It all unfolded just the way John Ward had imagined it would.
Indeed, as the speed-crazed leaders of last Saturday's Kentucky
Derby were shakin' and bakin' into the far turn, with
Songandaprayer blazing along as fast as any early leader in the
race's 127-year history, the 55-year-old Ward could barely fathom
his great good fortune. His roan colt, Monarchos, who had trailed
the leaders by as many as 15 lengths, was beginning to launch his
Ward was in a box with Monarchos's owner, John Oxley, and the
veteran Kentucky trainer was shouting the dizzying splits over
Oxley's shoulder, above the din, as the numbers flashed their
frantic message on the infield tote board. The white-faced
Songandaprayer had charged through the opening quarter a head in
front--"Twenty-two and a fifth!" cried Ward--and then, after
scooting through the clubhouse turn and dusting even the
fleet-footed Balto Star, had opened a length-and-a-half lead and
become the only horse in the annals of the Derby to break 45
seconds for the first half mile. "Forty-four and four-fifths!"
Ward hollered to Oxley.
This was exactly what Ward had hoped for. Three of the fastest
horses in the field--Songandaprayer, Millennium Wind and Balto
Star--had broken from the three inside posts, and Ward had figured
correctly that their jocks would have to blast them out of the
gate to avoid getting swallowed on the rail by outside speed
coming over on them. Under the track superintendent's rollers,
the racing surface at Churchill Downs had been getting tighter
and faster all week, and by Derby Day it was playing like a
downhill course. Three track records had fallen in the first four
races of the day. "They might as well run [the Derby] on Fourth
Street," Todd Pletcher, trainer of Balto Star and Invisible Ink,
complained hours before the race.
The surface and those hot early fractions determined the Derby's
outcome, setting the table beautifully for stretch runners such
as Monarchos while cooking those horses who got too close to the
fire, namely the 9-5 favorite, Point Given. So, as the 17-horse
field raced to the far turn, sweeping past the half-mile pole,
Ward saw the teletimer freeze the astonishing six-furlong split:
1:09 1/5. That is sprinting time. "Oh, yeah!" the trainer yelled
to Oxley, though Monarchos was still running only 10th, some
seven lengths back. "We've got it made now!"
What happened next was more than another demonstration of a
ruinous pace making the race at the 1 1/4-mile Derby: It was a
powerful vindication of Ward's unconventional way of bringing
Monarchos to Churchill Downs. What's more, it offered the
emphatic redemption of a colt who had been dismissed as a serious
contender in Louisville. Stung by criticism of his training
approach, Ward called out to reporters as he stepped into the
winner's circle, "This just goes to prove, as it has time and
again, that you don't have to pound on an athlete to get him to
give you his best."
Only two months earlier, on March 10, Ward had established
Monarchos as a solid Derby favorite when the colt won the Florida
Derby at Gulfstream Park by 4 1/2 lengths. It was a smashing
victory, doubly notable because on a surface that favored horses
with early speed, Monarchos had come from 11th place to prevail.
Over the next five weeks Ward worked the colt only three
times--each in a casual five-furlong drill--and when he lost the
April 14 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct to Congaree by 2 3/4 lengths,
critics found fault in the trainer's easy-breezy ways. Ward was
unmoved. "The goal is the Kentucky Derby, not the prep races," he
Ward had also studied the chart and the video of the Wood and
concluded that Monarchos had run as well there as he had at
Gulfstream. He pointed out that the colt had closed more than a
length on Congaree near the end of the 1 1/8-mile race. "When I
tore the race down, the animal ran as well in the Wood the last
five eighths of a mile as he had in the Florida Derby," Ward
said. "Congaree just got a jump on us over a speed-biased
racetrack. It set us up perfect for the Derby."
Many observers thought that Ward was in denial over the Wood. In
the three weeks leading up to the Derby he worked Monarchos only
once, a five-furlong breeze in 1:00 2/5 on April 27. Ward had
grown up among people whose lives were intertwined with those of
horses. His father, trainer John T. Ward Sr., had put him to work
walking hots when he was five, and Hall of Fame conditioner Woody
Stephens, a family friend, was like an uncle to the boy. Sherrill
Ward, the Hall of Famer who trained champions Idun and Forego,
was an uncle on John Sr.'s side. The collected wisdom of their
horsemanship was passed down to John Jr. like a family heirloom.
His grandfather, John S. Ward, had preached to Woody and Sherrill
about the proper way to get and keep a horse fit, telling them
that it was counterproductive to keep grinding him. "You can only
get a glass of water so full," John S. said. "You put more
fitness into one and it just spills over the edge. It's wasted.
And the wear and tear shortens his career."
So, confident that Monarchos was sitting on a big race, Ward
ignored the orthodox wisdom that calls for hard races and fast,
regular workouts to make a horse battle-tough for the Derby.
Instead, the trainer let the colt coast to the race on that one
workout and a pair of one-and-a-half-mile gallops. Said Ward
after the race, "You look at his race record and you say, This
horse has been at the top of his game the last four races. Why do
you want to keep pounding on him? Why not back off and let him
catch up physically and mentally?"
On top of that, on the Wednesday before the Derby, Ward raised a
few eyebrows on shedrow when he kept Monarchos inside, confining
him to a 45-minute walk in the barn. "They kept making the
racetrack harder, and the wear and tear on the horse was
increasing," the trainer said. "So I stayed away."
No wonder that by post time on Saturday, Monarchos's odds had
ballooned to 10-1. Ward could not have scripted the Derby more
ideally for the colt. Gary Stevens, on Point Given, thought he
was in the perfect spot on the first turn, five lengths off the
lead, but he was getting sucked along behind a suicidal pace
that, the rider would later think, might have undone his colt. No
doubt it did. Only Congaree, lying just three lengths off the
lead, would survive the early heat to hit the board, finishing
third, a nose behind Invisible Ink. Songandaprayer's jockey,
Aaron Gryder, had no chance to slow his colt once he'd started
his burn from the gate. "I was going a lot faster than I wanted
to go," said Gryder, "and I was in a position I didn't want to be
To this moment rose Monarchos. Under Jorge Chavez, he slipped
inside horses down the backside, then outside others as the field
charged the far turn. As the other leaders began gasping for
breath, Congaree swept to the lead, hitting the mile mark in a
fiery 1:35, and Ward knew that no horse could endure that pace.
"Here we go!" he called to Oxley. Off the final turn Monarchos
swept around all but Congaree, but he had the leader measured 200
yards out. In the last 10 seconds he ran Congaree down and won by
4 3/4 lengths in 1:59.97, the second-fastest time in Derby history
and only three-fifths of a second off Secretariat's 28-year-old
Monarchos may never again get so perfect a scenario, but Ward is
unconcerned. The man is eager to run his charge in the May 19
Preakness Stakes. Another reason he did not hammer on Monarchos
last week, he said, is that he wants a keen colt for Pimlico. "I
have a fresh horse going into the Preakness," he said. "I have a
horse that's still closing."
Whatever happens in Baltimore, Ward's illuminating seminar for
Derby trainers on Saturday proved that there is more than one way
to get it done.
running 10th, seven lengths behind.