“The stallion barn is the soul of the farm.”
Some years ago, at a veterinary conference outside Worcester in the Western Cape, I was asked to present a paper on the likely impact of artificial insemination on our industry. Denied the benefits of the shuttle stallion concept because of the constraints of our export and import protocols, there was a strong body of opinion in favour of the importation of foreign semen, yet there was little thought for the implications. Firstly, there was the cost. The belief that we may be better off with either the shuttle stallions or the straws that accompany artificial insemination, was based on a fanciful notion that we might be able to afford the best of both. The truth is, our market cannot support the consequences that flow from the cost of accessing the best Northern Hemisphere stallions, simply because local buyers don’t spend the kind of money it takes to recover the input costs.
Australia is the only Southern Hemisphere country which can afford the best Northern Hemisphere stallions (and even there, there is a vortex of accumulated and unrealised value in their yearling markets), followed by New Zealand and South America (pretty much in that order, and in the latter case because of its proximity to the American market), and it follows then if we did have the protocols to enable the shuttle, we would still be no better than fourth in the pecking order. By the time you get down to that level, you may as well be supporting your own proven domestic stallions, and so, outside of the variety aspect, at best, there’d be little or no benefit to local breeders. At worst, the novelty and the temptation that so often accompanies the belief that foreign is better, might eventually leave us worse off, as we pursue the international option for the wrong reasons. The same argument applies to the cost of semen in an artificial insemination scenario. That’s the commercial element, as far as the purchase of sperm from abroad is concerned, whether you do so through the shuttle or AI.
In the domestic context, sitting where we are in KwaZulu-Natal, there would’ve been obvious commercial benefits for us if artificial insemination were legitimised locally. The physical implications and the logistics involved in shipping mares more than 3000 kilometres to and from the Western Cape (or vice versa) makes accessing stallions in either region for mares resident across the country, quite complex and fairly expensive. But if you were able to extract semen from a stallion resident, for example, at Summerhill, and ship the straws in a flask overnight by air to Cape Town, you could access the other two thirds of the broodmare population by DHL, simple as that. Instantly, that would open up an enormous new market for us at Summerhill. Yet I have to say, if only for sentimental reasons, I couldn’t bear the thought of our stallions serving a wooden horse through an artificial vagina, and operating that way, no matter the financial benefits. The stallion barn is the soul of the farm, and to see a stallion entering the barn to serve a mare is to see him at his absolute best. Here is a creature which has reached a point of perfection after 300 years of selection, and he’s nothing if he’s not the noblest animal on earth in his present form.
The world’s best breeders have for centuries been selecting for grace, nobility, for courage, intelligence, speed and stamina and for the mental and physical robustness that characterises the breed. To see those beautifully chiselled heads, the flared nostrils, the ears erect, their veins pumped, the necks craned and those bodies sprung for action, and the arrogant swagger that belongs only to the thoroughbred, is to see something else.
The other side of the coin is this. The argument in favour of artificial insemination has always been that to deny it, is to restrict trade unfairly, and there is obviously merit in it. I believe that several of the world’s regulatory authorities have sought advice on it, and it seems there is a body of legal opinion which suggests that a challenge to the present system of banning artificial insemination might just as easily result in it being declared an unfair trade practice, as not.
On the other hand, if it does represent an unfair trade practice, why shouldn’t we condone cloning or embryo transfer (the practice of impregnating several embryos in a mare and placing them in a number of host mares) so that you could reproduce four or five, or more for that matter, own brothers and sisters from a single mating. That, in a matter of a sentence, would destroy the breed and everything it stands for.
It’s with some relief then, that we learnt late last evening of the decision of an Australian High Court to protect their industry from the impact of artificial insemination. The $10 million case was defeated when Judge Alan Robertson ruled against the application by hobby breeder and former leviathan bookmaker Bruce McHugh, to remove the restrictions against AI and found that Australian rules of racing that ban it are not anti-competitive nor a restriction of trade. Crucially, Judge Robertson said in an exhaustive 368 page judgment that has taken 13 months to compile that outlawing of AI in horses is not contrary to the trades practices/anti-trust act. Judge Robertson said the court was not interested in the availability or not of AI, but only if its unlawfulness contradicted the rules of competition. Clearly, he said, it wasn’t. During last year’s six-week trial in Sydney’s Federal Court, more than 30 witnesses from Australia, France, Ireland, United Kingdom and Hong Kong argued the case for and against AI, with McHugh claiming the banning of AI was contrary to the act, while racing and breeding officialdom arguing it was not a restraint of trade. Officials from the Australian Racing Board and Australian Stud Book made submissions based on the damage legalizing AI would do to Australia’s A$200-million dollar trade to the rest of the world which outlaws the practice. This evidence proved critical in the published findings of Judge Robertson, who mentioned several times he was mindful of international standards and Australia’s role in it. In the judgment, the Judge was supportive of the status quo and the dangers of changing it. Michael Duffy, the Chairman of the ARB, welcomed the decision upholding the validity of the Australian rules of racing in respect to the definition of a Thoroughbred. We have always maintained the naturally bred Thoroughbred was the basis of the domestic and international sport of racing, and AI proponents were free to establish their own industry as they wished, Duffy explained. This case has created uncertainty which will lift following the decision, he added.
ARB chief executive Peter McGauran said he was relieved the case was over. “It’s settled and I am relieved. This case has taken a long time and has been very testing, he stated. It is positive for breeding that our rules that have operated for over 200 years are not anti-competitive or a restriction of trade.” Asked about the future if the AI supporters continue to press their case outside the law, McGauran stated, “They are welcome to rent out our racecourses after we have used them. They can develop a separate racing code if they like. But that will not be the future, according to McHugh. For me it’s over. I gave it my best shot and I was wrong,” he commented. “The law is the law. Our witnesses didn’t convince Judge Robertson that the law is anti-competitive. He also was not convinced that if Australia went alone it would not be to our disadvantage commercially,” he continued. McHugh, who financed his own case costing more than A$3.5 million, is used to such pressure and cut his teeth duelling with the world’s biggest punter Kerry Packer, sometimes turning over A$20 million in an afternoon with individual bets of A$4 million.
McHugh began his personal crusade four years ago after retiring from bookmaking and out of frustration and a personal sense of grievance of what he saw as official disdain for his plan to AI some Thoroughbred mares on his property. The case had garnered international interest and drew a comment from Louis Romanent, Chairman of the International Federation of Horse Racing Authorities who welcomed the no case against AI. “The dismissal of the challenge is a good outcome and I welcome it,” Romanet said in a release. “The definition of what is a Thoroughbred is set out clearly in the International Agreement on Breeding, Racing and Wagering and is adopted by all of the IFHA Member countries throughout the world. It requires a natural covering.” Trevor Lobb, chairman of Thoroughbred Breeders Australia, said the decision would allow Australians to continue to send horses around the world and investors to buy with confidence at upcoming yearling sales. Ironically, if our memories serve us correctly, McHugh was chairman of the Sydney Turf Club at the time he launched his challenge. Only in Oz!