On Derby sidelines no longer

Ward makes a case for work as trainer in weekend's preps

Horse Racing

March 08, 2001|By Tom Keyser

HALLANDALE, Fla. - On the first definitive weekend leading to the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the trainer holding the full house is not Bob Baffert or D. Wayne Lukas.

With major races for 3-year-olds in Florida and Louisiana, the trainer with significant horses in each - and a third on the sidelines - is John Ward Jr. A 55-year-old native of Lexington, Ky., Ward is a horseman to the bone. But he is not a familiar figure on the Triple Crown trail. That may change.

Thin and silver-haired, a gentleman of the turf, Ward has saddled horses in only one Triple Crown race in three decades of training. In the 1995 Kentucky Derby, Ward trained two entrants, Jambalaya Jazz and Pyramid Peak. They finished 15th and 17th, respectively.

This year, his three leading contenders, ranked among the top 11 by the Daily Racing Form, place him at the forefront of trainers marching toward Churchill Downs the first Saturday in May.

Ward's Monarchos, a stunning gray son of the budding sire Maria's Mon, will race Saturday in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. After 13 horses were entered yesterday for the $1 million race, Monarchos drew post No. 7 and was tabbed the 5-2 morning-line favorite.

The Ward-trainee Hero's Tribute, a powerful son of Sea Hero, winner of the 1993 Kentucky Derby, will compete Sunday in the Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. The trainer's most experienced 3-year-old colt, Holiday Thunder, a son of Thunder Gulch, winner of the 1995 Kentucky Derby, will race March 24 in the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park in Kentucky.

You might expect Ward to be giddy over such exciting prospects. His reaction?

"Truly, it's a relief," he said.

This is the culmination of a plan set in place by John C. Oxley, owner and president of Oxley Petroleum, based in Tulsa, Okla.

Oxley owns most of the thoroughbreds that Ward and his wife Donna train, including Beautiful Pleasure, winner of the 1999 Eclipse award for outstanding older filly and mare. (Oxley announced this week that he had decided to campaign Beautiful Pleasure, 6, this year instead of breeding her to Storm Cat, the country's top stallion.)

Oxley owns a 220-acre breeding farm in Kentucky. There, and at the Ward farm in Lexington, Oxley keeps "35 of the best-bred fillies you can own," Ward said.

About three years ago, Oxley changed focus. He began concentrating on colts. Last year, for instance, Oxley provided Ward nine 2-year-old colts and an equal number of 2-year-old fillies. In the past, Ward said, that ratio would have been 80-20 in favor of fillies.

"I bought my first horse 29 years ago," the owner said. "We had a lot of success racing fillies and turning them into broodmares. We wanted to see if we could have that same success with the colts."

When Oxley decided to shift focus, he said, he did not consider shifting allegiance to a proven Triple Crown trainer.

"I've been with Donna and John Ward since 1980," Oxley said. "They've proven to me that they're as good as anybody else available. I think John Ward is the best trainer in the country."

Oxley has provided the money to enable Ward to assemble a staff of assistants and exercise riders experienced with young horses. The result, Ward said, is an operation on par with the handful of leading stables.

Followers of the sport will begin to see this weekend what the Oxley-Ward partnership has wrought.

A cautious handler of thoroughbreds, Ward brings his young horses along slowly. For Monarchos, the Florida Derby will be his fifth race. And not surprising for a maturing horse in Ward's care, Monarchos lost both his races last year. This year? He's 2-for-2.

Monarchos won a 7-furlong maiden race by six lengths Jan. 13 at Gulfstream Park. Then, on the same track Feb. 3, he dominated a 1 1/16-mile allowance race by nearly five lengths. That was the race, Ward said, in which Monarchos came of age.

Ward's eyes brightened as he recalled how the jockey Jorge Chavez took the colt to finishing school.

In his first race around two turns, an important milestone in a horse's development, Monarchos broke sharply, and Chavez promptly eased him back behind the over-eager leaders. Down the backstretch, Chavez allowed Monarchos, running second, to settle into a smooth rhythm.

Around the far turn, as a horse began moving past on the outside, Chavez let that horse stick his head in front. Then he let Monarchos catch up. The outside horse surged ahead. Chavez sat patiently for a moment, then allowed Monarchos, his competitive juices flowing, to catch up a second time.

Finally, as they rounded the turn, Chavez guided Monarchos from the rail to the outside into the clear. With the long, straight homestretch in his sights, Monarchos unleashed his powerful run and "drew away, driving," in the words of the Equibase chart caller.

"Jorge schooled him every step of the way," Ward said. "He put this horse in different situations and asked him to respond, and he did. When Jorge got back to the winner's circle, he said to my assistant, `He know now.' "

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