Murmur Farm in Position for Financial Windfall

Murmur Farm in Position for Financial Windfall
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Murmur Farm stallion and leading sire Our Emblem.
Published in the May 25 issue of The Blood-Horse
After War Emblem hit the wire in the May 18 Preakness Stakes (gr. I), Audrey Murray cashed a $5 ticket on the speedy colt and got back $19. But any day now, she and her husband, Allen, could be celebrating an even bigger payoff as the result of War Emblem's success in the Triple Crown races.

War Emblem's sire, Our Emblem, stands at the Murrays' Murmur Farm near Darlington, Md. Once considered a failure, he is now North America's No. 1 stallion by progeny earnings. And the Murrays are being courted by a host of bloodstock agents wanting to buy the 11-year-old Mr. Prospector horse, whose offspring also include Arkansas Derby (gr. II) winner Private Emblem and May 18 Railbird Stakes (gr. III) winner September Secret.

Prior to the Preakness, the Murrays estimated they had received 25 inquiries about purchasing Our Emblem. One came just minutes after War Emblem rolled to victory in the May 4 Kentucky Derby (gr. I), from an agent from California representing Japanese clients.

The Murrays, who are the majority shareholders in Our Emblem, also have heard from horsemen in New York, Florida, and Kentucky. A written offer for $4.5 million was turned down.

"I don't know what we are going to do," said Allen Murray, who watched War Emblem's Preakness victory with his family from box seats on Pimlico's second floor. "I'm just so overwhelmed that I don't know actually what Our Emblem is worth now. We've been telling people that we wanted to wait until after the Belmont (gr. I) to sell him, but there was an agent who talked to us just a couple of hours ago. He told us that he was going to make us a big offer after this race, so we'll just have to see what happens. It could change our plans."

The Murrays' party of 14 on Preakness Day included their three grown children: Kent, Stuart, and Mary Berger. They visited the Maryland Jockey Club's posh infield tent and met War Emblem's owner, Prince Ahmed Salman.

"Oh my gosh, can you believe this?" exclaimed Audrey Murray, who was beaming from underneath a hat trimmed with Black-Eyed Susans. "I was a little nervous when I saw that he (War Emblem) was second on the backstretch, but when the half was run in :46 and something, I said, 'Oh boy, I think he's going to do it.' And he did. I'm still shaking."

The Murrays' story, an inspiration to small Thoroughbred farm owners everywhere, has been chronicled extensively in USA Today and numerous other newspapers around the country. In the days leading up to the Preakness, the couple appeared frequently on television in the Baltimore area. Representatives of ESPN and Voice of America also visited Murmur Farm. Our Emblem was standing at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky when the Murrays purchased him last fall. They won't reveal the exact price, but it was in the six-figure range.

At the time, Our Emblem was struggling. His first crop had produced only three 2-year-old winners in 2000. The average price for his yearlings had fallen steadily, from $57,619 in 1999 to $27,570 the following year. In 2001, it was only $9,116.

But the Murrays loved Our Emblem's blue-blooded pedigree. In addition to being by one of the breed's most influential stallions, he is out of undefeated champion Personal Ensign, who has produced three grade I winners. As a racehorse, Our Emblem enjoyed moderate success, missing a victory in the 1995 Carter Handicap (gr. I) by a nose and earning $366,013. He also finished third in the Metropolitan Mile Handicap (gr. I) and Vosburgh Stakes
(gr. I).

"The first thing we look for in a stallion is a very good female family," Allen Murray said. "We try to get something with black type in the first dam. Personally, I think that is more important than the race record because class will always come through. He (Our Emblem) was also very correct."

The Murrays syndicated Our Emblem for $7,500 a share and set his 2002 stud fee at $4,000. They were optimistic about their young stallion's prospects, but other breeders in Maryland and the surrounding area weren't quite so bullish. At the beginning of April, the Murrays had sold only 15 of Our Emblem's 40 shares and only 40 mares were booked to the stallion.

Then War Emblem romped in the Illinois Derby (gr. II), and Private Emblem triumphed in the Arkansas Derby a week later. The phone started ringing off the hook at Murmur Farm, which stands seven stallions in all. The syndicate raised Our Emblem's stud fee to $7,500, and by the first Saturday in May, he was booked full with 95 mares.

"It's been unbelievable," Stuart Murray said. "My parents have worked hard all their lives to get to where they are. They deserve everything that has happened."
Both natives of Maryland, Audrey and Allen Murray met as teens while showing horses. Every Thursday night, they went roller skating. In 1954, they bought their first broodmare and kept her at the dairy farm owned by Audrey Murray's parents. The following year, they got married.

"I liked horses, but Allen was the one who really got me interested in Thoroughbreds," Audrey Murray said. "He is from Havre de Grace, which was a racetrack town. He used to walk hots and exercise racehorses."

In 1961, the Murrays purchased their first farm, which was near Aberdeen, Md. They named it Murmur, a shortened form of "Murray and Murray." Audrey Murray left her job as a secretary with the federal government to raise children and oversee the farm's day-to-day operations. Her husband, an electrical engineer, pitched in on nights and weekends. They acquired their first stallion, Rebellious, a stakes-placed son of Ambiorix, in 1973.

"We had a gas tank on our farm, and one day, we bred four mares at four different farms," Allen Murray said. "I pulled up to that gas tank four times and filled up with gas. I thought, 'This is no way to run a horse business.' So the next year, we had a stallion."

In 1988, the Murrays moved Murmur to its present location overlooking the Susquehanna River. White fences enclose the farm's 133 acres. Their color is a tribute to Allen Murray's admiration for Calumet Farm in Kentucky, where white fences are a tradition. He and his wife live in a 19th century stone house filled with framed horse prints and antiques.

Before Our Emblem came into their lives, the Murrays stood one of Maryland's leading sires, Norquestor (by Conquistador Cielo). They also were in the national limelight briefly after Countess Diana, by the Murmur stallion Deerhound (by Danzig), captured the 1997 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) and became a champion.

"We syndicated Deerhound for $7,500 a share, then before the Breeders' Cup we sold him to Kentucky for $45,000 a share," Audrey Murray said.

If or when the Murrays sell Our Emblem, they don't think it will change their lifestyle dramatically. Allen Murray, 69, will continue to handle the farm's teaser, Mike, and supervise the foaling of every mare on the farm. Audrey Murray, 66, will continue to book mares and keep Murmur's records.

"We're not going to change the house; we're not going to change the farm; we're not going to change anything," said Allen Murray. "We're doing exactly what we want to do. We'll be doing the same thing next year, the next year, and the following year."

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