Desperate for a connection to make Monarchos our own

Preakness Stakes

May 15, 2001|By John Eisenberg

WHEN THE MARYLAND Terrapins reached the men's Final Four for the first time in March, a reporter from Kentucky said to me: "Looks like it's the year for a Maryland-bred to win the Kentucky Derby."

Meaning, of course, that Baltimore and Maryland were on quite a roll with the Ravens winning the Super Bowl and the Terps reaching the Final Four, and with the Triple Crown season looming, the karma for adding to the parade of local champions was strong. Then Abingdon's Hasim Rahman fell out of the sky as the heavyweight champion of the world in April, adding to the perception that the roads to all glories suddenly were passing through here.

As it turned out, none of the 17 horses entered in the Derby was a Maryland-bred, and those with obvious local connections finished out of the money - former Maryland-based jockey Edgar Prado ran fourth on Thunder Blitz, and Laurel-based long shot Talk Is Money came in last.

When Monarchos, a Kentucky-bred, stormed home as the winner, we suddenly were faced with finding a link to Maryland that would enable us to claim the colt as our own, the latest local champion for the ages. But such a link surely existed, and once we found it, we could just gas up the bandwagon and keep on celebrating. What a roll!

Finding the link wouldn't be so easy, of course, with Monarchos' trainer being from Kentucky and his owners from Oklahoma and his jockey from Peru and his breeder from Tennessee and his father standing at stud in Kentucky and Monarchos' having never set foot in Maryland and, well, you get the idea. But since when did any of that matter? Somewhere in the horse's equine and human family trees, someone had to be related to Johnny Unitas or descended from one of the heroes of Fort McHenry or, you know, something.

The situation was presented to John Ward Jr., trainer of Monarchos, early yesterday morning outside the stakes barn at Pimlico.

"A Maryland connection? Hmm," Ward said.

He confessed he had never stabled at Laurel or Pimlico, but had run horses here before.

"Remember when the guy ran out on the track on Preakness Day a couple of years ago and tried to hit Artax? That was my horse running next to Artax," Ward said.

Good nugget - but not enough to make his horse a Marylander.

"Oh, and we've won the Baltimore Breeders' Cup Handicap at Laurel with a horse named Pyramid Peak," he said. "Won it twice. Spent the Fourth of July here for those races. Got caught in all that traffic going to the [Bay] bridge to watch the fireworks. It was so backed up that people just pulled out their lawn chairs and sat out on the highway. We couldn't get to the hotel, so we just got off and went to a place near Annapolis and ate crab cakes."

Now we're getting somewhere. But even though anyone who survives one of our Fourth of July traffic jams and comes back for more the next year qualifies as at least a semi-local, we're still talking, you know, not really the real deal. A faux homeboy, if you will. Like these poor guys who spent a year, tops, as the Orioles' pitching coach.

"But I'm here now, aren't I?" Ward said with a smile.

An excellent point. Most of the recent Derby winners have avoided coming to Pimlico until the last moment, robbing the buildup to the Preakness of much of its star quotient. How many times can you interview the trainer of the 50-1 no-shot whose van broke down on the way in from Nebraska?

Monarchos, on the other hand, arrived in Baltimore less than four days after the Derby and appears to have settled in nicely, quickly mastering the local custom of making a choking noise whenever someone wearing a Yankees cap walks by. (True story: Someone working for rival trainer Nick Zito was wearing one yesterday.)

But it turns out Ward didn't speed to Baltimore because of the ambiance at Pimlico; he was just copying Joe Orseno, the trainer who came early last year and left having won the Pimlico Special and Preakness.

"Worked pretty well for him," Ward said. "So I got here as quickly as I could."

But he's gone back to Kentucky twice so far to tend to his barn, so it's hard to call him a local. He just isn't. Nor is the horse.

But just when all appeared lost yesterday, I played my trump card. A source had told me that Ward, a well-spoken guy, had spent the past 10 years working on the national radio broadcast of the Derby, serving as a pre-race paddock analyst with, of all people, Fred Manfra. Yes, the same Fred Manfra who broadcasts the Orioles games.

"I know Fred, sure, I know Fred," Ward said.

Spoken like a guy who'd spent a few nights in the upper deck at Camden Yards.

A local.

So what if he isn't? So what if his horse is as much of a local as, say, Derek Jeter?

As they say around the racetrack, if you can't own a champion, just claim one.

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