In a way, maybe it all happened too quickly.
There was Jim Squires, robust, rambunctious editor with his golden parachute from the Chicago Tribune and a nerve born of steering large newspapers and a presidential campaign. In the mid-1990s, he buys some broodmares, good ones, not great ones, given that the golden parachute is from a newspaper company rather than Goldman Sachs. One day, just a few years later, a grey colt is born and that grey colt, Monarchos, wins the 2001 Kentucky Derby.
So, just like that, a love affair is born and consummated under the steeples of Churchill Downs in a remarkably short amount of time. For Squires, breeder of Monarchos, Thoroughbred racing turns out to be even more exciting than winning Pulitzers or speaking for Ross Perot. Squires writes a book about it, Horse of a Different Color: A Tale of Breeding Geniuses, Dominant Females, and the Fastest Derby Winner Since Secretariat, and plunges deeper into the world of breeder, salesman and racehorse owner.
But then the relationship settles down into more familiar grooves. It's a little more work, with fewer fireworks. Disenchantment sets in, there's some ugliness and then it's pretty much over. But that rapture you can't forget, and the disillusionment, and so there has to be the long goodbye letter, which, because this is Jim Squires, turns into a book. You could call it a swan song, or you could call it a 250-page flip of the middle finger to his one-time love.
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Squires calls it a chronicle of one of the worst years of his life, 2008, which happened to parallel one of the worst years in racing's history. Headless Horsemen: A Tale of Chemical Colts, Subprime Sales Agents, and the Last Kentucky Derby on Steroids, exposes all the warts of the racing industry, plenty of Squires' too.
"The Headless Horsemen are us," he says in an interview at his Two Bucks Farm in Versailles. "I'm the most headless of all."
Drugs and shady agents
Squires, 67, with his wife, Mary Anne, came to Kentucky in 1989, already a breeder of paint and quarter horses. He liked the Bluegrass, which reminded him of his native Carthage, Tenn. He bought a farm, named it Two Bucks and started to like racehorses and the intricate game of figuring out what dam and what sire might produce the fastest horse.
In 1993, Gov. Brereton Jones appointed him to the Horse Racing Commission, which gave him a close-up view of many of the problems that no one really liked to discuss in public. Those issues were numerous and complex: Were drugs weakening the Thoroughbred? Were sales tactics underhanded? Worst of all, was the famed Kentucky breeding industry just making too many horses?
Breeding a Derby winner granted Squires a respect it took many others years to gain. He kept on, bred some stakes winners, but also kept running into problems with his stance against some of racing's standard practices, such as too many pharmaceuticals and too many shady practices at the sales.
Those practices came under the spotlight in 2006, when a California billionaire named Jess Jackson filed a lawsuit aimed at preventing "dual agency," the practice that has an agent represent both the seller and the buyer of a horse, which Jackson contended made agents rich and novice owners poor.
Jackson also opposed performance-enhancing drugs and caused a stir when he ordered his 2007 Horse of the Year, Curlin, to be taken off the steroids he had been on during his championship year, according to news reports.
In early 2008, Squires was at Keeneland watching one of Curlin's workouts with John T. Ward, the trainer of Monarchos and a preacher of old-time ways.
"A couple of genetically engineered disturbers of the peace, we were imbued by our extraordinary good fortune with expertise on all matters involving the Kentucky Derby, which we seldom kept to ourselves," Squires writes in Headless Horsemen. "'You know,' Ward said, 'This might be the last Kentucky Derby on steroids.'"
This led Squires to post a piece on The New York Times racing blog, The Rail, about the prevalence of legal steroids in racing in most states. Whatever ripples that caused with racing insiders were forgotten a week later when several million racing outsiders watching the 2008 Kentucky Derby saw the valiant filly Eight Belles come in second to Big Brown, then break both front legs after she swept past the finish line.
It took a few more weeks for the real controversy to take hold. Ironically, Eight Belles had run drug-free, as per the longtime training regimen of her anti-drug trainer, Larry Jones. The winner, Big Brown, received regular treatments of Winstrol, a popular anabolic steroid, according to his trainer, Rick Dutrow. It was legal, Dutrow told the public, and its use was widespread.
Racing was hit by a hurricane of bad publicity, including a call on the carpet by congressional investigators. Racing royalty Arthur Hancock, whose grandfather founded the famous Claiborne Farm, told the panel that the industry was a "rudderless ship."
And there was Squires with a New York Times blog, ready for the fray. Like the kindly uncle who tells you a little more than you want to know, Squires had told them so, and so told them again.
But the industry wasn't through with him yet. The man who had made a practice of throwing stones learned how dangerous it was to live in an even partly glass house.
'River of stones'
Stones became a new theme in Squires' life. As he says now, "you just can't make this stuff up."
In July, Squires was writhing on the ground outside of Fasig-Tipton, felled by a "river of stones," as his doctor told him, formed by his kidneys.
Just a few days before, one of Squires' horses, Stones River, a son of Monarchos, won a big race in Delaware with trainer Larry Jones and tested positive for clenbuterol, a bronchodilator that helps clear horses' lungs.
"We were held up and ridiculed," Squires says of he and Jones, neither of whom had ever had any of their horses test positive for drugs.
Although Jones had used clenbuterol on Stones River, Squires says, it was well before the race and shouldn't have left any trace amounts in his bloodstream. Under Delaware's zero tolerance rules, any trace of the drug is prohibited. So either Stones River had an odd reaction and released a trace amount well after it should have been out of his system, or as Squires believed, he'd been doped in retaliation for his and Jones' anti-drug stance.
Squires offered up the $25,000 purse for any information but never found any proof of foul play.
He and Jones fought the charge, but it held, costing Jones a week's suspension. Squires said that between lawyers' fees and the $25,000 purse he had to forfeit, he lost the money that would have allowed his racing operation to break even that year. He also used up a little more of the goodwill accorded a Derby-winning breeder.
Worst of all was a comment from his wife, Mary Anne, whom Squires calls the "dominant female" of Two Bucks Farm.
"Looks like you and Larry have been hoisted on your own petard," she told him.
Turning the ship
That was all that was needed. Squires started writing the book shortly after the drug test and finished it in about six months.
In it, he takes on all his favorite topics. He explores the world of the Dinnies, his nickname for the small circle of the uber-rich, headed by Ogden "Dinny" Phipps, the chairman of the powerful Jockey Club, which registers all Thoroughbreds. Squires details the complexities of the sales ring and race-day drugs and writes admiringly of the small and unpopular band of reformers through the years such as Hancock, Ward and the late John Gaines, who founded the Breeders' Cup as a way to promote racing.
Squires also recounts many old and never proven tales, such as which vets and which drugs may have affected some of the biggest races in America. He's well aware it will make many people mad, even though he believes it also serves as a mirror to the current economic crisis in which unsavory business practices undermined entire institutions.
"When I decided to do this, I basically weighed the negative reaction against the educational advantages," he said. "There may be some discomfort, but they are the people who think you never should say anything bad about your business."
Since Eight Belles' death, various parts of the racing industry have made changes, including a ban on steroids in Kentucky. But there appears to be little movement on the biggest change of all, one national authority to consolidate the mishmash of rules and rulers across the industry.
Hancock says it's the slow turning of a major ship, one that Squires' book will help.
"Jim is respected, he's honest, he does not bribe at the sales and he stood against drugs at the track," said Hancock, who has bred three Kentucky Derby winners. "I think this book will do a lot to turn the ship even more."
But the ship may have to turn without Squires.
"My revenue stream has stopped," he says. "I was fortunate to survive as long as I did."
He's planning on dispersing most of his horses, about 27, at the November sale at Keeneland. Some may not sell, so he is likely to remain a horse owner, just a much smaller one.
His friend Ward doesn't believe he'll leave the horse business completely behind.
"He won't be able to stand it," Ward said. "I think he'll come back, maybe in a different form. The major point of this all is that he is showing his frustration and speaking for a very silent bunch in the industry."
'Ride them or eat them'
But Squires says he's been tripped up by his big mouth and a soft heart. At the end of his book — just after he burned more bridges by telling a Bloomberg reporter: "We are plagued by a vast oversupply of horses. You can't give them away. We'll have to ride them or eat them" — he recounts a story from last November, when he planned to sell one of his best broodmares, Little Bold Belle, who was in foal to Preakness winner Bernardini.
Mary Anne Squires disagreed, saying "This is about something a lot more important than money."
And just a little while later, there was Jim Squires, driving back to Keeneland to bring 19-year-old Little Bold Belle home to Two Bucks to graze alongside Squires' other old friends.
That foal was born in the spring and now lives not far from his half-brother, a colt by Strong Hope. They're both good-looking young horses, Squires says, and he will try to sell them.
Or maybe, just maybe, if they can't be sold, he might just hold on, race them, take just one more shot at the spires, one more chance to show them that he was right all along.