SHAKOPEE (AP) -- Art Eaton was just minutes away from a shot at his dream date, but if he was nervous, it didn't show. Eaton, a farmer from Cannon Falls, knew he might soon fork over seven grand to buy a one-night stand for his horse.
It was almost show time at Minnesota's most exclusive escort service: the 18th annual Thoroughbred Stallion Service Auction at Canterbury Park, where more than 100 race fans gathered last month to swap tales of storied progeny, cluck at the indignity of what everyone there called "AI" (artificial insemination) and talk discreetly of the much preferred method of making horses (and the only one accepted by the Jockey Club registry of thoroughbred racing), something called "natural cover."
It may be the world's unsexiest meeting that is pretty much predicated on the topic of sex. But the auction, which funds the Minnesota Thoroughbred Association, is the local horse world's main event. And this year was special, a sellout to see bidders go after dangerous liaisons with two big-name horses, Alphabet Soup and Lit de Justice, that regularly fetch $20,000 and $30,000 per romantic evening.
Unlike the famous stud horse auction at Kentucky's Keeneland Race Track, a lavish affair attended by Arab sheiks and movie stars that raises hundreds of millions of dollars, the Canterbury shindig had that quintessential Minnesota veneer. Here, where the thoroughbred horse industry is still a relative filly, the scene more resembled a cross between snazzy doings at the local country club and a bake sale at the neighborhood Lutheran church.
"We have 130 guests and 130 game hens, so I hope nobody shows up unexpected," one coordinator worried at the start of the evening.
Indeed, even the "New England-Themed Dinner" had some conspicuous Minnesota twists: The Cornish game hen was accompanied by a wild rice concoction and a heaping side of carrot slaw.
If this auction is representative of Minnesota's local horse set, it may be one of the more eclectic subgroups in town. The crowd seemed split evenly between monied investors -- those would be the ones in sport coats and Italian sweaters -- and the dirt-under-the-fingernails end of horse racing. Those would be the people in the tall hats, pointed boots and belt buckles the size of dinner plates.
Yet, there was one unmistakable bond that made them all part of the same herd: "This is the only place I can go and talk about horses, and people actually talk back," said Joe Friedberg, a Minneapolis defense lawyer who owns more than 30 thoroughbreds.
A short walk through the silent auction items spread out enticingly on long luncheon tables and you knew you weren't at just any charity auction. Where else, for example, could you bid on a package of Flair Equine Nasal Strips (value $60)?
Along the track side of the room, people gathered around small televisions to watch studs gallop in a race. One person selling stud services was Wade Feuring, of Rockin' River Farms in Iowa. Wade was nicely scrubbed up, with rosy red cheeks. His beige cowboy hat sat just right on his head while he sold potential customers on the beauty of his stud, Kyle's Our Man.
"He studded in Kentucky for $10,000," says Feuring proudly, "but we're from Iowa, so ..." he was only fetching $1,500 in the Midwest.
Down the way, a man in a snappy sport coat sipped a White Russian and considered a bid on the Helpful Foaling Kit ("2 enemas, suckling, thermometer, clean rag"). Finally the man looked to his wife for advice. She wrinkled her nose dismissively, and they walked away.
By 7:30, that seven grand was burning a hole in Art Eaton's pocket.
The auction moved quickly. Five hundred for a coupling here, $1,500 back there. Bright Launch went for $3,600. Alphabet Soup brought $12,500. Wild Invader, Rocamundo and Raise Your Hope all had their dance cards punched.
After each winning bid, there was a minor clamor as a bottle of Asti Spumanti was raced to the bidder, who promptly signed a check.
It was exciting stuff, except for this: It was almost impossible to tell who was bidding. If auction bidders are normally stealthy, remember that these are silent-type Midwestern farmers. Nobody moved.
"Don't sneeze or scratch your head," warned Burt Dahlberg, "Or you'll have to borrow my mare."
Burt and Sandy Dahlberg weren't there to bid on studs; they already had booked their mares with horses in Kentucky. The Dahlbergs are typical horse people: An innocent hobby and love of horses lured them into buying a 25-acre farm near Lakeville "for convenience." That convenience now occupies about 70 hours a week of Sandy's time as well as a good portion of their income.
"Once this gets in your blood, that's it," she said. "It's like raising kids and seeing them through college. Except you can find a baby sitter for your kids and get away from them once in a while."
The trick to breeding a horse, the Dahlbergs say, is to plan the breeding so that the 11-month gestation period ends as close to -- but not before -- Jan. 1 as possible. Horses race against horses their own age, and they are considered one-year-olds on Jan. 1, so you don't want them born in December, or later in spring. A few months of development can make a huge difference in a race, Burt Dahlberg said.
That means most of the breeding gets scheduled around mid-February -- say, Valentine's Day.
A horse person looking for a good stud considers two major things, according to Burt Dahlberg: pedigree and race record. But because these studs were donated to the association, there were no guarantees. So breeders spending thousands of dollars needed to also consider the stud's breeding success rates. Some even buy expensive insurance in case the meeting doesn't produce results.
That's why Eaton, who keeps 30 to 60 horses at his farm, had his sights set on a horse with a good libido and a fancy French name: Lit de Justice, which the auctioneer pronounced with the delicacy of a stampede. Yes, Lit de Justice would tango nicely with Eaton's Better Look Twice, he thought.
But the price proved too rich. Eaton was outbid by Russ Sampson, of Stillwater's Curtis Sampson Farms, who plopped down $9,000 so Lit de Justice could meet his mare, Sam Danya, this February.
"We wanted to do something real good for her," said Sampson.
As the blush wine began to flow, you could overhear people brag about fertility rates, quarter-mile times and mating schedules. There was palpable excitement over the notion that the racehorse breeding season, and spring, was not that far away. The air would once again be filled with -- if not exactly love -- at least plenty of "natural cover."
Friedberg spoke of the approaching season with awe: "A stud will be bred about a hundred times from January to May," he said. "Good work if you can get it. They sure don't have anything like that for lawyers."
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