|CONVERSATION: JIM SQUIRES|
May 1, 2002
TERENCE SMITH: The book is "Horse of a Different Color: A Tale of Breeding Geniuses, Dominant Females and the Fastest Derby Winner Since Secretariat." The author is Jim Squires, a long-time newspaperman. He was the editor of The Chicago Tribune and the Orlando Sentinel.
In 1990, he bought a farm in Kentucky to breed and raise thoroughbred horses. And the rest, as they say, is history. And now it's a book. Jim Squires, welcome.
JIM SQUIRES: Well, thank you very much, Terry. I'm delighted to be here.
TERENCE SMITH: You write at the start of the book about your transition from the newspaper business to breeding thoroughbreds. I wonder if the first is in any way a preparation for the second?
JIM SQUIRES: Well, it must have been, Terry. I know that in both there's a great amount of excrement to be dealt with every day. And you learn to live a life in a doomed industry. Both of these industries seem to have no future, according to everyone else. But they are both very exciting. And I think one, indeed, prepared me for the other, because it's an exciting and wonderful way of life. I love them both.
TERENCE SMITH: Explain how you came to breed Monarchos, last year's Derby winner.
JIM SQUIRES: Well, that is... there is no way to explain that to any audience who knows anything about horses. That's great luck that happens to you. You know, they say down here that God takes care of fools and drunks, and I don't drink. Somehow Monarchos came to me.
The trainer of Seattle Slew once said that you can't breed these Derby horses and you can't buy them; they just show up. And my good fortune was that Monarchos showed up on my farm in only my third or fourth year of breeding thoroughbred horses. I had bred forces for many years before and had some idea about how to raise an equine athlete. But the idea that I could get one all the way to the Kentucky Derby is strictly a fairy tale, and someone with a greater understanding of life than I have will have to explain how I bred him.
TERENCE SMITH: You talk about the odds against this, how in that year, in 1998, that year that you bred Monarchos, that, what, some 30,000 foals, thoroughbred foals were born?
JIM SQUIRES: Terry, there are 35,000 foals born, thoroughbred foals born every year. Only probably half of those are males, which tend to dominate the Kentucky Derby entries. And of that 35,000, only 20 can make it to the starting gate, and only one can win, one for each 127 years so far.
TERENCE SMITH: Right.
JIM SQUIRES: So it requires perfect symmetry. You have to have a great horse to start with. It has to be a very good athlete, able to run long distance, generally one with a good mind so he's not too excited by the Derby crowd, which is unique in horse racing.
And then it has to fall into the hands of careful, concerned people like the owners, Jack Oxley, who owned this horse, and a Kentucky trainer, Johnny Ward, who trained him. You have to have those good owners and good trainers, first of all, to get there.
And then, most important of all, I think, you need the trip. This is a cavalry charge for a mile and a quarter, and many good horses start out with a great chance to win this Derby and can't get through the traffic. So we got all of those: We got the good horse, the good owner, the good trainer, and the good trip. And I think the breeder was just an accident.
TERENCE SMITH: There's a passage in the book in which you describe just what it means to win the Kentucky Derby to somebody in this business. Could you read that part for us?
JIM SQUIRES: Well, I think I have it here, the one you mentioned.
"Of all the thrills available in life, there is none greater for a horseman than winning the Kentucky Derby. Inside the thoroughbred industry worldwide, particularly for a Kentuckian, the consequences of winning this race are stunning. The level of acclaim among your peers, for example, approaches that associated with winning the Nobel Prize. And the stature and respect it earns among horse enthusiasts is unfathomable, embarrassing, and in my case, at least, in light of the degree of chance involved, completely undeserved."
TERENCE SMITH: But nonetheless it did. And against all these odds that you just ticked off, Monarchos makes his way through the Florida Derby and wins some and loses some. Then he gets us to the Derby. Tell us about the way he ran that race.
JIM SQUIRES: Well, the Kentucky Derby... you know, John Steinbeck once went there, and he said it was an emotion, turbulence, one of the most satisfying experiences he'd ever had in life. And if you're there watching the race, it's a time when time stands still. There is no past. There is no future. There is only now.
You're sort of in this time capsule. And when those horses break out of that gate, nothing else matters to anyone around, particularly people who have been connected with those horses. I mean, imagine what word Steinbeck could have found if he had raised one of those horses going around the track. And you... in my case, as a breeder, as I watched it unfold, your real concern is that you know that of those twenty, only five of them really belong there, and only five of them are going to be running at the end. The rest are pretenders. And what worries you is that, hey, my horse might be a pretender.
So Monarchos, who starts out slow in all of his races, was way behind in the race. And my concern, naturally, is Monarchos a pretender or does he belong here, and is he going to show the world that neither of us belong here, he nor I? And I didn't... in about the three-eighths pole of the race, which is where the horses really... it really gets serious, he fired off like he did in the Florida Derby. And it became very clear to me that even if he did not win the race, he was passing horses like they were standing still, and that he was not going to embarrass poor little two bucks up in Versailles.
And at the end of this race, whether he won or not, they would say he definitely belonged. And I, just at that point, lost my hearing. I couldn't even hear what was going on. And I lapsed into some coma of ecstasy that I didn't emerge from for several days afterward.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. And as he-- as I recall-- as he finished, there was this terrific push towards the... towards the finish line, and so he won, as the saying goes, going away.
JIM SQUIRES: Oh, yes. He was one of those horses that has a tremendous amount of endurance and a great heart and a great respiratory system. And he was only beginning to run when he passed those horses on the final turn and came down. He was still running all the way around the first turn. So he won it easily, and the track was very fast and he came very close to matching Secretariat's record.
TERENCE SMITH: And that was his day, I guess, Jim, because he did not do as well in the Preakness or in the Belmont Stakes, the other two jewels of the Triple Crown.
JIM SQUIRES: Well, he did not do as well. But we think now, in retrospect, when you look back at it, there is a general consensus among the people who are around him that he probably hurt himself either in the Derby or preparing for the Derby. The crack that ultimately appeared in his knee is the result of stress. And so he never ran again like he did at the Derby, and we think it was because of an injured knee. But he did run...
TERENCE SMITH: But is he okay now?
JIM SQUIRES: Yes, you bet he's okay now. He's gone to the best place a horse can go, to Clayburn Farm in Bourbon County as a stallion, the home of Secretariat and Mr. Prospector and Unbridled. He lives around the most expensive and beautiful females in the equine world. And I went up and had my picture made with him last week, and he looked like he enjoys this work more than he enjoyed that racing work.
TERENCE SMITH: I'll bet. The book is "Horse of a Different Color." Jim Squires, thanks very much.
JIM SQUIRES: Thank you.