flopped the first time around.

"We were probably going to sell," Allen Murray said, "but unless a very good offer came along, we were going to wait until after the Belmont. But this was a very good offer, an offer we couldn't refuse."

War Emblem, one of four stakes winners by Our Emblem this year after the sire had accounted for only one minor stakes winner from his first crops, can become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 if he wins the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.

"Selling the horse is not going to change our lives," said 69-year-old Allen Murray, a retired electrical engineer who designed tank armor for the U.S. government. "Five months out of the year, we work very hard, seven days a week. The rest of the year, we back off, and while still caring for the farm we're only really working hard about one day a week. We take time off to go on vacations, like a cruise to Spain a year ago. Selling this horse is not going to change all that."

The Murrays are believed to have paid $200,000 last year for Our Emblem, who raced for Ogden Phipps--winning five of 27 starts, no stakes and earning $366,013--and first stood at aristocratic Claiborne Farm near Paris, Ky. Estimates of what the Phipps family got for the stallion have ranged from $40,000 upward, and the Murrays will say only that they bought him for a six-figure sum.

"I'm surprised Claiborne gave up on him so soon," a Kentucky breeder said. "Usually you wait at least three crops to get the feel of what a stallion can do."

Claiborne, where Derby winners Johnstown (1939) and Swale (1984) were bred, is doing no second-guessing.

"At the time, we thought it was a good move," said Gus Koch, assistant manager of the farm. "We still do."

Our Emblem's first 31 foals, from the 1998 breeding season, earned only $498,808 and the only stakes winner was Uncle Punk, who won an added-money race at Arapahoe Park near Denver. At auction, Our Emblem's progeny averaged only $9,000 a horse in 2000. Until this year, Our Emblem's second crop was also undistinguished. At Claiborne, his stud fee was only going down.

The Murrays, high-school sweethearts who have been married for 47 years, usually keep six or seven stallions at Murmur Farm, a well-kept 133-acre spread that from one rise affords a magnificent view of the Susquehanna River. They had owned a farm about 10 miles from here, and in 1988, looking for a larger property, they bought and renamed (repeating the first three letters of their last name) the old Ardmore Farm. It had been owned by the estate of Thomas Barry, who trained Belmont Stakes winners Cavan in 1958 and Celtic Ash in 1960.

The Murrays, who breed to race and sell, hadn't added a new stallion since Crypto Star, the 1997 Arkansas and Louisiana Derby winner, and last fall they visited several Kentucky farms.

"We were looking for something that we might be able to re-syndicate," Audrey Murray said. "Then when we looked at Our Emblem, we saw that he had no soundness problems and had bloodlines that might be attractive to Marylanders."

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