One day, while at Gulfstream, Bob Lewis, who had recently resigned as assistant for Carl Nafzger and knew Azeff, was walking through the backstretch in the rain when he heard someone call his name. It was Azeff, who told him, "I've got a job for you that you cannot refuse." Lewis had previously worked as assistant for Lou Rondinello during the heyday of Darby Dan when the Galbreath family farm had Preakness and Belmont winner Little Current and other top-class horses. He also jumped at the chance to work with Azeff. Also coming on board was Beccia, as well as other talented grooms and exercise riders. Soon, the new team was set to go, with their sights on the Twin Spires.
One of the horses in the barn at Palm Beach Downs was Monarchos. It didn't take Azeff long to realize this was no ordinary colt. "John, am I going to get this little gray colt?" she asked Ward. "I think he's going to be a star." The more Azeff saw of him, the more she became enamored with him. Shortly after New Year's, she called her mother, Barbara Barnhill, a former hotwalker, groom, and gallop rider who eventually started her own pony business. "Mom," she said, "make your plans now to go to the Derby, because we've got a shot to win with this gray colt we've got."
When Monarchos and three others were sent to Gulfstream from Palm Beach Downs in January, Holtz was the only groom, and Azeff gave her Monarchos to rub. She also let her in on a little secret. "Nobody knows it yet, but this is our Derby horse," she told her.
Everything was now in place. Hero's Tribute and Holiday Thunder still were the stars of John Ward's Gulfstream stable, while Donna had her beloved Beautiful Pleasure at Palm Beach Downs, along with other stars such as Darling My Darling. On Jan. 13, Monarchos, now nicknamed Sparky, crushed a maiden field by six lengths in 1:22.37 for the seven furlongs, with Chavez aboard. Stretching out to a mile and a sixteenth three weeks later, he demonstrated a spectacular burst of speed to blow away 10 allowance horses by 4 3/4 lengths.
Azeff's Derby fever was rapidly climbing. It broke the thermometer on March 10 in the Florida Derby, when Monarchos turned in one of the most spectacular moves ever seen by a young 3-year-old, inhaling the field in a flash, while racing eight-wide, then drawing off to win by 4 1/2 lengths.
Suddenly, Azeff's Derby horse was everybody's Derby horse. That was until Point Given made his long-awaited 3-year-old debut a week later, winning the San Felipe Stakes by 2 1/4 lengths. The towering son of Thunder Gulch came back and destroyed his opposition in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), establishing himself as the early Derby favorite.
One week after the Santa Anita Derby, Baffert sent his other big horse, lightly raced Congaree, to New York for the Wood Memorial, in which he was convinced the son of Arazi would "dust off" Monarchos. Ward knew he couldn't give Monarchos a gut-wrencher before the Derby, and used the Wood strictly as a prep. The track favored Congaree, and he got loose on the lead turning for home. Monarchos closed ground, but fell 2 3/4 lengths short. Ward was happy. Others were not.
Ward's philosophy has always been the horse comes before all else. With Holiday Thunder out with an injury and Hero's Tribute eliminating himself from Derby consideration with a dismal effort in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), in which he was suffering from a thyroid problem, it was all up to Monarchos to fulfill the dreams of the Wards, the Oxleys, and the rest of the team. And, of course, Chavez.
"Georgie's been thinking about the Derby for the last six months," Ward said a week before the race. "He's run the race in his mind a thousand times."
Ward continued to do things his way, despite the growing number of cynics. Lewis could see Monarchos getting stronger by the day. Azeff noticed little mannerisms around the barn. She told Ward, "He's starting to do things he does when he's getting good."
One of those things was the "Sparky Shuffle," a little dance step Monarchos did in Florida while going to the racetrack. "All week, coming and going, he was doing the 'Sparky Shuffle,' " Azeff said. "Bryan and I would eyeball each other coming off the track, as if, 'It's time.' "
Derby Day brought unseasonably warm temperatures. Monarchos got a little hot walking over to the paddock, but as he stood in the saddling stall, Azeff could feel him already cooling off. After Chavez mounted, people began screaming "Georgie," as he made his way through the tunnel. Monarchos never turned a hair. Azeff looked up at Chavez and said, "He's dialed in today."
At post time, Point Given, breaking from post 17, was the strong 9-5 favorite, with Dollar Bill next at 6-1, and Congaree at 7-1. Monarchos, amazingly, was 10-1, coming out of post 16. With speedsters Songandaprayer, Millennium Wind, and Balto Star breaking from the three inside posts, a blistering pace was inevitable. Blue Grass winner Millennium Wind, a half-brother to 1999 Derby winner Charismatic, was one of the sentimental choices, because of the presence of 54-year-old Hall of Fame jockey Laffit Pincay Jr., whose only Derby victory had come 17 years earlier aboard Swale.
As expected, Songandaprayer, owned by former college and NBA basketball star Bobby Hurley, blasted out of post 1, with Arkansas Derby (gr. II) and Spiral Stakes (gr. II) winner Balto Star in hot pursuit, followed closely by Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II) winner Keats and Millennium Wind. After scorching fractions of :44.86 and 1:09.25, both Derby records, the field was strung out across some 16 lengths. Monarchos, 13th early, began his move and quickly built up a full head of speed as he picked off horses one by one on the far turn. The speed horses hit the proverbial brick wall and began their retreat, with Congaree charging to the lead, followed by Point Given. Near the back of the pack, A P Valentine was getting roughed up badly, and Dollar Bill had to check very sharply, then dropped out of it.
Rounding the turn, Congaree opened a clear lead and set sail for home. Point Given had little left, and 55-1 shot Invisible Ink was coming with a strong move. But it soon became obvious Monarchos was unstoppable. Even on his wrong lead, he flew past Point Given and Invisible Ink, then collared Congaree, who had no answer to the gray streak whizzing by him. Monarchos finally did change leads approaching the eighth pole and quickly drew off to an impressive victory. Invisible Ink just nosed out Congaree for second, with a gap of four lengths to Thunder Blitz, who had 2 3/4 lengths on Point Given. A claim of foul against Monarchos by jockey John Velazquez aboard Invisible Ink -- ironically owned in part by the Oxleys -- was not allowed.Continued...