It will go down in Florida Derby (gr. I) history as "The Move." As a dozen tightly-bunched 3-year-olds jostled for position nearing the far turn in the golden anniversary edition of the Florida Derby, one horse was running by the rest of the field with electrifying ease. THE horse, making THE move, was Monarchos.
Making just his first stakes attempt, Monarchos swept to the lead and put away the field to win South Florida's top Derby prep by a wider-than-it-looked 4 1/2 lengths. The horse named for a Greek monarch put in a majestic performance, going from 11th of 13 at the five-eighths pole to a leading Kentucky Derby (gr. I) contender at the wire. It was clearly the most impressive move put in by a 3-year-old this year.
Outofthebox, runner-up to Songandaprayer in the Feb. 17 Fountain of Youth (gr. I), finished second again, 2 1/2 lengths ahead of Invisible Ink.
A well-thought-out plan by the team of trainer John Ward and his wife, Donna, along with owners John and Debby Oxley, led Monarchos to the winner's circle in the $1-million Kentucky Derby prep. That plan will also have their budding superstar heading for New York and the Wood Memorial (gr. II) before a shot at the ultimate prize, the first Saturday in May.
The Oxleys' treasure chest of runners includes other prominent 3-year-olds Hero's Tribute and Holiday Thunder. Oxley also is a partner in Peachtree Stable, which owns Invisible Ink. Oxley, a Tulsa, Okla., native and owner of Oxley Petroleum, clearly has a barrelful of Derby contenders.
Oxley's prior Thoroughbred successes have mostly been fillies, with 1999 Eclipse Award winner Beautiful Pleasure and 1995 Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) winner Gal in a Ruckus leading the pack. His focus of late, however, has turned to classic-ability colts.
The Wards and Oxleys have been down the Derby path before, but never with such high-octane ammunition. They sent out Jambalaya Jazz and Pyramid Peak in the '95 Derby and both finished far back in Thunder Gulch's wake. They have learned a lot since then.
"We've learned to have realistic expectations," John Oxley said. "There is nothing like the road to the Derby. The anticipation of running in the race, the weeks leading up to the race, and the hope of winning the race are exhilarating. Our runners in 1995 stimulated that drive."
The Wards and Oxleys' plan for sophomore success begins at the sales, where they have spent freely for weanlings, yearlings, and 2-year-olds.
Said Oxley, "We look at all the bigger sales. We look for the right pedigree and conformation, and then we go by what Mr. Ward says."
"He doesn't buy a horse that doesn't have the pedigree to go a mile and a quarter," Ward said. "And pedigree and body mechanics took over in the last eighth here today."
Oxley paid $170,000 for Monarchos, and after a trip to Greece, named the son of Maria's Mon out of the Dixieland Band mare Regal Band after a Greek king. The purchase was made last February at the Fasig-Tipton 2-year-olds in training sale at Calder. "I love the pedigree," Oxley said. "It's Darby Dan (the bottom line) all the way."
The Florida Derby was Monarchos' target by design. "Where else can you go and get this kind of crowd and with a band playing near the paddock?" Ward said. "Getting accustomed to the crowd and the noise is what getting ready for the Derby is all about."
In the half-hour leading up to the race, there was some cause for concern. "He got anxious in the paddock and broke out into a cold sweat," Ward said. "Once he got to the saddling stall, he was fine. And once he gets on the racetrack, he's fine. He stood in the gate very well, and that's one of the things you have to worry about for the Derby with 20 horses going in."
Monarchos was strong all the way from the five-eighths pole to the wire in the Florida Derby, with Jorge Chavez taking his mount five, perhaps six wide on the turn in making his winning move.
"I dreamt of him circling the field -- and he did," Oxley said in amazement after the race.
The reason for the logjam up front was a moderate pace set by a large group of stalker-types. At the break, 62-1 shot Trailthefox was gunned for the early advantage and was joined by fellow longshot Radical Riley and City Zip through an opening quarter in :23.01. After a half in :46.82, Trailthefox held a half-length advantage over City Zip, who was joined at the hip with Fountain of Youth winner Songandaprayer, Radical Riley, Invisible Ink, and Outofthebox.
"We were pretty much where we wanted to be," said Corey Nakatani, who was aboard City Zip for the first time. "We were just galloping right along and then going into the far turn something just went wrong." City Zip finished ninth.
A handful of heads separated the top six runners after six furlongs in 1:11.47, but from the back of the pack, Chavez had Monarchos on the move. Seeing traffic in front of him like on nearby highway A1A, Chavez steered his mount right and wide.
Jerry Bailey, rider of runner-up Outofthebox, said, "I didn't have any room. The winner moved early, came around me, and I couldn't go with him when he went."
"Leaving the three-eighths pole the winner was looping the field," said Pat Day, who eventually finished 10th on Turnberry Isle. "I started looking for space up between the field and it didn't appear that anything was going to develop so I started working my way to the outside. Before I got there, I was out of horse."
Chavez and Monarchos moved from 11th after a half to the lead by the head of the stretch. The move was mesmerizing.
Straightening for home, Monarchos not only got the advantage, he took it by the throat as he cruised down the lane. The final time of 1:49.95 wasn't historically impressive, but the margin should more than make up for it.
"I thought he was getting tired the last eighth," Ward said. "That was until I talked to Jorge after the race. He said he had plenty of horse under him."
For as tight as the pack was after six furlongs, the field was strung out after the last three. Dream Run finished fourth, and it was another 2 3/4 lengths back to fifth-place finisher Songandaprayer.
The ultimate prize for the Wards and Oxleys is on May 5. "He's one step closer," said Ward, who headed for New Orleans to saddle Hero's Tribute in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) the next day, but was quick to be cautious. "I do have the hex on me -- we've won the Florida Derby." His reference was the fact the last three winners (Hal's Hope, Vicar, and Cape Town) have never won another race.
Ward will ship Monarchos to Kentucky "when the weather there gets consistently above 50 degrees" and then set his sights on the April 14 Wood at Aqueduct.
"It's more of a strength racetrack. There, he'll have to run to the strength of his competition. I think it set up Fusaichi Pegasus perfectly last year. Keeneland is more of a speed-bias racetrack. I learn by watching."
)Continued. . . .