Derby Dreams
Photo:
Ray Paulick
Editor in Chief
If the walk from the Churchill Downs stable area to the saddling paddock is a time of reflection and anticipation for anyone with a Kentucky Derby (gr. I) runner, the return trip for the winning connections is sheer exhilaration.

The owners, trainers, and jockeys who win the Derby seldom make the walk back to the barn with the horse that put them on the victory stand on the hallowed ground of the infield winner's circle. They probably don't mind missing it. After all, the presentation of the Derby trophy, before a packed grandstand and a national television audience, is something only a few racing people ever experience.

But for those closest to the horse -- the people who toil long hours with little recognition -- the walk back to the barns with a Kentucky Derby winner is a victory lap they will never forget. So it was for the Monarchos team -- assistant trainer Yvonne Azeff, groom Tammy Holtz, and exercise rider Bryan Beccia -- after the powerful victory by the son of Maria's Mon in Derby 127 on May 5. As they led the Derby winner around the track, waves of applause preceded them, from the sun-drenched fans who lined the rail to those who stood and cheered from the upper recesses of the clubhouse boxes.

Fellow backstretch workers bringing horses over for the day's next race also saluted the winning connections. Their arrival in the stable area brought a whole new round of applause, not just for Monarchos, but also for the people who have tended to his every need.

John and Donna Ward are thriving these days, in large part because of a team approach to their operation. The team begins with owners John and Debby Oxley, whose commitment to building a high-quality stable goes beyond their monetary investment. It continues with a husband and wife training team that not only lets their horses do the talking, but listens to what they say. It is solidified further by the dedication of people like Azeff, Holtz, and Beccia, who have the same kind of Derby dreams the Oxleys, Wards, and jockey Jorge Chavez have dared to dream.

Suddenly, all of them came true.

DERBY NOTEBOOK...

It's hard to imagine that anyone has come further in life than Jorge Chavez, who, for all practical purposes, grew up on the poverty-stricken streets of Lima, Peru. Abandoned by his parents at the age of 10, Chavez had to fend for himself and worked odd jobs before discovering the racetrack at 19. Now, with an Eclipse Award and a Kentucky Derby trophy in his portfolio, he is living the American dream -- in a big way...

John Ward joins Bob Baffert as the only two trainers of the modern era to pick out consecutive Derby winners at auction. Let's not forget that Ward advised Fusao Sekiguchi on the purchase of Neil Drysdale-trained Fusaichi Pegasus at the 1998 Keeneland July yearling sale and did the bidding on the $4-million colt. He picked Monarchos out of Fasig-Tipton's Calder 2-year-old sale...

Two Chicago newspapermen were in the news Derby week. One was Dave Feldman, a longtime writer for the Sun-Times who died May 1 at the age of 85. Feldman, one of the last true "characters" of the press box, was a man who made us laugh without even trying. Feldman also owned, bred, and trained horses, including a handful of decent stakes winners, though he never bred a Derby winner. Jim Squires, the former editor-in-chief of the Chicago Tribune, now can make that claim, only a few years after buying his first mare. Sounds like an easy game for a journalist: Anyone have a mare for sale?...

Someone with Churchill Downs management should have a serious sit-down with track superintendent Butch Lehr. I'll take Lehr at his word that nothing was done to purposely speed up the track for Derby Day, but the rapid times of the races were, in a word, ridiculous.

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