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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 pinup, 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 2-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 2-year-olds, he breezed 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 his pockets that are as deep as his oil reserves in Dubai. European moguls led by John Magnier, owner of the prestigious Coolmore racing group in Ireland, dug even deeper.
The price of glory
Source: Churchill Downs
In a bidding war that produced gasps, the Europeans paid $16 million for the horse. The Coolmore group promptly named him after the exclusive golf course in Barbados to which they have ties and thought they might have had the Babe Ruth of horse racing.
So far, it's been a big swing and a miss.
The Green Monkey won't be among the 20 entries loaded into the gate Saturday at Churchill Downs for the 133rd Run for the Roses. Instead he'll be sequestered on a farm elsewhere in the commonwealth.
More than a year has passed since the auction, and the mega-millions horse has yet to race. Details of his status remain sketchy.
The owners have said little publicly about the horse. Neither has Todd Pletcher, the trainer who is more interested in discussing the five horses he has in the Derby than the 3-year-old some thought might be the odds-on favorite. Efforts to reach the parties for comment this week were unsuccessful.
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 $16 million, you'd expect a wow every time he'd breeze, and he never did it for me," Berry said earlier this week. "And I don't know why that would be."
FROM STUD TO DUD
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 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 2-year-olds in training, each of the horses would breeze an eighth of a mile at Calder Race Course in Miami. The Green Monkey, then unnamed and wearing hip number 153, cruised the distance in blazing time of 9 and fourth-fifths of a second. Moreover, the colt made it look effortless.
Over the next few days, veterinarians representing buyers took X-rays of the horse's bones and tendons and performed ultrasounds on his heart. The gentle animal checked out perfectly.
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 2-year-old sale, but we've never seen a better eighth performed by a 2-year-old in training."
Chimed in the auctioneer, Walt Robertson: "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 $2 million. The price climbed to $7 million. 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, $1 million. 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, the Europeans – through agent Demi O'Byrne – had bought the horse for $16 million, eclipsing the previous record of $13.1 million 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 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 $4 million for a yearling he named Fusaichi Pegasus, and in 2000 the horse went on to win the Derby.
"If you do have unlimited funds, you can maybe attempt to buy it," said trainer D. Wayne Lukas, whose horses have won the Derby four times. "But it's a difficult task."
WHERE IT WENT WRONG
The Green Monkey's owners put the horse in the hands of Pletcher, who has yet to win the Kentucky Derby but is widely considered among the best trainers in the world. 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 workouts 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 skepticism.
"No horse is worth $16 million," he said earlier this week. 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 to 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 $16 million 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 now is.
"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 $1 million."
The ultimate payoff would have come after winning the Derby or a Triple Crown race. Top stallions command a stud fee of more than $300,000. With that in mind, Coolmore reportedly paid $60 million to $70 million for Fusaichi Pegasus after the horse that sold for $4 million as a yearling won the 2000 Kentucky Derby.
It's hard to imagine The Green Monkey ever will command a six-figure stud fee, assuming he ever races.
While The Green Monkey remains on the farm, Pletcher is busy at Churchill Downs, trying to get in position to win a Triple Crown race that would validate his reputation. Berry, who monitored the progress of the $16 million horse in New York, sounded excited about that prospect and, without a trace of irony, said, "It'll be nice to get that monkey off our backs."