Haskin's Derby Story: Strong Dose of Monarchos

Haskin's Derby Story: Strong Dose of Monarchos
Photo: Mike Corrado
Published in May 12 issue of The Blood-Horse
A stoic John T. Ward Jr. stood alone on the Churchill Downs grass course, watching Monarchos return from his magnificent triumph in the 127th running of the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). The third-generation Kentucky horseman was a stark contrast to the emotions that poured freely around him. Assistant trainer Yvonne Azeff, who dreamed of winning the Derby when she was 10 years old, was overcome with tears as she hugged her mother and exercise rider Bryan Beccia. When lifelong dreams come true, the only words the mind can muster are, "Oh my God!" It was as if a part of Azeff would not let her believe this was really happening.

Several feet away, Jorge Chavez sat proudly aboard the gun-metal gray colt, throwing his arms in the air. He had become the first Hispanic jockey to win the Kentucky Derby since Angel Cordero Jr. in 1985.

Engulfing them was the deafening roar from the crowd of 154,210, second-largest in Derby history.

But Ward still showed little emotion.

Here was a man who had written a script on how to win this year's Kentucky Derby for owners John and Debby Oxley, then watched the players read each and every line to perfection. To Ward, there were to be no surprise endings. This was the way he had written it, and this was the way it was meant to turn out. No need for emotions.

Others kept trying to question the script. They said Monarchos was going in the wrong direction after his electrifying victory in the Florida Derby (gr. I) and subsequent defeat in the Wood Memorial (gr. II). Nonsense, said Ward. The horse had not even come close to peaking, and the Wood was just what he was looking for. Few listened. They questioned giving Monarchos a couple of days off from the track. You just don't do that with a Derby horse. Absurd, said Ward. Monarchos had been at Churchill Downs since March 26, well before the other Derby horses. He galloped strong, worked strong, and was getting mentally and physically stronger by the day. He deserved a day off on occasion. Ward kept saying it was all about the horse. Few listened. At about 6:13 p.m. on May 5, they finally listened.

The last chapter before the finale was played out two days prior to the Derby. Ward arrived at Barn 42, hopped into his van, and drove to the Churchill infield. He had discovered the ideal place to watch Monarchos train-atop one of the new luxury suites that provided a clear, panoramic view of the entire track. He climbed up the steps to the awning-covered balcony and just soaked up the view. A warm summer-like breeze blew his sandy-blonde hair as he watched Monarchos gallop before his scheduled trip to the gate to be schooled. He didn't dare school first and risk getting the colt too hyper. As Monarchos galloped, Ward was excited at what he was seeing. The colt was rolling around the track at a rapid clip; his legs kept reaching for more ground to devour; he kept wanting to do more and was loving every minute of it. He didn't want it to end, and it took Beccia a few extra furlongs to finally persuade him his morning chores were over.

"Look at him," Ward said. "He's mentally bright and sound. He really wants to mix it up. That's just what I was looking for."

While other trainers were fretting over the prospects of having to tangle with Bob Baffert's one-horse wrecking crew, Point Given, Ward paid little attention to the big chestnut. If he was concerned about any horse, it was Baffert's other entry Congaree, who had just handed Monarchos a 2 3/4-length defeat in the Wood. Ward, in fact, showed such disdain for Point Given, he let it be known that, "at the end of the day Saturday, Congaree is going to be 10 lengths the better."

When Monarchos returned from his work, a beaming Beccia told Ward and Azeff, "We're ready for 'em. They won't beat us. Don't let that big red s.o.b. stumble or we might run over the top of him."

As it turned out, Monarchos didn't have to run over the top of Point Given. He flew right by him, and right by Congaree and everyone else in the 17-horse field, following a torrid pace that sent Derby records tumbling. It was the Florida Derby devastation all over again. When he hit the finish line 4 3/4 lengths in front of Invisible Ink and Congaree, he stopped the teletimer at 1:59.97. The track, lightning-fast all day, had just seen the second-fastest running ever of the Kentucky Derby. Monarchos joined the legendary Secretariat as the only two Derby winners to break 2:00 for the mile and a quarter.

The Monarchos story began three years earlier when a bright-eyed, athletic foal was born at his breeder Jim Squires' Two Bucks Farm near Versailles, Ky. When his mother, Regal Band, jumped to her feet after giving birth, she broke the umbilical cord, according to Squires. Instead of lying there or getting up and staggering around the stall, like most foals, the son of Maria's Mon also jumped to his feet and stood there perfectly balanced on all fours. He gave a little shake, then cocked his ears and looked around, as if to say, "OK, what do I do next?" From that point on, the little gray colt was all business. He never got sick; never got as much as a scratch; and never got into fights with his paddock buddies. He was the dominant horse, and would continue through life the same way.

Squires, former editor of the Chicago Tribune, sold Monarchos privately as a yearling to Florida pinhooker Murray Smith for $100,000. Already accepted to the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling auction, Squires asked Smith if she would follow through with his plan to sell the colt at the Spa. She agreed. Unfortunately, Monarchos never got a bid at Saratoga, except from Smith. He was bought back for $90,000. She then consigned him to the 2000 Fasig-Tipton 2-year-olds in training sale at Calder, where he was purchased by the Oxleys for $170,000.

Monarchos joined the Ward team, run by John and his wife Donna, who divide the horses between them. Awaiting the colt were two other promising 2-year-olds, Hero's Tribute and Holiday Thunder, who would establish themselves in major stakes races last year. Monarchos didn't get to the races until October, racing twice, with one fast-closing third at Churchill Downs providing enough hope for the following year.

Last December, Ward decided to make a major change in strategy. Instead of training at Keeneland the following spring and stabling across the road at his own farm, he decided he'd have a better chance of winning the Kentucky Derby if he sent a small, but select, stable to Churchill Downs early. But first, he had to find good help, especially a talented assistant who could run the stable for him. While stabled at Palm Beach Downs, Ward hired Azeff, a former jockey and assistant to D. Wayne Lukas, Randy Bradshaw, and Pat Byrne. Ward had been trying to get Azeff for some time. She joined the team and immediately set out to recruit good horsemen and horsewomen. When groom Tammy Holtz, who had worked with Azeff in the past, heard about the new all-star team of horses and people that was being assembled, she came running.

Continued...

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