Money can't buy success in Monkey business
PROSPECTIVE buyers gawked when he strode into the auction ring in February 2006. Talk about tall, dark and handsome. This was horse racing's new pin-up, a bay colt with stunning looks and bloodlines to match.
While most of America rooted for the likes of Seabiscuit and Smarty Jones - the misfits and blue-collar horses that overcame adversity or long odds - this was a thoroughbred that made the aristocrats swoon. He was a two-year-old in training, on schedule to run in the 2007 Kentucky Derby and for sale to the highest bidder.
Someone very rich was going to pay a lot of money for the horse later dubbed The Green Monkey. The question was who and how much?
At that auction for unraced two-year-olds, he ran an eighth of a mile in less than 10 seconds. Talk of a Derby win en route to becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 ensued.
When the auction commenced, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum reached into pockets as deep as his oil reserves in Dubai. European moguls led by John Magnier, who heads the prestigious Coolmore racing group, dug even deeper.
In a bidding war that produced gasps, Coolmore paid $16m (a little over €12m) for the horse. The group promptly named him after the exclusive golf course in Barbados to which they have ties.
More than a year has passed since the auction, and the mega-millions horse has yet to race. Instead, he's been sequestered on a farm elsewhere in Kentucky. Details of his status remain sketchy.
The owners have said little publicly about the horse some thought might be the odds-on favourite for last month's Kentucky Derby. Neither has Todd Pletcher, America's top trainer in each of the past three years. But Tristan Berry, an assistant trainer with Pletcher, said The Green Monkey's problems go beyond an aggravated glutteal muscle cited as the horse's most recent setback or any other physical ailments.
"For $16m, you'd expect a wow every time he'd breeze, and he never did it for me," Berry said recently. "And I don't know why that would be."
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SATISH SANAN, who bred the horse, expected a nice return at a yearling sale considering the colt was sired by Forestry, which commands a stud fee of $125,000, and part of a bloodline that includes Unbridled, the 1990 Kentucky Derby champion.
Dean De Renzo and partner Randy Hartley were understandably nervous after buying The Green Monkey for $450,000. It was the most they'd ever paid for a horse. But when they got the colt back to their farm in Florida and put him in the paddock, Hartley looked at De Renzo and said, "Dean, this will be the fastest horse that we'll own."
"I hope so," De Renzo said.
"He will," Hartley promised. "You'll see."
Eight months later, at the Fasig-Tipton auction for two-year-olds in training, each of the horses ran an eighth of a mile at Calder Race Course in Miami. The Green Monkey, wearing number 153, cruised the distance in a blazing time of nine and fourth-fifths of a second. Moreover, the colt made it look effortless.
Over the next few days, vets representing buyers took X-rays of the horse's bones and tendons and performed ultrasounds on his heart. The gentle animal checked out perfectly.
'He's beautiful. He's fast. It just doesn't get any better than this'
When they paraded the horse into the auction ring, announcer Terence Collier intoned, "He has been the talk since he got off the grounds. You can understand that. It's not the first time a 9.4 was seen at a two-year-old sale, but we've never seen a better eighth performed by a two-year-old in training."
Walt Robertson, the auctioneer, chimed in: "He's beautiful. He's fast. It just doesn't get any better than this. And what do you give for him? I don't know what to ask for."
He started at $2m. The price climbed to $7m. Then it turned into a two-way duel, with agents representing the sheik and Coolmore upping the ante at an incredible pace. At most horse auctions, bidding increments jump by $10,000 to $20,000. Now, at the Fasig-Tipton sale, the bids were skyrocketing by $200,000, then $500,000, and, at one point, $1m. As the bids soared, the two rival groups seemed as determined to keep the horse from each other as they were to acquire it for themselves.
Three times the announcer asked the disbelieving crowd to quiet down, for fear the noise might spook the horse. "It was like watching a real big game of Hold 'Em, and both of them went all in," said Boyd Browning Jr, executive vice president of Fasig-Tipton.
When the auctioneer finally dropped the hammer, Coolmore - through agent Demi O'Byrne - had bought the horse for $16m, eclipsing the previous record of $13.1m for a horse purchased at an auction.
"He'd better be good," O'Byrne told the Thoroughbred Times.
Of an estimated 60,000 foals born in the USA each year, only 20 make it to the Kentucky Derby. Some of the best come relatively cheap. Escaping the notice of high rollers, Kentucky Derby winners such as War Emblem in 2002, Real Quiet in 1998 and Silver Charm in 1997 were bought for less than $20,000 apiece. Conversely, Fusao Sekiguchi paid $4m for a yearling he named Fusaichi Pegasus, and in 2000 the horse went on to win the Derby.
"If you have unlimited funds, you can maybe attempt to buy it," says trainer D Wayne Lukas, whose horses have won the Derby four times. "But it's a difficult task."
The Green Monkey's owners put the horse in the hands of Pletcher, who has yet to win the Kentucky Derby. Last month, he sent five runners to post with Circular Quay at sixth the best effort of the group. His work with The Green Monkey started in Kentucky, also site of the first glitch. During a morning gallop at Churchill Downs, the horse got spooked while workers set up tents for the 2006 Kentucky Derby and the exercise rider fell off as the horse bolted.
De Renzo said he talked to witnesses who said the horse fell on its neck. Not true, said Michael McCarthy, an assistant trainer with Pletcher who said the only thing that hit the ground was the rider.
But the horse failed to produce any remarkable work-outs and, after about a month of training in Kentucky, was shipped to New York. There, he ended up under the watch of Pletcher's assistant, Berry. He greeted the horse with enthusiasm tempered by scepticism.
"No horse is worth $16m," he said recently. Berry sounds even more convinced of that after watching The Green Monkey train in New York for almost three months before being sent to Ashford Stud, a farm in Kentucky owned by Coolmore. That's where the horse remains.
"The horse really didn't have any problems," Berry said. "He just didn't show to be fast enough to run in a maiden race where he was going to win. And if you were going to run him, that would have been the only result that would have been good enough."
Sanan, who bred the horse, said he regretted selling the horse when he heard about the $16m purchase price. But since then, his perspective has changed. Turns out The Green Monkey had a full brother bred by Sanan, who says he has no idea where that horse is now.
"Gave it to a lady who looks after a farm for retired horses," he said, adding of that horse and The Green Monkey, "Both turned out to be duds."
Retirement could be where The Green Monkey is headed before his once-promising career even begins.
"Even if he comes back and wins some races, he ain't going to be worth much," Sanan said. "He'll be lucky if he's worth $1m."
The ultimate pay-off would have come after winning the Derby or a Triple Crown race. Top stallions command a stud fee of more than $300,000. It's hard to imagine The Green Monkey will ever command a six-figure stud fee, assuming he ever races.
While The Green Monkey remained on the farm, Pletcher was busy at Belmont Park last week with his last chance this year for a first Triple Crown win. Beforehand, Berry sounded excited about that prospect and, without a trace of irony, said, "It'll be nice to get that monkey off our backs." And the aptly named filly Rags to Riches - ironically owned by two Coolmore associates Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith - duly obliged, making her a bargain buy at €1.9m.
It's a funny old game.
Josh Peter writes for Yahoo! Sports