- The Washington Times - Monday, May 13, 2002

When War Emblem won a long-shot victory in the Kentucky Derby earlier this month, a Maryland breeding farm hit the lottery.
Audrey and Allen Murray hope to sell the thoroughbred's sire, Our Emblem, for about $10 million in the coming weeks a 40-fold return on a $250,000 investment in a stallion sold to them six months ago by a farm that considered him a failure as a stud.
Japanese and U.S. breeders already are competing to buy Our Emblem following the easy triumph of his offspring in the May 4 derby, a victory that prompted a small party of investors at Murmur Farm in Darlington, Md., to toast their fortune with champagne and to let Our Emblem celebrate with a few extra carrots.
Shares in a horse that once went for just $7,500 and were as appealing as a stake in a dot-com startup soon may be worth $300,000. The value of those shares will increase further should War Emblem win the 127th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday and even further still should he win the 134th Belmont Stakes on June 8 at Belmont Park and become horse racing's first Triple Crown champion in 24 years.
"It's fun to have the leading money earner in the country," Audrey Murray said gleefully. "It's chaos. Claiborne Farm called to congratulate us. They said we took a gamble and it paid off."
Our Emblem is the quintessential racing story, the kind of nags-to-riches saga that made Seabiscuit famous and, 63 years later, turned him into a best-selling book. From the $2 betting window to the breeding shed, everyone is looking for "the big horse."
The Murrays found him in Lexington, Ky., in November. Claiborne Farm, one of racing's top breeding operations, gave up on Our Emblem after he failed to sire any major stakes winners in five years. The farm dropped Our Emblem's stud fee from $7,500 to $4,000 but still was not able to attract business in a state that produces the world's best thoroughbreds.
Our Emblem was a failure on the track as well. He never won a major stakes race. In fact, he won only five of 27 outings at all levels from 1993 to 1996. A second-place finish in the Carter Handicap was his best result in a major race.
However, Our Emblem's royal bloodline made him a popular stud horse, or stallion, at first. He is a son of Mr. Prospector, arguably the greatest stud of the past 50 years. Our Emblem's dam was Personal Ensign, whose 13-0 career mark during the late 1980s made her the first undefeated filly champion in 70 years.
Preakness winners Nashua and Damascus, and Triple Crown winner Count Fleet, are in Our Emblem's bloodline. And, yes, War Admiral, who won the Triple Crown in 1937, is five generations back.
For the Murrays, Our Emblem represented their biggest financial risk since they bought their first broodmare for $800 in 1959. After that purchase, the Murrays steadily expanded the breeding operation to 13 broodmares and a half-dozen respectable stallions mostly known for their feats on local tracks. The couple bought what used to be a 133-acre dairy farm in 1988 when Allen Murray retired as an electrical engineer. They were ready for a pricey, underrated stallion.
The Murrays thought Our Emblem could be that horse. They couldn't believe he was available and decided to buy him, betting that his two unraced crops of offspring would produce enough stakes winners to increase the stallion's worth. The bet paid off April 6 when two of his sons won major races. War Emblem triumphed in the Illinois Derby, and Private Emblem took the Arkansas Derby.
"He was a good-looking horse," Audrey Murray said. "His pedigree is impeccable. They gave up on him in Kentucky, but we felt if we brought him to Maryland and reduced his stud fee, Our Emblem would be a star here. It was a little slow selling shares and booking mares because people knew they had given up on him in Kentucky."
The victories by his sons at the Illinois Derby and Arkansas Derby increased Our Emblem's stud fee back to $7,500. His future as a stud now looks bright and busy. He is booked three times each day through July, and his fee could increase to $30,000 if War Emblem sweeps the Preakness and Belmont. The stallion, who will mate with nearly 100 mares each year, could earn $3 million annually in fees alone. Our Emblem is expected to be able to serve as a stud for 10 more years.
His future in Maryland is not so certain. The Murrays won't consider any offer until after the Triple Crown, but a sale price of $10 million is not unfathomable.
"I hate to give him up, but there is a price," Audrey Murray said.
Maryland's breeding industry is one of the nation's leaders, with 112 stallions and 1,753 broodmares fueling an industry worth $614 million annually. The state's breeders are enjoying a boost in prestige thanks to War Emblem even if he is Kentucky bred.
"It certainly gives us great bragging rights," said Michael Flynn, vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "It created a huge amount of awareness that [you wouldnt get] no matter how much you spend on advertising."
The Murrays will attend the Preakness to see the son of Our Emblem. War Emblem resembles his stallion, though the colt's near-black coat is more reminiscent of 1989 Derby and Preakness champion Sunday Silence, a great-grandson of Mr. Prospector.
War Emblem won't repeat his 20-to-1 Derby odds in the Preakness. He may even be the favorite. However, the only sure thing is the Murrays' gamble has paid off handsomely.


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