Sunday, May 06, 2001

Ward gets the last word

        LOUISVILLE — John Ward knew what he had. He's a third-generation horseman with a first-rate eye. He is rarely fooled, and he is increasingly forthright.

        “The first half of your life as a trainer you spend hedging because you're not sure the decisions you make are the right ones,” Ward said Saturday. “The second half you get very confident because you think you know your horse.”

John Ward (right) watches jockey Jorge Chavez hoist the trophy.
        Ward could not have known Monarchos would win the Kentucky Derby Saturday, but he never seriously doubted. As Point Given gained consensus among racing's cognoscenti, Ward remained steadfast and sure. He told anyone who would listen and dozens of the deliberately deaf about the greatness
of his gray colt, and he trained him lightly because he was already planning his Preakness campaign.

        Ward knew what he had. He knew exactly what he had. Now the rest of the racing world is clued in. And cowers.

Triple Crown potential

        Monarchos was as majestic as his moniker Saturday afternoon, romping down the stretch at Churchill Downs with a regal bearing suggestive of a Triple Crown. He crossed the finish line in 1:59.97 - the swiftest Derby winner except for Secretariat - and he moves on to Maryland as a presumed monster.

        Stuck in 10th place and second gear half a mile from the finish, Monarchos closed as if his competition were mired in quicksand. He beat Invisible Ink by 4 3/4 lengths and won so handily that his whip-happy jockey, Jorge “Chop Chop” Chavez, later lamented his restraint.

        “I could have gone faster,” Chavez told Ward in the winner's circle, “if I had asked him sooner.”

        Had Monarchos run any faster Saturday afternoon, the stewards would have been obliged to check the track for a conveyer belt. They did consider an objection by Invisible Ink's jockey, John Velazquez, but the purported foul was dismissed (and confessed) as Derby desperation.

        “My horse ran a really good race, but the winner was the best horse in the race,” Velazquez admitted. “This is the Derby. I finished second. I had to take a shot. I probably wouldn't claim foul in any other race.”

        The Derby is a breeding ground for unusual behavior. It causes brilliant businessmen to throw money at mediocre nags and tradition-bound trainers to abandon their discipline in pursuit of a dream.

Ward silences cynics

        So many horsemen have said so many outlandish things during Derby week that Ward's confidence barely registered on the overstatement scale. Because his only previous Derby entries finished 15th and 17th (in 1995), Ward struck few racing observers as an oracle.

        Yet when Monarchos won his first race at Gulfstream in January, Chavez climbed down and declared the horse his Derby winner. When Monarchos scorched the Florida Derby field in March, Ward started publicly singing his praises. Saturday afternoon, Monarchos' every move cued a Hallelujah Chorus.

        “I put myself on the line all week long,” Ward said. “You can really embarrass yourself like that, but you know you've got to have confidence, tremendous confidence in the animal, and the animal has shown us, like I said all week. ... He has never shown me the end of his drive yet.”

        Ward chuckled at his own audacity. Monarchos allowed him the last laugh.

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