Anatomy of a Derby Winner

Two days after Monarchos, the horse he bred, won the Kentucky Derby with apparently marvelous ease, Jim Squires was talking about one thing that everyone else was talking about-the speed of the track-and another thing that no one else was talking about: how this horse is built. He was dealing with “conformation,” or equine engineering-how do the bones, tendons and ligaments of the horse form dynamic angles to produce not only the horse’s looks, but his running style? Monarchos is beautiful-a muscular gray, moderately but not tremendously tall. Let’s say if he were on a football team, he would be a running back. Or, in the Olympics, he would be a decathlete rather than a marathon runner. But he is, of course, a thoroughbred. “This horse is built to run,” said Mr. Squires, a Chicago Tribune editor turned breeder, and an old friend. “He has a long, low, fluid stride, for one thing. And when I sold him two years ago, the vet who checked him said he had the best throat he’d ever seen.”

Think of a tall building in an earthquake: A horse in a high-level stakes race, or in any race, is stressed to the mechanical limits of its ability to breathe, transport oxygen and sustain the repeated pounding of its hooves upon the racing surface. “The way Monarchos is built,” said Mr. Squires, “with a perfectly angled shoulder that allows his forelegs to move as far forward as possible, and knees and hocks low to the ground, which makes for efficiency as the horse gets each stride out of the way of the last stride, is the reason he won the Kentucky Derby in near-record time without hurting himself.” Or even, it appears, using much of his energy reserves. When jockey Jorge Chavez arrived in the winner’s circle, he told trainer John Ward that the horse had just been getting rolling when he hit the finish line.

Nevertheless, like the other eastern horsemen, Mr. Squires was not pleased with how fast the track is-not only was the Derby run in near-record time, two other track records were broken earlier in the day. “Fast” means “hard.” Todd Pletcher, New York trainer of Balto Star, who finished 14th in the Derby, was quoted as saying of the track, “Why don’t they just run the race out on Fourth Street?” Eastern and western horsemen differ about track surface. Trainers from New York, Maryland and Florida consider Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, both outside Los Angeles, hard as rock, and worrisome in terms of breakdowns. On the other hand, the late trainer Eddie Gregson, with 30 years of experience at Santa Anita, hated running a horse at Belmont. He said it was like running a horse on beach sand-predisposing him, that is, to tendon and ligament injuries.

It is true that times on the West Coast are routinely as much as two seconds faster than East Coast times. It is also true that horses run safely on both coasts, but that it is often difficult for a horse to make the switch from one to the other. That Monarchos, used to running on a softer, more forgiving track, did so well on a more California-type surface is, according to Mr. Squires, also a result of his conformation.

There are other theories on the race. The trainer theory is that Mr. Ward conditioned and raced Monarchos steadily but judiciously, keeping him fresh-and out of the way of the press-for the three weeks between the Wood Memorial, at Aqueduct, and the Derby. The pace theory is that the front-runners wore each other out, as they were likely to do, setting the race up for an energy-saving closer like Monarchos. The pedigree theory is that Monarchos’ grandsire, Wavering Monarch, was able to produce both sprinters and stayers, while his grandsire through the dam, Dixieland Band, has produced many good distance horses; thus speed and stamina are well-balanced in his genetic background. The just-desserts theory is that, at least once in a while, nice guys finish first, and virtue and horsemanship are rewarded in the winners’ circle.

Mine is the “Oh, darn” theory. I have a gray three-year-old colt, too, and when I first saw Monarchos as a foal, I liked him because he looked exactly like my foal, Wowie. The “Oh, darn” theory runs something like this: “Oh, darn. I thought lightning was going to strike me, and it struck Jim instead.”

But Mr. Squires sticks to the conformation theory. When a racehorse leaps through each stride, his legs bear uneven weight. He has to be going around the turns in one pattern, and going down the stretch in another pattern, or he tires out on the favored side and slows down. Most horses are “right-sided” or “left-sided”; one old-fashioned theory is that “sidedness” comes from how the foal lies in the womb. The racehorse Alydar, who always came up just a little short in the year Affirmed won the Triple Crown (the last winner, 23 years ago), is said to have been unable to change leads. On the left lead, the lead for turns, Monarchos is plenty fast, said Mr. Squires, but when he switches to the right lead-the lead that carried him down the 1,200-yard homestretch before the finish line at Churchill Downs-he is a running monster. That means things look good for Pimlico, the home of the Preakness Stakes on May 19, because even though the turns are tight there, the homestretch is nearly as long and testing as at Churchill Downs, a nice long stretch for Monarchos to run on his stronger side.

It’s a short break between the Derby and the Preakness-only two weeks-but long enough for theories, and betting strategies, to proliferate. The one sure thing, though, is that bettors who put $10 down on Monarchos to win won’t ever again be getting $100 back.

Anatomy of a Derby Winner