It turned out to be quite as memorable, in its own way, as any
Florida Derby since jockey Ron Franklin bumped and ran the great
Spectacular Bid through an obstacle course on his way to victory
in 1979. Or at least since Holy Bull, the silver bullet,
pulverized the field in '94, winning by nearly six lengths. The
50th running of Florida's most important prep race for the
Kentucky Derby, last Saturday afternoon, was just as riveting.
The Peruvian rider Jorge Chavez was rocking on the broad back of
Monarchos, another fleet gray, muttering to the colt in Spanish
while sensing that he was sitting on a horse who was just waiting
for the word to run. They were racing in 11th place down the
backstretch at Gulfstream Park, more than 10 lengths behind the
leaders, when Chavez gave the word: Reaching back, he strapped
Monarchos once with the whip.
The moment was electric. Lowering himself about six inches,
thrusting out his forelegs like a horse clearing a hedge,
Monarchos surged into the far turn. Chavez--at 4'10" the smallest
major jockey in the U.S.--felt as if he were sitting on a throne.
"A great feeling," he said later. "You ask him, and he gives it
to you. I felt like the king."
Briefly, magically, he was. Chavez steered his colt six-wide on
the turn, and in a 15-second dash as unforgettable as any seen
among 3-year-olds in recent years, Monarchos sauteed the entire
field, first disappearing behind one flight of horses, then
reappearing between others and finally sprinting to the front.
Grabbing the lead off the top of the final turn, the colt burst
into the clear and kept on running through the stretch to win by
4 1/2 lengths.
In one bold stroke Monarchos emerged from the relative obscurity
of Gulfstream Park maiden and allowance races--this was his first
stakes race and his first time covering nine furlongs--to become a
serious contender to win the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby on May 5.
The victory raised him to the level of California's early Derby
favorite, Point Given, and also made Monarchos's trainer, John
Ward Jr., and his owner, Oklahoma polo player and natural-gas
tycoon John C. Oxley, significant players in the scramble for the
Indeed, just 24 hours after the Florida Derby, Ward showed he had
an even stronger hand for Churchill Downs when he finished third
in a strong field at the Louisiana Derby with another of Oxley's
3-year-old colts, Hero's Tribute, a son of 1993 Kentucky Derby
winner Sea Hero. A third talented Oxley colt, the Ward-trained
Holiday Thunder (son of the '95 Kentucky Derby winner, Thunder
Gulch), is expected to join Monarchos and Hero's Tribute in their
charge on Churchill Downs.
That Ward and Oxley have three bona fide Kentucky Derby
horses--more than anyone else--is the result of a long-term design.
Ward has trained Oxley's horses for 20 years, but the Oklahoman
intensified his involvement as an owner in the early 1990s, when
he and his wife, Debby, augmented their stable, then made up
largely of fillies, by breeding a potentially classic colt,
Pyramid Peak, and buying another, Jambalaya Jazz. They ran poorly
in the '95 Kentucky Derby--Jambalaya Jazz finished 15th and
Pyramid Peak, 17th--but both went on to win stakes races, and
together they earned more than $1 million. The Oxleys had so much
fun racing those two colts that they decided to own more.
They purchased Hero's Tribute, Holiday Thunder and Monarchos with
the Kentucky Derby in mind. On Ward's advice, Oxley plunked down
$150,000 for Hero's Tribute as a yearling in 1999, and last year
he shelled out $170,000 for Monarchos as a 2-year-old in training
in Florida--hardly princely sums for horses bought for the purpose
of leading an assault upon the country's most important horse
race. Oxley named the 2-year-old Monarchos, from the Greek word
for ruler, because he thought it suited the youngster's classic
pedigree (by stakes winner Maria's Mon out of Regal Band, by
Dixieland Band) and bearing.
Ward has been the linchpin of the Oxleys' extraordinary success.
A third-generation hardboot from Lexington--one of his uncles,
Sherill Ward, trained the mighty Forego during part of the
gelding's career--Ward is among the most respected trainers in
central Kentucky, with a keen eye for horseflesh. He picked out
Fusaichi Pegasus as a yearling, advising his Japanese client to
buy him for $4 million, and the horse not only won last year's
Kentucky Derby but was also sold to a breeding syndicate for $60
Nothing esoteric went into Ward's suggestion to Oxley that he buy
Monarchos. "He had worked a couple of quarter miles in :22 and
change, and he did it very fluidly," says Ward. "The 2-year-olds
I like don't have to be the fastest horses at a sale, but they
have to have great athletic ability and fluid motion. This horse
Ward went slowly with Monarchos, sensing that he was not a quick
study, and raced him only twice as a 2-year-old: at Keeneland on
Oct. 7, when he finished eighth, beaten by 12 1/2 lengths, and
then at Churchill on Nov. 24, when he closed ground late to
finish third, 5 1/2 lengths behind the winner. "He was like an
11-year-old kid," says Ward, referring to the colt's tendency to
get distracted in races. The kid got focused over the winter at
Gulfstream. On Jan. 13 he won a seven-furlong maiden race by six
lengths, and on Feb. 3 he won a 1 1/16-mile allowance race by
That set him up for the Florida Derby. Two hours before the race
Ward said he would run Monarchos in one more Kentucky Derby prep,
the April 14 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. "He's a quality animal,"
Ward said. "He doesn't have to win today, but he has to prove he
can run against horses of this quality and not make any serious
mistakes. If he just finishes strongly today, you'll see me with
And how. At 5:22 p.m., moments after Monarchos had blazed from
11th place to first, a smile spread across Ward's face like a
blanket of roses: from ear to ear.
COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER
In an unforgettable 15-second dash, Monarchos sauteed the entire