WHEN 20 of the world's top 3-year-olds enter the starting gate at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby on May 5, there will be one conspicuous absence. The Green Monkey, the most expensive racehorse in history, will spend the first Saturday in May munching grass on the green pastures of Ashford Stud in Versailles, Ky. Out of commission with a muscle pull in his hindquarters since last November—nine months after he was sold at auction to breeding-industry giant Coolmore Stud for a record $16 million—the colt remains unraced, and there is no schedule set for his return. What he has done instead is earn a reputation as the biggest bust in the history of the sport of kings.
High-priced duds are nothing new in racing. None of the nine next most expensive thoroughbreds that sold at auction—all yearlings, including Seattle Dancer, the previous record holder at $13.1 million—have won more than three races, and two never even made it to the track. But the Monkey was ostensibly a safe buy because he was sold as a 2-year-old. In a timed workout a week before his sale at Florida's Calder Racecourse, he covered a furlong in 9.80 seconds, an exceptionally quick move for even the best sprinters and the fastest work in the sale's history. Concerns about his modest breeding went out the window. "Seeing a horse perform gives you a lot more data than you get at a yearling sale, where you only get to see the horse walking on the end of a shank," says trainer Todd Pletcher, the man charged with getting the Monkey to the races. "The last several years, 2-year-old-in-training sales have stacked up well against the yearling sales. We've seen Derby winners [most recently Monarchos, in 2001] come out, as well as some Grade I and Breeders' Cup winners."
Nevertheless, fast 2-year-olds rarely sell for more than $1 million. The Monkey's price soared because he was the focus of a bidding war between Coolmore and Darley Stud, the most powerful breeding operations in racing. Ireland-based Coolmore, led by renowned horsemen John Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith, is the leading bloodstock operation in the world. Darley is the plaything of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai. His attempts to unseat Coolmore have met with only moderate success, and the rivalry has gotten so intense that in 2005 Darley began boycotting the Irish horses at auctions, refusing to bid on yearlings and 2-year-olds sired by Coolmore stallions. In that context the events of February 2006—with both operations bidding without hesitation up to $15 million—had as much to do with enmity and ego as they did with Derby dreams. "This was a case of two racing empires with unlimited resources wanting the same horse at virtually any cost," says Terence Collier, the director of marketing for Fasig-Tipton, the thoroughbred auction house that held the sale. "Darley was the first to blink."
A $16 million blunder would ruin almost any other buyer in the industry, but Coolmore can afford such mistakes. Giant's Causeway, the runner-up in the 2000 Breeders' Cup Classic, is one of the farm's top stallions—last year his progeny won more than $7 million at the races, making him the third-leading sire in the country. He commands a stud fee of $300,000 and breeds to as many as 300 mares a year. Compared with the yearly earnings of Coolmore's 44 stallions, $16 million "pales into insignificance," says Alastair Donald, managing director of the U.K.-based International Racing Bureau. "It's a numbers game for them."
That doesn't diminish the folly of Coolmore's purchase. At such a price, anything short of victory in the Run for the Roses means that The Green Monkey was a failure. Coolmore is notoriously tight-lipped, and SI's request to speak with Tabor went unanswered. Instead, the stable issued a statement that read in part, "We are hoping [The Green Monkey] will go back to Todd Pletcher when he has made a complete recovery."
Until then disappointment will continue to attend The Green Monkey's every move, though from his pasture in the bluegrass, the colt remains blissfully unaware of it all.
Five for the Roses
THE GREEN MONKEY wasn't the only colt with Kentucky Derby dreams. Here are five of this year's top contenders, all of whom were sold as yearlings, with the exception of Street Sense, who races for his breeder, James B. Tafel.
|HORSE (Sale Price)||STARTS||WINS||NEXT RACE (Date)|
|STREET SENSE (None)||6||3||Blue Grass Stakes (April 14)|
|GREAT HUNTER ($30,000)||8||3||Blue Grass Stakes (April 14)|
|CURLIN ($57,000)||2||2||Arkansas Derby (April 14)|
|SCAT DADDY ($250,000)||7||4||Florida Derby (March 31)|
|ANY GIVEN SATURDAY ($1.1 million)||5||3||Blue Grass Stakes (April 14)|