Horse of a Different Color: A Tale of Breeding Geniuses, Dominant Females and the Fastest Derby Winner Since Secretariat, byJim Squires. Public Affairs. 288 pages. $25.
Powerful men share one weakness: They are obsessed with games they can't beat. Golf has consumed too many executives to count, but no attraction has proven more fatal to highly accomplished men than the quest for a winner of the Kentucky Derby.
In the grip of this obsession, perfectly sane men -- corporate titans, Arab sheiks, blue bloods of every stripe -- make absolutely insane decisions. One might, for instance, pay $13 million for a yearling that has never spent a day in training, fantasizing that this colt will win America's most coveted race.
This madness -- better known as Derby Fever -- is at the heart of Jim Squires' rollicking, if enervating, account of breeding Monarchos, the first Kentucky Derby winner of the new millennium.
The beauty of Squires' story - indeed what attracts so many small-time owners and breeders to racing -- is a simple truth: You don't have to be a sultan of the bluegrass to win the race that has parted so many rich fools from their money.
For most of his life, Squires was a newspaperman. He didn't take up breeding full-time until he was fired from his job as editor of the Chicago Tribune. His farm in Lexington, Two Bucks, is by Kentucky standards a two-bit operation, but a decade into his new career in the horse business he reached the pinnacle of success.
Readers will want to know if Squires was simply lucky, or if he made smart choices that paid off. In racing, luck is always involved, but Squires has a knack for matching stallions and mares at the bargain end of the market, and the happy result was the horse of a lifetime.
The pity of it is that even when they "catch lighting in a bottle" -- as the racetrack saying goes -- it is the fate of breeders to watch from the sidelines. To stay in business, most must sell horses when they are young, as Squires did with Monarchos, and reap their rewards on the higher prices paid for future progeny of the successful horse's broodmare.
Squires' book takes readers along on his journey, beginning with the moment he pays $14,000 -- a pittance in racing -- for Regal Band, a racy-looking but underachieving mare, and breeds her to a young stallion named Maria's Mon for the paltry sum of $7,500.
We are there in the middle of the night when Regal Band gives birth to the gorgeous and precocious colt that would be sold as a baby for the home-run price of $100,000, and would eventually wind up in the stable of prominent owner John C. Oxley.
We are there when Squires is first exposed to Derby Fever, swooning as a racetrack insider whispers to him that Oxley believes Monarchos is his best hope for the Derby. "He's the one," this tout says.
We are there when the infection takes hold as Monarchos wins the Florida Derby, sweeping by the field with such disdain that one reporter writes: "The move -- and that's how they'll refer to it in the future, simply as 'the move' -- was devastating."
We are there to witness the paranoia that grips Squires throughout Derby week, sending him into sputtering rages, and for the glorious moment on the eve of the race when the tension eases. Trainer John Ward tells jockey Jorge Chavez that Monarchos is as sharp as he was in Florida, maybe better. "We win then, Johnny," Chavez replies. "Don't worry. We got the Mercedes, they got the Yugo."
Best of all, we are with Squires and his wife, Mary Anne, as they watch their Mercedes fly by all those Yugos in the stretch at Churchill Downs, setting off a giddy celebration in an exclusive racetrack dining room known as Millionaire's Row.
In short, this is a book with all the ingredients - a great tale to tell and a gifted writer at the helm. Notwithstanding his tiresome habit of referring to himself in the third person and to his wife as the "dominant female," Squires has an engaging style that keeps readers humming along and a journalist's gift for weaving in detail and context that give the book authority.
The trouble is that Squires can't get out of the way of his own ego.
He comes across as arrogant, self-absorbed and convinced that the world is out to get him. The book begins and ends with whining about his treatment at the Tribune -- which, we must note, owns The Sun -- and throughout Squires sprinkles complaints about how the rules of racing and breeding work against him.
He is so self-important that he can, with a straight face, write this about the prospect of Monarchos winning the Run for the Roses: "If the Kentucky Derby wanted to make a positive statement to the world about horse racing and the people in it, this was it - the future they wanted to see."