Derby Winning Owners Strike Mother Lode

Published in the May 12 Blood-Horse
They don't call the major producers "gushers" at Oxley Petroleum. In the natural-gas exploration business, they're known as "high-flowing wells," exploding like the stride of John C. Oxley's Monarchos as he gobbled up the hallowed ground of the Churchill Downs stretch the first Saturday in May.

Call it gushing or call it flowing, Oxley and wife Debby struck the mother lode in the 127th Kentucky Derby (gr. I), hitting not only with the winner, but as 24% owners of the runner-up, Invisible Ink. A rare exacta, perhaps, but not altogether surprising to those familiar with the 64-year-old history buff who enjoys nothing more than studying geology and pedigrees.

"I listened to the call of Assault's 1946 Kentucky Derby as a 9-year-old," said the Tulsa, Okla., native, "and something inside me just tuned in to the game. I loved what I was hearing. I've followed the Derby ever since then. In 1954 my dad took me to the Derby and a gray colt named Determine won. About a month ago I turned to Debby and said, 'Do you suppose a gray colt could win the Derby again this year?' "

A gray colt could, thanks to the teamwork of Oxley and trainer John T. Ward Jr., who met each other on the steps of the Saratoga sale pavilion in 1978. Oxley had just bought a yearling filly there and decided to send it to Ward to break and train. Forever Cordial became a multiple stakes winner, and John and Donna Ward and John and Debby Oxley have been a winning team ever since.

"We've stayed together, grown together, and learned together," noted Oxley. "Each day in the Thoroughbred world I love seeing the horses and the people develop and grow via the experience. You give people the time--that's the secret to success in any business."

Ward is more blunt on the topic, but no less eloquent: "The Oxleys leave me alone and let me do what I want. They're great owners."

The timeline is there for all to see. First was Oxley's love for history. His geology studies at the University of Oklahoma led him to start Oxley Petroleum with his father in 1962. The risks of drilling and exploration interested him. He found similar interest in the history, risks, and discovery of the Thoroughbred world. "I love the pedigrees and the history of following the lines of all the great horses, and I've followed them ever since I was in high school and went to that first Derby."

While Oxley works the sale catalogues on the pedigree side, Ward -- who picked out and bought 2000 winner Fusaichi Pegasus for $4 million at the 1998 Keeneland July yearling sale -- studies workout tapes of juvenile sale horses. The two compare their short lists, see what overlaps, and have those they agree on vetted. "We usually get two or three that survive those tests, and we go out and try to buy them," said Oxley. They spent $170,000 for Monarchos.

"If you look at the record of the great horses, most of them don't cost a lot of money," explained the history maven. "That's something you want to think about when you're buying. We try to buy pedigree, conformation, and movement, and you can often do that without paying a tremendous sum. We can't compete and pay $1 million for every horse we buy or else we wouldn't last in the game very long. We'd be in the poor house."

Since the mid-'90s, Oxley has resided in the Thoroughbred penthouse. In 1999 Beautiful Pleasure, a product of the Oxley/Ward partnership, won the Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) on her way to an Eclipse Award. Gal in a Ruckus scored in the 1995 Kentucky Oaks (gr. I).

Forty mares the Oxleys currently have in Kentucky bode well for the future. But it was two colts who didn't distinguish themselves in the 1995 Kentucky Derby that led the Oxleys to their biggest day.

Pyramid Peak and Jambalaya Jazz both ate dirt at the back of the Derby field that year, but their owners got something very valuable out of the race -- a raging case of Derby fever. Just getting to the Derby had always seemed just out of reach, but the "incredible and wonderful experience" got Oxley thinking that if they could improve their methodology and shift their concentration from fillies to colts with distance pedigrees, just maybe...

"Recently racing has moved toward the speed side because people want quick runners and winners," said Oxley, a champion polo player. "But if you're thinking Derby, you'd better start with pedigree and buy pedigree." Monarchos started with just the bloodlines Oxley admired. "He's got Buckpasser, Ribot, Graustark, Roberto, Ribot again on the bottom along with Northern Dancer. In this colt you see the resurgence of the greatest bloodlines in American racing history."

Still, through Monarchos' spring campaign in Florida, two schools of thought fought for Oxley's attention. He allowed himself the chance that they actually could win the Derby this year, but had other days when "Can we really do it?" dominated. Derby morning, the pieces all snapped into place.

"I was reading the paper about how we had named the horse after a Byzantine Greek ruler," said Oxley, "and the article mentioned his first name was Georgio, which I hadn't known. I thought, 'we have Georgie on board' -- I call Chavez 'Georgie.' I said, 'Somebody's trying to tell me something here -- we're going to win the Kentucky Derby.' "

After "screaming our heads off" as Monarchos barreled down the stretch, the Oxleys sat at the podium as Ward addressed the post-race press conference. The couple (Debby is a Louisville native) turned to one another, smiling smiles of disbelief and giddiness as they stared into each other's eyes -- smiles that went straight through to ecstasy.

"Nothing can be more exciting, more incredible, more thrilling, more astonishing, more unbelievable than today," Oxley said as words came back to him. "Each of those milestones in your life that seem at the time to be the most important -- a big well, a big polo win -- there's nothing like winning the Kentucky Derby. It takes you off the planet and puts you into a new orbit."

Drinking in the "most incredible experience of our lives," the Oxleys were nothing if not gushing.