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Tuesday, April 17, 2007 - Page updated at 02:01 AM

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Bred for Success: Making of a racehorse

Seattle Times staff

"Let's go make some babies," says Nina Hagen, still energetic at midmorning despite having delivered a foal at 4:55 a.m.

But there's no time to rest: Spring is baby time at El Dorado Farms in Enumclaw. About 250 horses will be bred and about 80 to 90 delivered there, all by Hagen.

No one in the state delivers more, according to Ralph Vacca, general manager of the Washington Thoroughbred Breeders Association.

"In a 48-hour period last week, I delivered nine," says Hagen, who owns El Dorado Farms with her husband, Ron.

This is where it all begins in the journey to a horse's first race. It takes at least three years from conception until a horse races, carrying with it the dream that keeps this industry going: Maybe this one will be a champion.

In the beginning

El Dorado Farms has seven active stallions, and they are busy during the February-through-June breeding season, typically breeding from 40 to 60 times a year.

Emerald Downs opening day: Friday, first post 6 p.m.

At 10 a.m., Tribunal has an appointment with a mare named Just An Angel. Tribunal, one of the top stallions at the farm, commands a $4,500 fee. Rates correspond to how successful a stallion's offspring are.

The whole breeding process takes just a few minutes.

Hagen, who runs the show, talks to the horses, trying to keep the mare calm and the stallion focused.

"I am not sure if I am talking to the horses for me, or if it's for them," she says. "Sometimes I talk baby talk with them and it reminds me that it's like dealing with kids."

This is a dangerous business, Hagen is quick to remind. She has been bitten and kicked, but unlike others at the farm, hasn't been hurt badly enough to be rushed to the hospital.

Free at Last is a particularly ornery stallion.

"Put your ears back, we're talking about you, you old grump," she shouts at him.

Free at Last has hurt several handlers, and now only two people handle the horse, including Hagen. Free at Last is equally rough on mares, and it takes all of Hagen's 30 years of experience to successfully and safely get him to mate with Leona Drive, a mare Hagen owns. It happens quickly.

"Don't blink, or you will miss it," she says.

The odds are quite good that Leona Drive will become pregnant. About 90 to 94 percent of breedings at the farm produce pregnancies, Hagen says.

"Ultrasound is our biggest friend," Hagen says.

Using ultrasound, along with a physical examination, a veterinarian can pinpoint the time a mare is most likely to get pregnant. Two weeks after breeding, the same procedure will reveal if she is pregnant. If not, Hagen can try again in another couple of weeks.

Gestation is about 340 days, and mares are often bred again about two weeks after giving birth.

This has been a good season at El Dorado. Through Monday afternoon, Hagen has delivered 41 babies this year without a single fatality to mother or baby.

"I'm not going to say anything, because I don't want to jinx it," Hagen says. "This is life and death out here. We usually lose about one or two a year. It never gets any easier. If it starts getting easy, I would quit."

Hagen, 50, delivered her first baby horse when she was 21, going off information she learned from a book and what she had gathered in an animal-reproduction course at Colorado State University.

"I've always had good instincts with animals," she says. "I had another lady with me on the first delivery, but she didn't know anything and was a nervous wreck. I would have been better off myself."

That first delivery went just fine, but Hagen recalls some that haven't gone well. She can remember still-born horses having to be cut out of mares, and mares who have died. After thirty years of deliveries, she has seen almost everything, but a veterinarian is just five minutes away if she needs help.

It's her love of horses that keeps her smiling, even late into the breeding season when she hasn't had a long night's sleep in a few months.

"They're just like my kids, and I love every one of them," she says.

Her kids begin life rather large, weighing between 120 to 140 pounds at birth. They begin walking after about 40 minutes.

For the first four months, the babies will stay with their mothers, gain a few hundred pounds and enjoy ample room to roam.

Leaving their mothers can be traumatic for the weanlings, but being around the other weanlings helps soften the blow.

"Sometimes they will cry for their mother, but we move the mares away so the babies can't hear their mom cry back," Hagen says.

After leaving their mothers, the weanlings have a grand time playing and roaming together over about 12 to 15 acres on the farm, in groups of four to six.

"You should see them," Hagen says. "They really have a lot of fun out there together."

Their time is unstructured, but the young horses will receive a head-to-toe exam at least twice to make sure nothing is amiss.

Just watching the horses galloping and playing, Hagen says she can see the talented ones.

"You can just tell by looking," she says. "You notice the ones that get off all their feet when they gallop, and just their composition. You can just tell."

Regardless of when they were born, all weanlings become 1-year-olds on Jan. 1. They will continue to enjoy the easy life through the spring, when many of them will be prepared for late-summer yearling sales.

Those deemed not talented enough to race will be sold for other purposes, including dressage and hunter jumper competitions.

Those destined for the racetrack first must be broken, or taught how to carry a rider. Gone are the carefree days of spring because in the fall, school starts.

Going to class

"It's done in steps, just like a kid going to kindergarten, first grade, second grade," says longtime trainer Steve Bullock, who has been breaking horses for more than 30 years. "You graduate from one grade and you go to the next."

This is accomplished in small steps and with lots of repetition. Bullock spends about 10 minutes a day with each horse, six days a week for about six weeks.

First, they simply wear a saddle and bridle to get used to it. Then Bullock drives them, describing it like a horse pulling a buggy or wagon as he stands several feet behind.

"You're teaching them how to turn, stop and back up. This takes a lot of the spook out of them," says Bullock, who has trained 208 winners at Emerald Downs, ranking him 11th on the career list.

After about three days of driving, it's time for the big moment when a human gets on them for the first time, in the confines of a stall.

"It's the most critical step, because they're pretty scared," he says. "Some try to buck you and throw you off."

Bullock, a jockey as a teenager before he got too big, has suffered several broken noses and a broken ankle, but nothing too serious and says he's lucky.

Bullock, 48, says his experience helps him avoid most bad situations.

"You can kind of think ahead and know what they're going to do before they do it," he says.

After a few days in the stall, the horses graduate to a small round pen, then to a small arena. About 15 or 16 days from the time they were first saddled, they head to a training track, where they will be galloped for about a month.

"You like to get about 40 to 45 days total, but it depends on the horse," Bullock says. "In our business, the first thing we ask is who the horse is by. We know that horses by certain stallions are tougher to break than others."

Bullock breaks about 50 horses each year, in two different groups.

"I enjoy it, but the main thing is, it lets me stay home with my family during the winter," he says. With Emerald Downs closed, his alternative would be training horses in another state.

It also gives him a chance to judge young talent.

"I get a pretty good idea which ones are the athletes," he says.

When Bullock finishes the process, he usually gives his horses a little rest. Emerald Downs opens for training in February, when serious preparation begins.

Training time

Tim McCanna has won more races than any trainer in Emerald Downs history. His greatest enjoyment comes from developing 2-year-olds.

"The first thing you do is get a minimum of 100 days of training in them," he says, and like Bullock, he stresses repetition and routine.

"Before you even think about stepping on the gas with them, you want them used to all the right habits — going to the track, getting into the gate, standing for a bath afterward, just behaving themselves and learning how everything is done — and that's done by repetition."

McCanna says even the smallest mistake in training can prove disastrous, such as one false step at the end of a gallop.

"Let's say when you stop riding, you turn to the right to come back, instead of turning inside to the left like on the racetrack. It might not happen right away, but sometime down the line he will probably bolt.

"The horse remembers that one time you did it wrong. One day, he will be loping along and then suddenly take a right turn. You think, 'Geez, why did he do that?' And the reason he did that is because someone taught him that. The thing about 2-year-old is you want to make sure they make all the right moves."

McCanna, 45, says a horse's initial experience in a starting gate is also key. McCanna has young horses ridden through an open gate several times before locking them in.

"The big thing is not to have a wreck, because then you tend to have a bad-acting racehorse forever," he says. "You avoid a wreck by not pushing it."

McCanna says 2-year-olds need to be prepared for everything.

"You have to get them used to running with others, getting dirt in their face, going to the track with a pony and going to the paddock," he says. "You try to show them everything they could possibly see."

Even then, things can go wrong, such as a nice sunny day when the umbrellas are open along the front of the racetrack to shade patrons at Emerald Downs.

"You have them all ready and you lead them over all proud for their first race, when they all freeze up and start running backwards because they've never seen umbrellas before," McCanna says. "That's the kind of stuff you're up against."

McCanna says the biggest challenge is getting his 2-year-olds to the races. Many are not physically ready.

"You can only push them so hard," he says. "If you push just a little bit past what they're able to take, you're likely to have blown the whole year right there."

McCanna says he can't always tell the best 2-year-olds, but he can tell the bad ones.

"Some horses will develop more than you think," he said. "I really enjoy getting them from the start, developing them and seeing them get better."

And some might get really, really good.

"Here's a bunch right there who have never lost," he says, pointing to some of his unstarted 2-year-olds.

It's that optimism that keeps the business going.

Scott Hanson: 206-464-2943 or shanson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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