The racing world lost more than a talented, classy racehorse on October 22. It lost a pioneer. Monarchos was not your average Kentucky Derby winner. He and his training team of John Ward, who was listed trainer, and his wife Donna paved new ground in how to prepare a horse to win the Derby.
There have been countless horses who have had their one big day in the sun. But Monarchos had two such days, and because of injury he was unable to earn a more special place in the history books.
The story of Monarchos began well before the Kentucky Derby. In December of 2000, Ward decided to make a major change in strategy and attempt something that had never been done before. Instead of training at Keeneland the following spring and stabling across the road at his own farm, located across the road behind the track, he decided he’d have a better chance of winning the Kentucky Derby if he sent a small, but select, stable to Churchill Downs very early with the sole intention of producing a Derby horse. So he put together a special string of upcoming 3-year-olds he felt had the talent and class to be a force on the first Saturday in May.
Of their main hopes, all owned by the Wards’ main clients, John and Debby Oxley, Holiday Thunder had finished second in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile at Turfway Park behind Point Given, second in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs, and third in the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland. Hero’s Tribute had finished second, beaten a neck, in the Iroquois Stakes at Churchill. The bottom horse on the Derby totem pole was Monarchos, who had rallied from far back to finish third in a Churchill maiden race and was only several weeks away from another maiden race.
Although the Wards had their stable at Palm Beach Downs, they felt their three big 3-year-olds would be better off stabled at Gulfstream. So they decided to set up a separate division that would focus strictly on the Derby preps
But first, he had to find good help, all of whom had, as he said, “big-day experience” and wouldn’t, in basketball terms, “freeze up at the foul line.” He especially needed to find a talented assistant who could run the stable for him. The first thing Ward did was hire Yvonne Azeff, a former jockey and assistant to D. Wayne Lukas, Randy Bradshaw, and Pat Byrne. Azeff had been assistant to Byrne when he won the Breeders’ Cup Classic with Awesome Again and to Lukas when he won the Classic with Cat Thief. Ward had been trying to hire Azeff for some time. She joined the team and immediately set out to recruit good horsemen and horsewomen whom she knew and respected. 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; as did Bob Lewis, former assistant to Darby Dan Farm trainer Lou Rondinello, who came aboard as Azeff’s assistant, exercise rider Bryan Beccia, and hotwalkers Teri Upton and Mike Jackson, among others.
The team was set, both human and horses. It didn’t take long for Azeff to fall in love with one of the 3-year-olds, who had made an immediate impression on her.
“John, am I going to get this little gray colt,” she asked, referring to Monarchos. “I think he’s going to be a star.”
The more Azeff saw of him, the more she became enamored with him. Because of his exuberant personality, she nicknamed him Sparky. 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, make your plans now to go to the Derby, because we’ve got a shot to win with this gray colt we've got,” she said.
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.
The Monarchos story actually had begun 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. 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 then joined the Ward team, which divided the horses between the two of them. Donna’s main attention at the time focused on their sensational 6-year-old mare Beautiful Pleasure, winner of the 1999 Breeders’ Cup Distaff and five other grade I stakes.
Monarchos continued to improve with each start, and in his 3-year-old debut on January 13, he crushed his 11 opponents by six lengths in a swift 1:22 1/5 for the seven furlongs, then did the same to an allowance field, winning by 4 3/4 lengths going 1 1/16 miles. That set him up for the Florida Derby.
Lagging back in 11th in the 13-horse field, Monarchos unleashed one of most powerful and explosive moves on the far turn ever witnessed on the Derby trail. He went from 11th to first in less than a half-mile and seventh to first in less than a quarter mile. He charged to the lead at the head of the stretch with a sweeping eight-wide move and drew off to win by 4 1/2 lengths. The Wards and the Oxleys had their big Derby horse.
Meanwhile, Hero’s Tribute finished third in the Louisiana Derby, but would run terribly in the Blue Grass Stakes, while Holiday Thunder turned in a dismal effort in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. It was all up to Monarchos.
Ward sent him to Aqueduct for the Wood Memorial, but he knew he could very well regress off the Florida Derby and did not want to use him up trying to catch a brilliantly fast horse in Congaree. So he was happy enough with Monarchos’ second-place finish behind the Baffert-trained speedster, feeling it would set him up perfectly for the Derby.
It was back to Churchill Downs, where he and the other team members had been stabled since March 26. It was Azeff who ran the stable, as Ward would commute several days a week from his farm near Keeneland. Many felt Monarchos was going in the wrong direction after his electrifying victory in the Florida Derby and subsequent defeat in the Wood Memorial. 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 Ward when he and Azeff gave 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 late March, 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 would finally listen.
As the Derby drew nearer, the team became more and more confident. 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.’”
Even jockey Jorge Chavez was getting excited. “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.”
The last part of the story 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 reaching for more ground to devour. He wanted 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, runaway winner of the Santa Anita Derby. Ward paid little attention to the big chestnut. If he was concerned about any horse, it was Baffert's other entry, Congaree. 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.”
Although Derby horses usually received their final work either the weekend before the race or early Derby week, Ward had broken from tradition and gave Monarchos his final work eight days before, which again brought out the critics. When Monarchos returned from his half-mile work, a beaming Beccia had no fear of Point Given, and told Ward and Azeff, “We’re ready for ‘em. They won't beat us. Don’t let that big red s.o.b. slow down or we might run over the top of him.”
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.”
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 longshot Invisible Ink and Congaree, he stopped the teletimer at 1:59 4/5. 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.
After the race, a stoic Ward stood alone on the Churchill Downs grass course, watching Monarchos return from his magnificent triumph. The third-generation Kentucky horseman was a stark contrast to the emotions that poured freely around him. Azeff, who dreamed of winning the Derby when she was 10 years old, was overcome with tears as she hugged her mother and Beccia, who kept repeating, “We did it.” When lifelong dreams come true, the only words the mind can muster are, “Oh my God!” That was all she could get out. It was as if a part of Azeff would not let her believe this was really happening.
Beccia was the first to run out on the track, jumping up and down and waving his arms at the crowd. Azeff burst into tears, covering her face with her hands. This was a girl, who as a 13-year-old used to ride her bike to Bowie Racetrack and sneak into the backstretch through a hole in the fence to be around the horses. She had fulfilled her childhood dream and reached racing’s pinnacle. She had ridden all over the country, and was the leading apprentice rider at Tampa Bay Downs in 1992, but it was training that was her passion. Her mother, seemingly dazed by the experience, swelled with pride at what her daughter had accomplished with a lifetime of hard work and passion for the horse.
“I’m numb just thinking about all those years and all the sacrifices,” she said, still overcome with emotion. “My daughter doesn't have a life. She’s married to the job and the horses. And now it’s all paid off. I can’t keep from crying. I'm still shaking. You have no idea the sacrifices she’s made in her personal life to get to where she is today.”
Several feet away, jockey 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 everyone on the track 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, 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.
Lewis, who watched the race on TV from the tack room, where “everyone was trying to jump on everybody else,” had completed his own personal Triple Crown that began with Darby Dan more than a quarter century earlier when they captured the Preakness and Belmont with Little Current. The Oxleys finally had been rewarded for their years of patience and dedication to the sport.
For Monarchos, he had come into the world with the look of eagles and the swagger of a champion, and he showed them off to the entire nation on an unforgettable, hot May afternoon at Churchill Downs. And finally, Ward, with the ghosts of his noted ancestors smiling down, had shown what planning, horsemanship, and the care of the horse can accomplish.
He set his sights on a goal, stocked his barn with people who were winners, and saw it all come to fruition. The morning after the race, trainer Neil Howard stopped by the barn to congratulate Ward.
“Damn,” Howard said with a smile on his face. “You really do know how to train.”
But the glory would be short-lived. This would be the final hurrah for Ward’s elite team, and for Monarchos himself. The colt ran a disappointing race in the Preakness, finishing sixth behind Point Given. Brought back in the Belmont Stakes, he finished third, but was beaten 13 lengths by Point Given, who would go on to championship honors.
A short while later a hairline fracture was discovered in Monarchos’ right front knee. Everyone agreed that the fracture likely began in the Kentucky Derby over that lightning-fast track, and the colt had been running on it in the Preakness and Belmont, which accounted for his poor performances.
Monarchos made it back to the races seven months later, finishing a dull third in an allowance/optional claimer at Gulfstream Park, but came out of the race with a tendon injury, after which he was retired to Claiborne Farm. He would sire champions in the United States, Brazil, and Scandinavia.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 15 years since Monarchos’ remarkable victory at Churchill Downs. The team that Ward assembled did not last long. But for that one special season, they were able to work together to win America’s greatest race.
As Ward said, “It was set up for one goal. We had one target, and everybody did exactly what they were supposed to do. It just goes to show you, in this business it’s all about the chemistry among the people you have working for you.”
And if there was one thing Ward’s team had, it was chemistry, and one talented gray colt who never got the chance to fulfill the promise of a great career, but left his mark forever in the annals of the Kentucky Derby.