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A Day at the Races

HORSE OF A DIFFERENT COLOR A Tale of Breeding Geniuses, Dominant Females, and the Fastest Derby Winner Since Secretariat By Jim Squires PublicAffairs: 302 pp., $26

April 28, 2002|KEVIN CONLEY | Kevin Conley is the author of "Stud: Adventures in Breeding." He is a staff writer at the New Yorker.

In last year's Kentucky Derby, Monarchos, a beautiful gray colt, passed eight horses on the turn and won the Super Bowl of horse racing by four lengths and change, nearly breaking Secretariat's Derby record in the process. The track was fast that day--winners in races earlier that afternoon had set three track records--a condition that supposedly suited the favorite, Point Given, who finished an inexplicably listless fifth. In the months that followed, Point Given recovered, recording emphatic wins in the Preakness, the Belmont and three more million-dollar races after that. But often in interviews following those wins, his trainer, Bob Baffert, appeared to be less elated by the victories than haunted by the one great loss. "Nobody ever asks you," Baffert said, "if you won the Preakness."

Jim Squires, a former editor of the Chicago Tribune, bred Monarchos--that is, he shelled out $14,000 to buy Regal Band, a 9-year-old mare (the author admits that he'd "always been attracted to older females"), and he chose the bargain sire he wanted to breed her to: Maria's Mon, whose services at stud cost $7,500 at the time. Squires watched the act of conception at a farm 10 miles from his own Lexington, Ky., spread, and 11 months later, on a mild February night, he foaled the future Derby winner. Three years after that, he was standing in the valet parking line at Gulfstream Park moments after Monarchos won the Florida Derby, an important Kentucky Derby prep race, when the former governor of Kentucky, Brereton C. Jones, offered him $600,000 for the mare and the foal with which she was then pregnant.

"Don't you dare sell him that mare for that," Jones' wife said to Squires' wife. "She's worth a million and he knows it."

Squires proudly chronicles his trek from bargain breeding to clubhouse banter with big-money Bluegrass insiders with partisan malevolence and in parental detail. Before Squires' book, a tell-all was the last thing you'd expect to get from the breeder of a Derby winner. As a rule, Kentucky "hardboots," the bluebloods of the breeding business, barely speak to the press. But Squires' memoir offers the best of both worlds: His book is brimming with the sort of juicy bits of gossip and recreational character assassination that come naturally to the off-duty newspaperman and, at the same time, it's full of salty bits of breeding wisdom, crisp rundowns of the Machiavellian financial maneuvering in the blood-stock business and canny explanations of the Kentucky frame of mind from a bluegrass insider.

He's particularly good on the bitterness that the many Kentucky horsemen felt in 2000, when Fusao Sekiguchi, the Japanese owner of Fusaichi Pegasus, arrived in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs in "gangster pinstripes" with a "bevy of fancy geishas" and had to "accept the magnificent Kentucky Derby winner's trophy through an interpreter."

The book is a romp and, like Monarchos, it picks up steam as it nears the finish line. Even though you know the outcome from the title, you can't stop rushing ahead to see how it turns out. Along the way, Squires can exaggerate his outsider status--about half the people in the horse world came into it just the way he did, with a big wad of cash (his came from a hefty severance package from the Tribune.) But you soon come to see it his way; if he overplays his own blue-collar, man-of-the-earth qualities, it's only because he's identifying so strongly with his knock-around horses. And he's at his best when he tweaks the famous, as when he reports insults he overheard about Monarchos' trainer, John Ward. One unnamed source said that Ward couldn't train a vine to go up a wall. Another said that Ward couldn't train his own hair to lie down.

But Squires has made a couple of decisions that tend to drive the reader batty. He narrates the book in the third person ("Finally, it dawned on him why he had been so completely seduced by the photos of women and horses. Of course, why not? He was 55 years old and had spent every dime he'd ever made on one or the other.") and he's prone to a smug brand of folksiness. Throughout the book, he refers to his wife as the "dominant female" and himself, in supposed self-mockery, as the "breeding genius." When they fly south for the Florida Derby, he self-deprecatingly dubs the couple the "Kenturkeys." He also overindulges in long-outdated men's club-style jollity. Here is Squires on his encounter with the female horse trader who bought the young Monarchos from him: "Besides having a wonderful eye for the horse, Murray Smith owns the world's most impressive pair of blue jeans, which she frequently wears on shopping trips and into which she had been poured that March day. The jeans have a way of dominating any barn, sale pavilion or pasture in which they appear."

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