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 Ch�vez 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 Ch�vez 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. Ch�vez—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. Ch�vez 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 saut�ed 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� 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�-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 spring classics.
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 million.
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 had that."