It felt odd, like for many who love racing, to see this day dawn knowing it was not synonymous with Derby Day. Even knowing in advance it was going to be that way, ever since the horse racing bug bit me, meant it was hard to shake that notion. It was strange indeed to go to sleep the evening before and know that it would be another day, no early trip to Louisville in the cards to witness another day of the pageantry, anticipation, and excitement unfold. However, hopefully that will happen in September, with enthusiasts in attendance.
Since there would be no Derby Day this year on the first Saturday in May, I had turned to Steve Haskin’s book, Tales of the Triple Crown, reading the chapter on Monarchos before calling it a night, and then finding a different book to focus on something besides wistfulness at missing the Derby.
The chapter on Monarchos brought a lot of memories flooding back, and even with as many Derby winners as I’ve seen who used that victory as a springboard to even greater things in the overall trajectory of their careers, it hit me for the first time that Monarchos may well be the winner I identify with most strongly for sentimental reasons, and a large part of that is some of his story is intertwined with family memories. That means even more when one has lived away from family for years.
Besides the memories associated with family regarding Monarchos, there were two other aspects that drove that strong resonance of his Derby win and his life in the years to come. One was pedigree. Studying pedigrees has fascinated me since I was quite young, as a child watching racing on TV and taking notes about what broadcasters mentioned about horses’ sires and dams, and spreading from there to dive into lineages and how they could lead to excellence, whether it was one top horse from a particular sire and dam or a long string of notable descendants from a family branch.
Where pedigree strongly tied in with Monarchos was from the presence in his family line of Majestic Prince in the fourth generation. Though he won the Derby ten years before I was born, photos of him sparked my imagination and drew me to him in a way that words cannot explain. It was enough that he seemed like an epitome of what a top Thoroughbred should be. That one little link, tenuous as it was based only on photographs, meant Maria’s Mon was a horse I followed avidly during his race career, and when his son Monarchos showed promise, I was all in on him for the Derby.
I was still living in Tennessee, so I had no access to betting other than online but I believed in Monarchos so strongly I set up an online wagering account to bet on him to win the Derby. (Side note: betting does not have a big pull for me, so to set up that account and only ever use it to bet Monarchos was significant). Even that little memory is tied to family, as I was sitting in my grandmother’s home and placed the bet through her computer. Funny thing is, I had no idea how to withdraw the money from the online account when he did win but it didn’t matter. I was elated he got the victory and it was a special memory that the first time I ever bet the Derby, the horse I chose won. I didn’t ever bother to figure out how to withdraw the winnings, because what mattered was he won, but I did make sure to buy a large photo of him at the wire in the Derby.
While Monarchos did not repeat his Derby success (having sustained an injury, the Haskin book reminded me, that likely compromised his chances at winning again going forward and then led to his retirement not long after the Derby), he always meant a lot to me for fulfilling the promise of his family line, going back to a horse I wasn’t even alive to witness and adding another Derby triumph to that male line.
When I visited Kentucky for the first time the year after the gray colt’s Derby win, I went to as many horse farms as I could. Claiborne was tops on the list, to pay tribute to Secretariat with a rose for his gravesite on my mom’s behalf, as he had been her favorite horse, and to see Monarchos.
I got a photo with him, his coat still the dark gray of a young horse and still not looking like he was far removed from being in racing trim, even as he had nearly completed his first year at stud.
The following year, I moved to Kentucky, spurred by the visits to all the farms and how it felt like where I should be. That is where a second family memory, besides how strongly I remember being in in my grandmother’s house betting Monarchos (with the associated sense of what she means in my life, from being there in her home), came into effect. My mom came to visit and I made one farm appointment for her visit. I felt she needed to go to Claiborne herself, to see where Secretariat had lived and now lay at rest, and I also wanted her to meet Monarchos. I got a photo of her with him to add to the one of me with him the previous year. That is the only time my mom has been to any horse farms here, and the only famed horse I have a photo of her with.
Since I was in Kentucky every year of Monarchos’ retirement, and lived here for all but one, there were more opportunities to build memories with him.
I had two more moments in his presence before he passed, after the earliest days of his retirement.
One was when he moved from Claiborne, and I happened to be with a friend who took a detour by the farm where he resided, and sure enough we saw him grazing in a paddock. It stood out to just happen to drive by and see him there, for even in a place with a multitude of Derby winners, to see them grazing from the road is not common. And of course I loved that the winner was Monarchos. I don’t even think that friend realized his significance to me when she went by to try to spot him. Was purely serendipity, feeling even more special for that aspect.
In 2013, I connected with a group of people who came from multiple states to look at putting together a partnership for a racehorse, starting from scratch with breeding a mare to the stallion they were avid fans of. Since I had admired this stallion too as a racehorse, the idea was appealing to me and I joined in their activities that weekend. While the group ultimately was revealed not to be one I wanted to join in the partnership with, I will never forget the weekend they came to Lexington and all I got to be part of by considering joining their group. They had garnered some degree of national attention for how they followed the stallion they wanted to have the foal from, and this opened doors to experiences I likely would not have had otherwise. They knew about aspects of these horses I didn’t, and one of the people in the group happened to know that Monarchos’ groom was willing to have his charge “autograph” the book about him, Horse of a Different Color.
With a recommendation of an independent bookseller that sold the book, I went to be sure I had my copy in hand the day we visited Monarchos.
It was the longest amount of time I had spent in his presence, and it stood out what a rapport he shared with his groom, and how he had a patient mellow temperament as everyone in the group lined up to have their books “autographed” and get photos with him.
I had no idea what it meant to have a horse autograph a book. I never would have known of such a thing if this group didn’t happen to know about it.
When we all gathered that morning to see Monarchos, we opened the book to the first page, before the title page, and the groom had Monarchos stand on them long enough to leave a firm hoof imprint. In return, the group brought him a case of Guinness, I think. Some type of beer that was his favorite to thank him for doing that for all of us.
It shone how much Monarchos mattered to him, and how glad he was to share him with us.
While I was looking for the book I wanted to read to think of things besides missing the Derby on its usual day, that is when I came across this book Monarchos autographed, and also discovered a sizable amount of either his mane or tail hair, don’t recall which, that the groom had given us. It was a poignant and touching find, for I did not recall we had also been given some of Monarchos’ hair, and I treasure that link to the first Derby winner I ever bet on and that I was lucky enough to have such moments with and to receive that gift from on behalf of his groom.
After the autographs, Monarchos was turned out to his pasture and the group gathered to watch him romp and roll in the mud. Naturally, given his age, his coat had lightened tremendously and the careful grooming job was obscured in no time. Even that was enjoyable, though, to see him being a horse, enjoying free time, and his groom was content to stand and watch with us, further revealing what this horse meant to him on a personal level.
That is the beauty of racing and the horses we get introduced to through it, even from a distance in living rooms as we watch them run on TV in states that have no racing or places to bet, and then we get to know who they are and find that comes to matter even more than money bet or accolades earned. It is the personal connection, and in Monarchos’ case that he is one of the few horses I have shared with family members.
So while there are Derby winners who went on to achieve more than Monarchos did, the sum of what he meant as an individual cannot be quantified by that alone. Today he was the first Derby winner that came to mind as this day began, and for that I now realize he likely will always be the most significant from the standpoint of grabbing my imagination like Majestic Prince did and having that luster always remain.