HALLANDALE, Fla. - Ever since finishing a fast-closing second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Point Given has topped most handicappers' lists of Kentucky Derby contenders. He has company now.
Monarchos, a striking gray colt with explosive speed, demolished a 13-horse field yesterday in the $1 million Florida Derby, winning by 4 1/2 lengths and challenging Point Given's rank of early Kentucky Derby favorite.
Trained by Bob Baffert in California, Point Given will make his 3-year-old debut in the San Felipe Stakes next weekend at Santa Anita Park. He'll have some catching up to do after Monarchos' smashing performance at Gulfstream Park in sun-splashed South Florida.
Asked whether he thought he had the horse to beat at Churchill Downs, John Ward Jr., trainer of Monarchos, said: "I wouldn't trade places with anybody I've seen at this point."
Ward trains two other top Derby contenders. Hero's Tribute will make his stakes debut today in the Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, and the more experienced Holiday Thunder will compete in two weeks in the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park in Kentucky.
Monarchos soared to the top of his 3-year-old class with a stunning advance covering slightly more than an eighth of a mile. Eleventh entering the far turn, Monarchos accelerated sharply as his jockey, Jorge Chavez, pumped with both arms.
Running six-wide around tightly bunched foes, Monarchos claimed the lead before straightening out for home. That move would be enough to drain most horses. But Monarchos kept running ... and running. No one threatened. No one came close.
Outofthebox finished second, Invisible Ink third and Dream Run fourth.
Coupled in the betting with Invisible Ink because of common ownership, Monarchos paid $4.80 to win as the 7-5 favorite. He completed the 1 1/8 miles in a respectable 1 minute 49.95 seconds.
The exacta returned $23.40, the trifecta $344.60 and the superfecta $1,269.80. The crowd at Gulfstream Park numbered 28,358.
Monarchos' victory represents the arrival of his owner and trainer at the top echelon of 3-year-old racing. John Oxley, a wealthy oilman from Oklahoma, and Ward, a veteran horseman from Kentucky, have quietly created one of the most formidable racing operations in the country.
After excelling with such fillies and mares as Gal in a Ruckus and Beautiful Pleasure, Oxley changed his focus several years ago and began buying colts. He financed Ward's hiring of assistants and exercise riders experienced with younger horses.
At this turn on the road to the spring classics, Ward holds the strongest hand of any trainer in the country. Fans of racing had better get used to that. An exuberant Oxley recommitted himself to the task after collecting the winner's trophy for the Florida Derby.
In the Kentucky Derby of 1995, his Jambalaya Jazz and Pyramid Peak finished 15th and 17th, respectively. Asked whether that stimulated his appetite for participating in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, Oxley said: "That ... and so did today."
A son of the budding sire Maria's Mon and the Dixieland Band mare Regal Band, Monarchos cost Oxley a relatively modest $170,000 last year at a sale of 2-year-olds. This was Monarchos' stakes debut, and his third victory in five races.
"So far, he's taken every step we want, plus a little bit," Ward said. "I think we've still got more there."
Chavez, Monarchos' jockey, said he was confident throughout the race.
"I wasn't worried about being wide because I still had a lot of horse," he said. "When I asked him, he just exploded. That's the kind of horse you need for the big races."
Completing the order of finish after the top four were Songandaprayer, It's So Simple, You Know Who, Talk Is Money, City Zip, Turnberry Isle, Cee Dee, Trailthefox and Radical Riley.
Talk Is Money, trained by John Scanlan, who is based at Laurel Park, threw temper tantrums before the race. He reared up on the track. He surged in the paddock. His jockey, Michael McCarthy, finally jumped off, shaking his head.
"Fusaichi Pegasus has got nothing on this horse," Scanlan said, referring to last year's rambunctious Kentucky Derby winner.
Talk Is Money never threatened as a 23-1 long shot. After the race Scanlan said he didn't know what to do next with the $1.8 million colt.
Said McCarthy: "He's a talented horse. I hope they get him back on the right track."
NOTES: In only his fourth race and his first outside California, D'wildcat captured his first stakes with an overpowering 10 1/2 -length victory in the Grade III, $150,000 Swale Stakes for 3-year- at Gulfstream Park.
A son of Forest Wildcat trained by Robert Hess Jr. and ridden by Corey Nakatani, D'wildcat completed the seven furlongs in 1 minute 22.25 seconds. He paid $6.60 to win as the 2-1 second choice behind the 4-5 favorite Yonaguska, who finished third. The 7-2 Tarek claimed second. ...
Also at Gulfstream, Innuendo, a 6-year-old Irish-bred mare, dominated a four-horse field in the Grade II, $200,000 Orchid Handicap. Trained by Christophe Clement, the 2-5 favorite Innuendo won the 1 1/2 -mile race by 3 1/2 lengths in 2 minutes, 25.24 seconds.
For Jerry Bailey, her jockey, the Orchid was his 12th stakes win at Gulfstream, tying his own record for a 63-day meeting. Windsong was second, Aiglonne third.