One For Tradition

By John T. Ward Jr. -- To reflect over the past 51 weeks since winning the 127th Kentucky Derby, I can only echo the words Bob Baffert said to me as we were making our way to the winner's circle to meet Monarchos: "Hold on, you're in for the ride of your life!" And so it has been.

A Lexington native, educated at the University of Kentucky, and descending from a century of horsemen on both sides of my family, I have been coached and tutored by the masters--from remount officers and local volunteers in the Keeneland Pony Club to Hall of Fame trainers Woody Stephens, Sherrill Ward, John Gaver, Mac Miller....and the list goes on. My marriage of 30 years to Donna, with her unique brand of horsemanship and intensity, has exponentially increased the equation. While I was off doing my "Derby Thing," Donna was quietly steering the rest of the organization so when Monarchos went to the shelf, there were graded stakes winners Forest Secrets, Snow Dance, Hero's Tribute, and others to carry the banner.

Add to this a long and close relationship with owner Jack Oxley, whose devotion to quality racing is unquestioned. For years he has been carefully building a quality broodmare band (champion Beautiful Pleasure, Kentucky Oaks winner Gal in a Ruckus, and many other graded winners) that will carry his colors into the next decade.

Finally, there is Jorge Chavez, the Eclipse Award-winning jockey whose sincere, dedicated, and ethical approach to race riding culminated into a force that came together that first Saturday in May.

From that moment on, life will never be the same. There was the rush of the press, media spots, and requests for valuable time that could only be stolen from my duties as a trainer. There were more social requirements and charity requests, but none that equaled the demand for autographs to be signed, which was much to my surprise. I found that the sport has silent fans throughout the country. People seek you out in airports, restaurants, grocery stores, shopping malls, and walking down the street. If I were on the FBI's "Most Wanted List," my capture would be immediate. I can only think the television ratings services must be missing the count. There are racing fans everywhere. The most moving experience was the phenomenon that the "victory" was shared by all the people of Kentucky, one in which they took great pride. Many shared the overwhelming emotion that partners such a historical event. There were elderly patrons at Keeneland in tears; standing ovations for Chavez at a Louisville restaurant; calls of congratulations from widows of late, great trainers; and the positive acknowledgement from those so hard to impress...the racetrack backside personnel.

Donna and I can only say "thanks" to all these wonderful people we've encountered along the way who have encouraged, coached, counseled, and helped make our goals attainable. We feel especially fortunate to have lived the "dream" that makes this business and the people so special. As Lynn Whiting expressed to me, "Winning the Kentucky Derby is painted on you, and it never wears off."

Now, Monarchos has entered stud duty at the great Claiborne Farm, where he will have a chance to become one of the best. As a young boy, the dream of the day was "Will I ever win the Kentucky Derby?" and "Will I ever have a horse good enough to stand at Claiborne Farm?"

To repeat my words in the winner's circle, "This one is for tradition."

Postscript from Donna Ward:
Winning the Kentucky Derby was a personal validation of our belief that if you first take care of your horse, it will take care of you. It punctuated our commitment to the horses, their owners, our work force, the industry, and above all, to each other. Any 24/7 can bring a bit of stress, but everyone came out of this experience with an intense desire to try and win the "Big One" again. Without the dedication of all these people, there would be no victory.

Trainer John T. Ward Jr. conditioned 2001 Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos.