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Philadelphia Eagle, Fox Sports Converge on Reigle Heir Farm

by Stephanie Lawson

The stallion barn sports seven of those big flat screen LCD televisions, the kind that's highly coveted but still a little out of the price range of most sports loving husbands. Under each is a sleek thoroughbred stallion with a pedigree and a racing record that makes the hearts of mare owners beat a little faster. Mare owners can watch the prospective daddies in action on the LCD TV overhead before making up their minds.

But on this day, the stallions and their races are not the focus. All the attention is on the Philadelphia Eagles running back standing just beside them.

It's a beautiful September Tuesday, and Eagles running back Brian Westbrook, on his day off, has traveled in a black stretch limo to Reigle Heir Farm in Grantville, PA. He is there for a few hours to shoot a four to five minute segment for "Helmets Off," a monthly, reality-based, unscripted program on Fox Sports Net. This episode, which airs October 1, focuses on what NFL players would like to do if there were no NFL.

Curt Warner would have liked to be a game show host, and the producers have arranged for him to spend a day with Pat Sajak. David Akers, also of the Eagles, would like to be a NASCAR driver, and he is spending a day at the Richard Petty Driving School.

Brian Westbrook wouldn't mind owning a racehorse breeding farm. The producers have arranged for him to spend some time at Reigle Heir Farm, arguably Pennsylvania's largest thoroughbred breeding farm.

Promise and Hope

Look at the stud, watch it win the Kentucky Derby on the big screen overhead, breed your mare. Beautifully manicured, with the latest technology, Reigle Heir is a place of promise and hope in Pennsylvania's rocketing thoroughbred breeding industry.

It's a place its new owners, two couples hoping to spread horse racing fever to a whole new cohort, want to make a second home for the people who keep the racing industry alive not millionaires but regular people who own part of a horse. If a millionaire like Westbrook writes a check, that's okay too.

Reigle Heir Farm, just a couple miles from Penn National Racecourse, is one of Pennsylvania's largest thoroughbred breeding operations. Started by Tom and Ann Reigle on a mere 8.8 acres in 1969, it now comprises 78 acres and is home to seven breeding stallions and about 60 mares. Six of the top eleven stallions in Pennsylvania stand at the farm.

Thirty-six years later, the Reigles decided it was time to take a break from the 24/7 life of a breeding farm. New owners Dennis and Michele Madonna and Brad and Susan Jones closed on the farm September 1st. Tom Reigle will stay on as a consultant. The new owners are planning to expand -- they own three other farms within a mile of Reigle Heir and expect to be able to accommodate as many as 220 mares.

Real Quiet

The farm's newest addition is Real Quiet, the ten-year-old stallion who came within a nod of winning the Triple Crown in 1998. By Quiet American and out of the winning Believe It mare Really Blue, he won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness before losing the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown in a photo finish. No horse since Affirmed in 1978 has come as close to a Triple Crown victory. He has sired 72 winners from 152 starters who have earned $3,054,045. He stands sixteenth among third-crop sires. The fee for the 1998 champion three-year-old male is $6,500 or $5,000 for Pennsylvania-registered foals.

A 14-member syndicate managed by Tom Reigle owns the stallion. Real Quiet joins the other breeding stallions, 2004 Pennsylvania Horse of the Year Patton, Caller ID, Roanoke, Banker's Gold, Cat's Corner and Mazel Trick. Mare owners from Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland and even Kentucky are sending their stock to Grantville to be bred.

On the horizon are some of the country's biggest purses, for which only Pennsylvania-bred horses are eligible. Pennsylvania now pays $8.3 million to Pennsylvania-bred winners. In the next few years, that figure will increase to nearly $25 million. "The new breeders' awards are like a magnet," Madonna said.

Dennis Madonna, with his dad, has been in the racing business since 1997. Currently he has 14 running, primarily at Penn National, a mile and a half away. Brad Jones was raised on a farm in Erie County and showed American Saddlebreds and Tennesee Walkers in the 1950's. He recently retired from the trucking industry and found himself with the time to reconnect with horses.

Madonna and Jones are hoping to reach beyond current mare owners for their future customer base. "We like to see people have a good time," Madonna said. "We would like to make it affordable for people to be a part of the excitement of thoroughbred racing. Make it possible for them to visit the farm, go to the track, stand in the winner's circle, without being a millionaire."

They hope that new owners will, with guidance, get into racing by purchasing a mare on their own or as part of a syndicate and breeding her to one of the farm's stallions.

Breeding Shed

Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook and Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Real Quiet get acquainted at Reigle Heir Farm in Grantville, PA.

For Brian Westbrook, the day is an eye-opener. First stop is the breeding shed, where an open mare, foal by her side, is brought in. Tom Reigle explains the concept of teasing. "That's how we tell if she's in heat. We bring in the stallion and if she acts receptive, raises her tail, that's a pretty good indication she's ready to breed," Tom Reigle says. "But this poor guy never gets any."

Reigle explains that mare owners bring their mares to be bred, with the goal of either racing or selling the foal, perhaps for major money.

This mare foaled late and has been left open so she can be bred for an early foal. He explains that every thoroughbred foal turns one on January 1, and late foals are at a disadvantage.

She's receptive, so the stallion heads back to his stall and the mare is led to a chute in the breeding shed for an ultrasound. Veterinarian Jeff Edelson shows Westbrook how to hold the tail over her back while he examines her. "I didn't know it would be this hands-on," he says, somewhat uncomfortably.

Edelson, who spends four hours a day at Reigle Heir during breeding season, explains that ultrasound is used to determine how ready the mare is to ovulate. "We look at the ovaries. There's a follicle, how big it is determines the optimal time to breed, today, tonight, tomorrow morning.

"This is as high tech as it gets," Edelson explains. "We pinpoint the optimal time so we can breed once, for efficiency and so the stallions stay interested. The optimal time for this mare is tomorrow morning. But if we bred her then she would have an August foal, so we won't."

After a brief autograph session with farm employees and friends, it's on to the stallion barn, where Westbrook starts to feel more comfortable.

"Brian always wanted to be involved with horses," Madonna said, "but he didn't really know why he was coming or what the day was about even when he got out of the limo. He did very well. We spent some time with the stallions and he held Real Quiet by himself. At the end he was utterly comfortable. He seemed very interested in everything he was shown.

"We're working on helping him to become a horse owner," he said.

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