Long-term plan for Monarchos gets biggest test

Ward feared Preakness 10 weeks ago when he began unique training

May 19, 2001|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

After watching Monarchos blow away the field in the Florida Derby, John Ward Jr., the colt's trainer, concluded that he had a potential Triple Crown winner on his hands.

The challenge, then, was managing a maturing Monarchos from March 10, the date of the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, to June 9, the date of the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park. Ward devised a strategy that, so far, Monarchos has executed perfectly.

Today, in the 126th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, Monarchos will try to take the next step in Ward's plan to capture the Triple Crown. Jorge Chavez, the colt's rider, hopes to duplicate his unobstructed trip in the Derby.

In front of an anticipated crowd of 100,000 revelers and bettors, Monarchos will face 10 challengers poised to derail his Triple Crown express. When Ward looked three months ahead from the Florida Derby to the Belmont, he always feared this day.

"I've worried constantly about winning the Preakness," Ward said. "I thought that if I was fortunate enough to get through the Derby and be successful, then this would be the toughest part. ... Now if I can get through the Preakness and be successful, then the Belmont doesn't bother me that much."

So, in Ward's mind at least, the Preakness is the key to whether racing will finally get the hero it covets - its first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

Two weeks ago, in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Monarchos, a gray son of Maria's Mon, powered from 13th place in a 17-horse field to capture the first leg of the Triple Crown. His time for the 1 1/4 miles on a blazingly fast track was 1 minute, 59 4/5 seconds, the second fastest Derby behind only Secretariat. Monarchos cruised by 4 3/4 lengths.

If he is to conquer the second leg in the Preakness, he will have to defeat four warriors from the Derby and six freshly scrubbed recruits from lesser races. The main threats appear to be Congaree and Point Given, chestnut colts trained by two-time Preakness winner Bob Baffert.

Congaree finished third in the Derby, Point Given, fifth. Congaree ran the stronger race, but Point Given was the more highly regarded. Bettors made Point Given the 9-5 Derby favorite, and many analysts considered him short odds to win the Triple Crown.

But Point Given, as Derby favorites are wont to do, disappointed with a lackluster effort. Baffert said that he couldn't figure out what went wrong with his big colt, but that he saw clearly what went right with Monarchos.

"I think he's a legitimate great horse," Baffert said. "He just mowed us all down. He got the trip, but he fired big. He's going to be rolling. He's the horse to beat."

Monarchos' status as Derby winner and horse to beat in the Preakness is the result of an unusual training program by Ward. A respected 55-year-old horseman from Kentucky, Ward has prepared Monarchos with an eye toward the three-race series of the Triple Crown rather than just one of its races.

Most trainers approach the Kentucky Derby as the be-all and end-all. Ward approached it as a steppingstone to the Preakness, which would then be a steppingstone to the Belmont.

Ward wanted Monarchos fit enough to win the Derby, but not so fit that he won with no chance of coming back in two weeks and winning the Preakness.

"One of the hardest things to do with a horse is hold them at a certain level just below his top," Ward said. "That's what I've been able to do with this horse."

Ward has done that through a series of jogs, gallops, breezes, walks under tack and breaks. His serious training with Monarchos has centered on long, strong gallops rather than breezes.

Breezes are workouts at near-race speed usually ranging from a half-mile to three-quarters of a mile. They sharpen a horse for a race, but Ward believes they also take more out of a horse than controlled gallops.

He raised eyebrows when, before the Derby, he last breezed Monarchos nine days before the race. Congaree and Point Given, by contrast, breezed a speedy five furlongs (five-eighths mile) five days before the race.

And then, in the two weeks between the Derby and Preakness, Ward did not breeze Monarchos at all. Again, by contrast, Baffert breezed both his horses another five furlongs on Monday.

"I thought if I came out of the Derby with a fresh horse, then I'd be in a better position to win the next two than anybody in the past 10 years," Ward said. "Monarchos didn't go as far down in the Derby as I would have thought, so I came to Maryland with more fuel in the tank than I thought I'd have."

One reason for that was Monarchos' restrained performance in the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct. Five weeks after the Florida Derby and three weeks before the Kentucky Derby, the Wood was the perfect spot for Monarchos to maintain fitness.

Although Monarchos finished second to Congaree in what most observers viewed as a subpar effort, Ward was pleased. His horse did not overextend himself.

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