Horse Of A Different Color

A Tale of Breeding Geniuses, Dominant Females, and the Fastest Derby Winner Since Secretariat


By Jim Squires

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Everybody in the thoroughbred horse business wants to win the Kentucky Derby, but the odds on making it to the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs are about 35,000-to-1. How did a former Chicago newspaper editor bring together the stallion and mare and breed the winner of the world’s most famous and important horserace?

Jim Squires’s Horse of a Different Color tells the story of his wild ride from absurdity to glory at the pinnacle of horseracing success alongside Monarchos, the charismatic gray colt blessed with the extraordinary speed, poise, and stamina necessary to carry his motley band of human handlers to the highest level of their profession.

Squires takes you on an exciting journey through the close-knit and secretive world of horse breeders, buyers, sellers, owners, and trainers. And his hilarious tour of racehorse culture ends with a blazing sprint down the homestretch of the second fastest Derby in history in the company of a crowd of Kentuckians driven mad with “Derby Fever.”


"Squires has written a superb book that provides the ultimate insider's view of big-time racing. His love for the animals he breeds is obvious and easy to share.... Squires has managed to capture [the Derby] in a manner which should appeal to true horse people, as well as readers who have exactly two minutes a year to devote to the sport."
Rocky Mountain News
"Reading Horse of a Different Color, you might be tempted to quit your day job and try for a toehold in the thoroughbred industry. Don't: First, Squires has a real talent for pony-raising. Second, you can't write as well as he does. Few can."
Lexington Herald-Leader
"The former Chicago Tribune editor brings an insider's viewpoint and the skill of a seasoned journalist to his work."
Kentucky Monthly
"[A] wild chronicle of [Squires'] removal to the Bluegrass Country, where he found the humans almost as interesting as the horses."
Dallas Morning News
"Squires writes . . . with clear affection, proving that even a crusty, hard-eyed newspaperman can have a soft heart."
Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Offers insight into the strange world of thoroughbred breeding and racing . . . an entertaining book."
Orlando Sentinel
"Jim Squires is a wonderful horse breeder and a very wily guy. There isn't anyone in bluegrass who's done quite what he has—edit a major newspaper and breed a Kentucky Derby winner. Guess which one was more exciting and fun? I loved this book and laughed all night the night I read it."
—Jane Smiley
"Like so many of the blueblooded beasts he writes about, Squires' new book is a winner."
"Fast paced and fun to read."
Library Journal
"Mixing the pride of a parent with self-deprecating humor, Squires makes Monarchos' dramatic ascent to the pinnacle of his sport a ride we can share, just as he did. It's a ride most racing fans won't want to miss."
"Squires' witty prose makes [Horse of a Different Color] very difficult to put away as he takes you for a ride and makes you feel the same emotions as he did as it all happened just over a year ago.... [A] quick lesson in both the breeding business and Derby Fever in one . . . entertaining package."
—, Cindy Pierson-Dulay - 4 out of 5 horseshoes
"A sharply written tale of an autumning media master beating all odds and crafting a classic championship pastiche of a gray bluegrass soul."
—"At the Races" by Jim O'Donnell, Chicago Sun-Times
"Squires has the gift for good, toothsome storytelling. . . . A heart pounding finish."
Kirkus Reviews
"A month before the Kentucky Derby I tipped my friends about Jim's little gray colt, Monarchos. Now, I get to do it all over again about his book. This is a savvy, insider's view of the racehorse game told by a man who actually nailed a piece of its most elusive accolade. A genuine pageturner."
—Sam Shepard

Also by Jim Squires
The Secrets of the Hopewell Box: Stolen Elections, Southern Politics,
and a City's Coming of Age
Read All About It! the Corporate Takeover
of America's Newspapers

For M. A.,
standard-bearer of dominant females everywhere

Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.

I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer.
But now it seems your horse has the speed of your tongue—which I always did think was pretty damn fast.
Breeding racehorses for a living is not something a sane, intelligent, mature person experienced in American capitalism would ever attempt to do. Even I knew better. Long experience at formulating business models for a Fortune 500 media company taught me that if there is no way to project making a profit eventually, there is no business—period. But then thirty years in the same business—newspapers—had obviously left me hopelessly addicted to the thrill of labor in a doomed industry. Jettisoned in 1990 with a gold-plated parachute at age forty-seven, after a tumultuous decade as editor of the Chicago Tribune , I did what any other shocked and hopeless fool would do. I looked around for new work just as exciting, risky, and unpredictable as my old job had been.
From the outset the similarities between racehorse breeding and being a media corporation executive were striking. For one thing, the beast you're feeding has an insatiable appetite, resulting in excessive amounts of excrement that must be dealt with each day. For another, a lot of time is spent making plans that never get beyond the conception stage. Some projects that do get launched die (literally, in the case of horses) before they can ever succeed. And those that make it to fruition and become a smashing success are inevitably taken over by someone else who gets the credit. When things don't turn out as planned, well then, of course those still belong to you and they were never a good idea in the first place.
One aspect of big corporate life missing in my new business endeavor, however, was second-guessing by big bosses. Having people in suits breathing down your neck when things are going great, yet nowhere to be found when straits are dire, eventually becomes essential to good executive decision-making. Fortunately, this vacuum was ably filled by my wife of twenty years, M. A., shorthand for Mary Anne, perfectionist and born CEO.
Working against the backdrop of a Gregorian chant of skepticism over a new enterprise from such a knowledgeable and conscientious overseer was not only comfortingly familiar, it also underscored the importance of two essential management techniques that in retrospect would have proved invaluable in journalism: (1) the use of drugs, and (2) the availability of a "twitch," which is a loop of rope attached to an ax handle-like stick that when applied around a nerve in a horse's nose tends to have a calming and immobilizing effect.
Horses don't need drugs, unless they're sick. But the people around them do, because horses simply won't do many of the things people ask them to do without being on drugs—specifically tranquilizers. Expecting a three-day-old, 120-pound foal to hold still while stitches are taken in his eyelid is unreasonable. Without sedation and immobilization, the needle would end up in the eyeball of the surgeon, or more likely, the person being asked to hold the foal's head. A combination of skill, twitch and drugs is what makes it possible to clip the hairs from deep inside the ears of a 1,200-pound stallion (racehorses can't go around with fuzzy ears), or to get him safely aboard a jet transport in time to make a race on the West Coast. Had I only known back in my editor days the power of a tiny syringe of Acepromazine, think what miracles I could have wrought on meddling corporate types, publishers, accountants and other irritants who belittled and foiled my precious work. M. A. does not come near me when I am carrying a syringe and a twitch.
However grim the future of print in the world of electronic information delivery, the year I left newspapers everything was hunkydory. The Tribune made about 25 percent operating profit on a billion dollars, my pay was about half a million bucks and the newspaper won two Pulitzer Prizes. Some said I had fallen from the pinnacle of my life's vocation. I thought so, too. Indeed I had lost one of the great jobs in journalism, a post of such prestige and power that I could have never reasonably hoped to attain it in the first place.
My resignation statement, fabricated to spare everyone the humiliation of a firing, said I was leaving to pursue other longtime interests, specifically the commercial breeding of horses in Kentucky. This announcement produced widespread sniggering, especially among my newspaper colleagues who knew the meaning of "canned"—and among horse breeders who knew the definition of "commerce."
A million dollars—the approximate size of my golden parachute—can disappear in the thoroughbred horse industry with the stroke of a gavel or a clap of thunder. Dozens of times each year in Kentucky, Florida and Saratoga auctions, horses worth five and six times that amount sell in the span of thirty seconds. Countless others that might attain such a handsome worth die in their mother's wombs, are struck down by disease or lightning bolts in the pastures, impale themselves on oak board fences or simply break their legs running across a field or down a track and have to be euthanized.
Ten years ago gamblers' odds were more a mystery to me than they are now. But it is safe to say that my chances of becoming a successful racehorse breeder were no better than even with those of me ending up homeless living under the "el" in a cardboard box. That I might eventually breed and raise the winner of the most famous and important horse race in the world—thus climbing to a second pinnacle of sorts—was beyond even an imagination as fertile as my own.
Realistically the most skilled, formidable and experienced horsemen can only dream of breeding a Kentucky Derby winner. More than 30,000 thoroughbred foals are born each year. Only fifteen to twenty make it to the Derby gate and only one can win. In history there have been just 127 winners, while generation after generation of breeders—some fabulously successful otherwise—have devoted their lives to this challenge in vain.
A few days after the steel gray colt, Monarchos, won the 2001 Kentucky Derby, a letter came from my friend Michael Dickinson, the great British-born horse trainer, whose skill at winning big races and developing revolutionary training methods often results in the use of the adjective "genius" in connection with his name. Obviously taken with the word, he used it flatteringly to describe my accomplishment of breeding a Kentucky Derby winner from only my third thoroughbred foal crop.
However, people more familiar with the miraculous nature of my life's journey have other explanations for such a surprising success. I made the mistake of relating Dickinson's compliment to a crusty old pal of thirty years who has been along on a few of my previous stumbles into good fortune. "Breeding genius, hell!" he exclaimed. "All this means is that sunshine will even hit a horse's ass if he stands out in it long enough."
Whatever the source of the streak, six weeks after the Derby Churchill Downs invited the winner's "connections"—owners, breeder and trainers—and their friends back for yet another celebration and the re-awarding of the engraved trophies. For everyone involved, including the track's corporate owners, the Derby is an event to be milked for all it is worth. There can never be too many toasts or reruns.
A dinner hosted by Monarchos's owners, Debby and John Oxley, that weekend in the magnificent Kentucky Derby Museum trackside turned out to be a joy second only to the actual running of the race. It began with the 100 or so guests standing by their tables as the music and color of 127 years of racing tradition whirled around us in a spectacular 360-degree video presentation. It was the equivalent of having a catbird seat in the infield with the ability to see, up close, everything that goes on before, during and after a Kentucky Derby. Waves of emotion began to build, rising off the great performances of previous Derby heroes—Northern Dancer, Secretariat, Affirmed—finally bursting into an explosion of color and sound from the 2001 Derby that focused on a monster-sized, dirt-stained Monarchos in full flight to glory, nostrils flaring, hooves pounding, eyes glistening, bearing down on you from every direction—as if you were waiting for him at the finish line. Just the recollection returns the shiver to my spine. Relating the thrill of seeing an animal you pulled from his mother's womb rising to such a level of magnificence tests the most fertile imagination and defies adequate description. Even people who'd never seen the horse anywhere but on television were moved to tears. The theater erupted in deafening applause. After everyone else had stopped, I was still standing there, clapping like an exuberant seal, as oblivious to surroundings as I had been on May 5, when I was unable to believe what I was seeing in my binoculars.
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. Many Nobel Prize winners have reported the same feelings of humility, even though the skill, knowledge and effort demanded by their professional achievement cannot be measured against the dice roll involved in breeding and raising an animal. But unlike the Nobel Prize competition, the Kentucky Derby is the most famous and most widely observed contest of excellence in the world. Like the football Super Bowl, the baseball World Series and World Cup soccer, it attracts public attention far beyond that expected from the normal denizens of a particular sport. And because it requires only two minutes of attention each year and occurs within the context of a social event now over a century old, the Derby has attained an extraordinary level of popular significance. Now available worldwide through the miracle of live television, it is the one event with which almost everyone can associate. Simply knowing someone who knows someone who has won the Kentucky Derby endows a degree of coveted exclusivity. On the morning of the 2001 race, my son-in-law, a telecommunications executive in Greenville, South Carolina, casually mentioned to his barber, a transplanted Kentuckian, that his father-in-law had bred a horse slated to start in the Derby. On his next visit to the shop after Monarchos's victory, the barber greeted him with waving scissors, a shouted "Oooweee!" and a celebrity's introduction to fellow patrons as "Mister Monarchos." Simply cutting the hair of a relative of the winning breeder had given the Kentucky native son a rewarding sense of special relationship with the race, literally an "exciting moment."
And for those with a more direct connection, winning the Derby can actually change your life, even against your will and in ways never contemplated. In my case, it expunged from my consciousness a long-felt sense of rootlessness—the unavoidable result of spending most of my adult life as a journalistic and political vagabond. For me being happy where you are meant being rooted in a sense of being rather than place. Solace came from knowing who I was, not where I was. Loving my birthplace of Nashville and all the places I'd called home since—Washington, Orlando, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Lexington—had made me comfortable virtually anywhere but truly at home nowhere. In the months preceding the Kentucky Derby, M. A. and I had considered selling Two Bucks, our gorgeous old farm west of Lexington where Monarchos was born, and possibly relocating a downsized horse operation elsewhere, perhaps even in Florida or New Mexico—not because Kentucky in any way had failed us but because we are both by nature restless and adventurous spirits.
When compelled by circumstance or wanderlust to move in the past, I had inevitably left behind, attached to cherished people and places, great chunks of my heart and soul—to such an extent that I felt the supply in danger of depletion. Still, leaving Kentucky and starting over yet again had become a viable option. It no longer is. Within forty-eight hours after winning the Kentucky Derby, I had been planted into the fertile loam clay of Woodford County as solidly as if I had died and been inserted beneath the limestone.
On the afternoon of June 16, when the Oxleys, trainer John Ward, Mary Anne and I were again celebrated in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs, we were presented with the "official" trophies. As an award, the breeder's trophy is neither artistically stunning nor extravagantly crafted—a rather small, simply engraved sterling silver statuette of horse and rider.
But the day my name was inscribed on it I claimed a tiny, coveted, precious spot in history for an achievement that, dubious or not, will likely define my life as much as anything else I have ever, or will ever, do—however unfair that might be to the rest of my existence. Where "winning the Derby" ranks in true importance varies with the life of the individual involved. But the handful of owners, jockeys, trainers and breeders fortunate enough to have had the experience must all realize one simple truth—that you owe it all to the horse that brought you there. To the Oxleys, he was the fleet, gunmetal-colored stallion with a bearing as regal as his name. To the trainers and grooms, he was the enigmatic and unpredictable "Sparky" who kept them both entertained and on their toes. And to those of us on the farm who raised him, he was a little, black, bright-eyed bugger with ears that talked and a personality that began telling you the minute he was born about how great he planned to be.
Monarchos fulfilled his promise. He proved to be a helluva ride for everybody, but particularly for the one rider aboard who had spent his entire life watching big stories happen to other people—me. As proof of my newly acclaimed "breeding genius," he became for me one of those signposts in life that delineate where you've been from where you're going, a turning point that altered everything from the nature of my deepest sleep to the shape of the most cursory conversation when awake.
All those years as a journalist had enabled me to recognize an extraordinary tale when I saw one. But I had been thoroughly conditioned to observe significant happenings from the emotional safety net of complete detachment. The impossibility of being at the center of something big and at the same time completely detached from it did not stop me from trying, of course, which made the story even better. When people try to do the impossible, it always does.
In the old days, to unravel such a twisted yarn I would have assigned my best young, energetic, curious and unbiased reporter. But in this case I knew the main character to be so contrary, elusive, conflicted and skilled in the black arts of journalism that few reporters would be a match for him. And I knew his story to be so complex and talismanic that a veteran investigative reporter with grit and expertise would be in order, one who could track mushy ground, one with an eye for the absurd and an ear for code and doublespeak. This particular protagonist demanded a writer with a poison pen and a complete disregard for balance and objectivity. And for the tale to be as unbelievable, entertaining, ridiculous and as much fun in the reading as it was in the happening, a humbling confession would have to be wrung out of the one surly wretch who knew it all—me—which would require someone equally merciless. So having always been a sucker for the challenge of a good story, I willingly became my own target—and with only one glorious benefit assured.
For all of my adult life, when asked by the stranger in the airplane seat next to me what I did for a living, my answer was invariably "newspaperman" or "writer." This was always followed by further inquiry about which big events had been witnessed, which books authored. Thankfully, most of these conversations soon died, owing to the interrogator's lack of familiarity with the answers.
But from this day onward, when asked that question, my reply will be "racehorse breeder," to which the follow-up inquiry will invariably be the same: "Did you ever have a famous horse, like in the Kentucky Derby or something?"
Natural modesty and a soon-to-be obvious aversion to the firstperson pronoun will prevent me from owning up to the truth. But at the risk—and delightful prospect—of the conversation going on forever, I will employ a tactic that was taught to me by politicians. I will evade the question thusly: "As a matter of fact, a guy I know particularly well bred a Kentucky Derby winner named Monarchos and it changed his whole life. And he wrote a book about it."


In the choice of a horse and a wife, a man must please himself, ignoring the opinion and advice of friends.
GEORGE JOHN WHYTE-MELVILLE, Riding Recollections, 1878
Sometime in the mid-1990s, the Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park opened a small art-and-photo display entitled "Women and Their Horses." Among the first to view it was an aging, silver-haired member of both the museum's supporting foundation and controlling board, the Horse Park Commission. Intending only a quick glance at the new exhibit, he ended up enthralled for nearly two hours by the beasts and the beauties who loved them—well past his due time for a long-planned business lunch.
Except for possibly the portrait of an extraordinarily proportioned Lady Godiva impersonator, the exhibit was hardly stunning enough to justify his stiffing a luncheon appointment. Angry for doing so, he fretted in search of an explanation. 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 fifty-five years old and had spent every dime he'd ever made on one or the other.
The dual obsession, he reasoned, had been with him since childhood. There was a mongrel dog named Bob, remembered only as being "big enough to ride," and a four-foot stick of white oak called Silver or Trigger or Diablo or the name of the horse of any other movie cowboy he happened to be imitating at the time. The stick had a length of rawhide through a hole in one end—a "bridle"—and had been sanded smooth and round by his great-grandfather for more comfortable straddling by a five-year-old in short pants. This finishing touch lessened the chance of painful thigh splinters that were always a danger in high-speed gallops though the alley badlands. In foul weather, the perennial gunfights took place indoors, where "horseback" was a chair arm, or even better, the arm of a sofa with cushions that made for soft landings when he was unhorsed. Pillows or thick towels affixed to the furniture with leather belts made the best "saddles." But the indoor rides finally ended just like in the movies—violently—the morning he cinched up a stack of newly folded laundry his mother had ironed the night before.
That was the beginning of the horse part of the love story. The girl part started about the same time when the pursuit of bad guys inadvertently crossed the path of the lovely Kaynell, a six-year-old neighbor girl who went on to dance on The Lawrence Welk Show. Kaynell appeared unfazed by the passing one-rider posse, but her later frequent and usually unexpected encounters with his stick-horse opera inevitably sent self-conscious shivers up the little cowboy's spine. Though she once even consented to a dramatic role—a "kiss on the lips" behind the bushes—the romance never flowered. It had been doomed, the backyard hero would eventually conclude, by the ludicrous sight of a kid in short pants running around with a stick between his legs, or Kaynell's embarrassing witness to the spanking he'd endured for saddling up his mother's ironing.
The years since had only validated his adolescent judgment that the two most beautiful and fascinating of God's creatures are women and horses, the order being determined by the period of his life. Whether being beguiled by Kaynell or the steeds of the matinee cowboys, physical attractiveness was long his most important criterion. Trigger, Roy Rogers's gorgeous, well-made Palomino, was a favorite pretend mount, but not Smiley "Frog" Burnette's mare, Black-Eyed-Nellie. The black circle painted around one eye or another for the sake of movie comedy simply made her too ugly. In later years, the word "thoroughbred" became a complimentary term reserved in his lexicon for the classy, sleek, athletic and slim-ankled ladies that always turned his head.
Eventually, it was these beautiful women who taught him the meaning of "skin-deep." And now at the point in life where he felt lucky to wake up on the right side of the grass each morning, he was still as certain as ever that in either world—human or equine—females were the most interesting and the most important inhabitants. Their preeminence was particularly evident when it came to breeding, a subject on which he would come to be credited, although unjustly, with some expertise—but only in the equine world.


On Sale
Apr 3, 2003
Page Count
320 pages

Jim Squires

About the Author

Jim Squires has been breeding and raising horses in Kentucky since 1990. From 1981 to 1989, he was the editor of the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of two previous books. A Tennessee native, Squires lives with his wife Mary Anne at Two Bucks Farms in Versailles, Kentucky.

Learn more about this author