'Ferdinand' - at Arrow Stud, Japan.
Ferdinand Slaughtered in
Japan in 2002
The Sport of Kings Can't Provide a Royal Ending for Derby Winner Ferdinand
By Margaret Baird
The first Saturday in May dawned bright, clear, and unusually cool in Louisville, Kentucky in 1986. The conditions were ideal to attract a massive crowd for the 112th running of the Kentucky Derby, the American horse racing industry's annual showcase of glamour, pageantry and high-stakes gambling.
Those in the stands that day, and those who watched on TV, witnessed a thrilling race as a handsome, regally bred chestnut colt named Ferdinand burst from the field in the homestretch and claimed the victory as a 17-to-1 long shot. His jockey, 54-year-old Bill Shoemaker, instantly became the oldest jockey to win the legendary race, while Ferdinand's trainer, Charlie Whittingham, won his first Derby at the age of 73.
The victory was validation for the racing world's Old Guard: Shoemaker and Whittingham were already Hall of Famers, while billionaire owner and breeder Howard Keck, a Texas oil man, had finally won himself a Derby trophy. What's more, Ferdinand had been foaled and broken under saddle at Kentucky's famed Claiborne Farm, home of generations of blue-blooded racing champions, including Seabiscuit, subject of the current blockbuster film. All told, Ferdinand's win made a compelling statement: that seniors could still compete in a youth-obsessed culture.
Ferdinand earned a then-record of $609,500 in winnings, but the colt wasn't through. After finishing second in the Preakness and third in the Belmont Stakes in 1986, the thoroughbred found his winning stride again the following season and won Horse of the Year honors by nosing out 1987 Kentucky Derby winner Alysheba in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Two years later, however, Ferdinand was retired to stud, a job at which he proved to be a dud. Five years after that, in 1994, he was shipped to Japan for a second try at standing stud. Again, he couldn't rise to the occasion. Earlier this summer, reports came out of Japan that Ferdinand was dead, apparently shipped to a Japanese slaughterhouse where he likely became pet food.
It was an ordinary end—thousands of lesser-known horses, after all, meet the same fate annually—for one extraordinary animal.
Fall from Grace
Howard Keck knew, like everyone else, that Ferdinand's value as a stallion prospect rose significantly after his major victories. Such a valuable horse can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in stud fees and breeding shares. With those dollars signs in eyes, Keck expressed his wish to see Ferdinand retired to stud at Claiborne.
"I think I may have more patience than most people," Keck told The Thoroughbred Record in 1986, referring to his long career as a breeder and his vindication with Ferdinand. "You have to in this business, because you have a lot of disappointments."
In Keck's own words, Ferdinand proved to be a "disappointment" as a stud when the horse was retired to Claiborne in 1989. The animal was simply unable to replicate his own brilliance in his progeny. In the ruthlessly high-stakes thoroughbred breeding business, that's a crime punishable by deportation.
In 1994, Ferdinand was unceremoniously sold to Japanese breeding interests and shipped halfway around the globe to stand stud for a much-reduced sum in the Land of the Rising Sun. The American racing world and Ferdinand's legions of fans quickly forgot about the once-beloved horse.
In July, however, The Blood Horse magazine learned that in 2002 the 19-year-old Ferdinand was "disposed of"—Japanese jargon for "killed in a slaughterhouse." Because he'd met his useful end as a stallion, Ferdinand was marketed as 'eat the meat of an American champion.'
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