As the 40th anniversary of Secretariat's Triple Crown run has come and gone, Big Red's blood seems to fade further into the distance of today's Thoroughbred breeding.
But in the sport horse world, that blood is still very much in demand.
In 1988, the Mr. Prospector mare Sue Babe foaled a strapping bay colt by Secretariat in what would be one of his last crops. As a yearling, the colt eventually named Innkeeper commanded $1.2 million from D. Wayne Lukas at auction. His running style didn't seem to match his looks, however, and Innkeeper was retired to stud at three with just one career win.
Although he's revered as a racehorse, Secretariat wasn't known for being as great a sire as many expected, and Innkeeper's stock went down the longer he stood at stud.
One of Innkeeper's few Thoroughbred offspring was Motel Time, a 1994 mare who finished second in the Maggies Pistol and third in the Born Famous Handicap in her days on the track. It seems she was Innkeeper's biggest success as a sire of racehorses.
Innkeeper stood initially in Ocala before transitioning to New York, where he garnered little support from Thoroughbred breeders. This is where, in the days before Old Friends and other stallion retirement facilities, the story could have taken an unfortunate turn, but it didn't.
The stallion eventually fell into the hands of Dr. Rick Irvine, and sporthorse breeder Ursula Ferrier met Innkeeper as an 8-year-old. By then, the stallion was a show horse in Connecticut, and his owner asked Ferrier if she would like to lease him. One of the few things she knew about him, besides his imposing looks and royal pedigree was his barn name—“Howard.” Ferrier didn't feel she had the right to change it.
“It's the stupidest name in the world. I'd always be in the barn screaming, ‘Howard!'” laughed Ferrier.
Ferrier became so enamored with the horse that she bought him. Throughout his younger years, Innkeeper dabbled in eventing, hunters, and dressage with success, even competing in the internationally-recognized Dressage at Devon show. He briefly competed with Olympic eventer Stephen Bradley and trained with Olympic eventer Bruce Davidson, who competed several of Howard's offspring.
Even though Innkeeper was a stallion, Ferrier said he was always a consummate professional, and despite a shrill neigh (which was once mistaken for the cry of a peacock), he was safe enough for a child or beginner to ride.
“Super, super temperament,” she said. “He's been ridden his whole life.
“I always said he was like Beavis from Beavis and Butthead or Eddie Haskell. He was always grabbing things and tossing blankets around. But he's very safe. Very loud and boisterous with a very beady, bright sort of pony eye. He's very cheeky.”
She had been looking for a Thoroughbred stallion to add to her breeding program, and Innkeeper had the perfect mix of imposing presence, physical sturdiness, correctness, and the type of racing blueblood that has become attractive to sporthorse owners. She got the horse licensed by the Oldenburg Registry North America and the International Sporthorse Registry—a difficult feat for a Jockey Club-registered Thoroughbred.
“He's just a beautiful horse. Just gorgeous. “He looks a lot like a bay version of Secretariat—same size but bay. The Warmblood people just fell all over themselves to find a Thoroughbred with that bloodline who looked like that,” recalled Ferrier.
Howard proved as versatile a stallion – standing several seasons at Maryland's Hilltop Farm – as he was in the show ring. Ferrier said he was preferred by breeders for his ability to “lighten up” stockier Warmblood mares while contributing a very sporthorse-type build. He has produced horses who have excelled as hunters, dressage mounts, eventers, and even stock horses.
Ferrier ultimately donated Innkeeper to Virginia Tech's Middleburg Agricultural Research and Extension (MARE) Center, where at age 25, he is still available for breeding via artificial insemination. Ferrier hadn't planned to give Howard up, but when the opportunity arose, she realized it was an ideal place for him to live out his days.
“We've been really impressed by how versatile a sire he's been,” said Dr. Rebecca Splan of the MARE Center. “I think he's benefitted from the fact that there's the Secretariat connection and the fact that being a Thoroughbred, he's able to contribute to so many different breed registries.
“He definitely has his fans out there, and the Secretariat connection does draw folks to him. He's a very good stallion in his own right without that as well. He certainly gets a lot of interest from folks from all over the U.S.”
Splan said Howard's excellent demeanor has made him an ideal teacher for the college students at the Center who are learning about herd health and stallion collections. He lives in a paddock near another of the Center's stallions, and Splan said he serves as a sort of rooster on the farm.
“He is very talkative. You always know what's going on on the farm because he lets you know,” said Splan.
Although many stallions who prove unpopular commercially are at risk of nefarious ends, Ferrier said she doesn't feel that Howard would have ever been in real danger of becoming another ‘unwanted horse.'
“He was sort of lost in the Thoroughbred world … [but] you stop to look at him. He's very striking,” said Ferrier. “We always joked that he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He's just one of those kinds of characters where if you dropped the bread it would land butter side up. I know it happens to a lot of them, but I don't think it would have ever happened to him.
“It's just how he is.”
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