Although most of us will not be in the market for horse semen any time soon, how much it costs is nevertheless an interesting question. This is especially true given that in some cases, horse semen can end up being one of the most expensive liquids on the planet in terms of price per millilitre. Yes, even more than printer ink, craft beer or a coffee in the posh new coffee shop near you! And, of course, these eye-watering asking prices do not go without takers either, as the racing industry continues to attract wealthy and willing investors, prepared to pay whatever it takes to get the finest horse semen known to man (or horse!).
While it is easy to focus on the high-profile cases, we will also look at how much more typical horse semen fetches both within thoroughbred racing and outside. For a stallion lacking an overly impressive career record, horse semen becomes much more affordable but this often shows in the quality of the off-spring.
How Is Horse Semen Delivered?
Usually, in the modern world at least, when you buy something that is tangible, it will end up being sent to you in the post or by courier. When it comes to horse semen though, there are two different possible methods of delivery. One way is for the semen to be stored in a tube (also known as a straw) and then sent out or collected by the buyer.
1. Artificial Insemination
If there is no immediate buyer the semen can be frozen and thawed when needed. To collect the semen sample itself, the male horse will ejaculate into an artificial vagina usually placed inside a breeding mount although other ways are possible. Compared to mounting a live horse, this approach is safer for the stallions as there is really no chance of them being tipped off. Additionally, it is usually more hygienic too, reducing the risk of catching an infectious disease.
The semen within the straw will then be inserted inside a chosen mare and pregnancy via such means is a process known as artificial insemination. This way the mare and stallion never have to meet, giving access to a wider gene pool, and there is no danger of a failed performance so to speak. Despite the benefits of this method though, the International Thoroughbred Breeders’ Federation (ITBF) have been consistently and firmly against artificial insemination. Indeed, artificial insemination has long been banned in the world of professional thoroughbred racing but there is not a complete ban across other breeds. The American Quarter Horse Association, for instance, explicitly allows artificial insemination so there is a market for it.
2. Live Cover
For the bodies that ban AI though, what they require instead is pregnancy via what is known as ‘live cover’. This is simply foals being produced in the most traditional way possible. For this to occur the mare will be taken to the stallion (or potentially vice versa) and there will be no need for any test tubes or artificial reproductive organs. There are some additional risks carried through a live cover approach, one being that the stallion may be kicked in the crown jewels (!) (mares often wear soft boots to reduce any potential damage). When also factoring in potential logistical difficulties and timing this with ovulation periods, it may seem strange that artificial insemination, rather than live cover, is now the thoroughbred racing standard.
The main argument against it appears to be that artificial insemination, if allowed to be freely utilised, would severely narrow the gene pool. The top horses around could produce enough semen for all the mares that needed impregnating as one dose of ejaculate could theoretically impregnant around 50 – 100 times more mares. Rather than a stallions’ genetics being somewhat exclusive, it suddenly would become very widely available, driving down the price massively too. As such, it should come as little surprise that the stud industry is strongly opposed towards allowing artificial insemination into thoroughbred racing.
By only allowing stallions to directly cover, as is the term, mares, exclusivity and high prices are maintained. From the buyer’s perspective it is also preferred because there can be no doubt that they are getting what they have paid for. If you are paying a six-figure sum for a stallion’s semen, you want to be sure that it is coming from the famed horse it is supposed to be and the natural method of reproduction means there can be little doubt.
How Much Semen Can a Horse Produce?
Artificial insemination can be far more lucrative for stud farms because a horse will produce around 80ml of ejaculate in one go. When this is directed into a tube, the full sample, so to speak, can be divided into many small straws and then sold off. Each straw may only contain 0.5ml to 1ml of semen as this alone can have over 800 million sperm cells. This means a breeder can potentially have 100+ straws of semen in one day from just one stallion. As well as being a lucrative process, it is a quick one too with horses usually needing just six to nine thrusts to fully release, in a process that often takes less than 20 seconds from start to finish. No sniggering at the back, please.
At Least Once a Day
If going down the live cover route, it is largely down to libido but the vast majority of stallions can mate at least once a day, every day of the week. This figure can be easily exceeded though, in the case of Sea The Stars, he could be active up to five times a day (spaced out across the whole day) although two or three times is more common.
This pace may be difficult to maintain for the full breeding season mind you, partly due to popularity and scheduling, but a busy stallion could well be paired with 90-120 mares during a five-month period. Although it may be possible for a stallion to pass on even more semen than this, a good stud farm has to factor in sperm quality. The more active a horse is, the less sperm will feature in each ejaculate and this can reduce the chance of pregnancy.
High Success Rates with Live Cover
Even if a sufficiently rested stallion performs their duty, there is no certainty that the mare will fall pregnant, of course. Success rates are generally good though, with most live coverings proving a success a first time, especially once the reliability of the stallion has been demonstrated through previous success. If not though, what happens next depends on the policy of the stud or that particular stallion.
It may be that the fee paid includes multiple attempts in the event the mare does not fall pregnant on the first or second time. This is, of course, a potential fee lost for the stud farm as they could be taking on a brand new mare instead of having a repeat customer. It does make the initial agreement more appealing though, as it offers an assurance on what can be on an expensive investment.
What Is the Horse Semen Cost Via Live Cover?
Like with many other liquids whether it is wine or perfumes, prices vary massively when it comes to horse semen depending on its quality, or at least perceived quality. Untalented horses will not be sent to stud upon retirement but there are many solid but fairly unremarkable horses that are. At the lowest end of the stud fee scale, yards will demand a fee of just £1,000 or £2,000 for their stallion. You may occasionally find lower than this, such as the £500 commanded by Rosshill Farm’s Altruistic, but this was a horse that peaked during his career with a third-place finish in the Racing Post Trophy.
Typically a Four Figure Sum
Some stud fees are kept private and it is likely a few of these will be below the £1,000 mark but only a minority. In most cases though, prices are made publicly available and they will typically be a four-figure sum. Part of this is simply because it is expensive to maintain a horse post-retirement and they will no longer be bringing in any prize money from their racing.
In the mid-range category of thoroughbred racing breeding, you will be looking at between £5,000 and £20,000, and there are a lot of stallions that command a fee within this range. Plenty of very decent horses will fall under this category, perhaps those that enjoyed a Group/Grade 1 victory, or a few wins at a slightly lower level. Above £20,000 and you need quite a special horse to justify the price tag. At the time of writing, of the 274 UK and Irish stallions retired to stud, only 30 would set you back more than £20,000 for their services.
Six Figure Sums from Exceptional Horses Only
In some cases, horses approaching or exceeding a six-figure sum will have enjoyed a truly exceptional career, most likely bagging multiple major races. Their career does not have to be a long one mind you as sometimes a fantastic showing as a juvenile is all it takes. No Nay Never (€125,000 stud fee) is a good example of this as he only made six career starts but an unbeaten season as a two-year-old means his genes are held in high regard.
In other cases though, it is the progeny (offspring) record that allows stud farms to up the fee multiple times over. Take Kodiac, for instance. When initially retired to stud in 2007, this largely unremarkable horse carried a fairly low fee of £5,000, which was later lowered to £4,000. Skip forward to 2019 though and Tally Ho Stud were finding buyers at £65,000 because it appears Kodiac had some very fine genes despite not being a prolific racer himself. He has ended up being the sire of a string of talented horses but most notably Best Solution who earned well over £2m in prize money.
Progeny Record Helps Shape Pricing
Over time it is the progeny record that helps shape the price as it can easily transpire that an exceptional horse does not actually have especially great genes. Or at least that whatever made them a great horse is not being transferred to the foals they sire. If you take a look at previous Derby winners for example, although it takes an elite horse to win this race, many turn out to be rather ordinary stallions.
Derby winner in 2017, Wings of Eagle, only commands a €4,000 stud fee while 2013 champion, Ruler of the World, is only a little higher at €5,000. There is, of course, a good correlation between career record and stud record though, with other Derby winners like Camelot (€75,000), Australia (€35,000) and Sea The Stars (€150,000) all proving to be extremely useful sires.
Top Stallions in Thoroughbred Racing
It is no surprise to see the mighty Frankel among the stallions commanding the highest stud fee given the truly exceptional career he enjoyed. He does not top the list mind you as this goes to Dubawi, whose semen is so sought after given his incredible progeny record.
In 2021, he was by far and away the leading sire of Group and Stakes winners and at the time of writing he was directly responsible for 149 Group winners since his retirement in 2006. Obviously not all of his offspring have reached such heights but he has such an exceptional strike rate, which makes him the most sought after stallion in the business.
Most Expensive Stud Fees (April 2022)
|Name||Country||Fee||Year to Stud|
|Into Mischief||USA||USD 250,000||2009|
|Sea The Stars||IRE||EUR 150,000||2010|
|Wootton Bassett||IRE||EUR 150,000||2012|
|Uncle Mo||USA||USD 160,000||2012|
|Quality Road||USA||USD 150,000||2011|
|Lope De Vega||IRE||EUR 125,000||2011|
|No Nay Never||IRE||EUR 125,000||2015|
|Lord Kanaloa||JPN||JPY 15,000,000||2014|
|Gun Runner||USA||USD 125,000||2018|
It is interesting to note that the horse semen business is not just big in Britain and Ireland as in America, France and Japan, people will pay extremely good money for a top stallion.
What Is the Horse Semen Cost Via Artificial Insemination?
It is much cheaper to purchase a straw of semen than it is to pay for a stallion’s services directly. Partly this is because to feature in thoroughbred races you need to have a live cover foal, so foals produced via artificial insemination have a much lower earnings ceiling. Even in the case of Big Star, who was a very sought after stallion, a tube of his semen would only fetch $1,200, so comparable to the lowest live covering fee.
Per straw this appears to be something of a bargain but it does mean that Big Star is churning out around $100,000’s worth of semen each mount. During a stud season, if there were enough buyers, this could theoretically result in potentially $20m worth of sales, though in reality the figure would be far lower.
In the case of Big Star, his sperm was in such high demand because he was a top show jumping horse, rather than a competitive racer. It is easy to forget that the horse breeding industry is not just about producing stars of the track in flat or jumps racing but you have a range of other equestrian activities as well, with most of them eager to produce the best horses possible. Whether you are after a horse that has exceptional pace, agility, stamina or jumping ability, selective breeding gives you the best chance of securing this.