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Ward's Derby victory a family dream

There are only a few places in this world where the thoroughbred is an integral part of the culture. There's Ireland, where the horse is worshipped, and Newmarket, England, where the sport began. For six weeks in summer, count Saratoga Springs, too. But for its influence upon the breed and its reverence for the animal, there's nowhere that can match the motherland of central Kentucky.

John Ward
John Ward, a third generation trainer, fulfilled a family dream when his Monarchos won the 127th Kentucky Derby.
Horsemanship has been in the blood of the Wards of Lexington for three generations, and for a hardboot trainer from the bluegrass country, the Kentucky Derby is the Holy Grail. So many lives have been devoted to its pursuit, and America's Race has eluded all but a fortunate few. Kentuckian Bull Hancock, one of the most important breeders of the 20th Century, never got the roses. Neither did John S. Ward or either of his sons, Sherrill and John T.

While World War I raged in Europe, Ward saddled runners in three consecutive Derbys and couldn't get the money. Came close a few times, though, which made it sting more. In 1916, his entry of Franklin and Dodge ran third and fourth, respectively. Ward came in 14th the next year with Berlin, which may have been just as well. A Derby winner bearing the name of the enemy's capital wouldn't have seemed right. The following spring, Ward almost got there when Escoba was second by a length to Exterminator.

It would be 37 years until the Ward clan got back to the big race on the first Saturday in May. Sherrill Ward, a future Hall of Famer, saddled Summer Tan to a third-place finish in 1955. Sherrill waited 18 years for another shot, and fate was paying attention to only one horse in 1973. Down the road Ward's Derby runner would become known as the mighty Forego, but the future world-beater was a distant fourth to the immortal Secretariat at Churchill Downs.

Sherrill's brother, John T. Ward Sr., who also trained and ran a farm in Lexington, never saw one of his horses parade beneath the Twin Spires to the strains of "My Old Kentucky Home." His son, John T. Ward Jr., was almost 50 before his first chance came, and his Derby debut was unrewarding when his pair of Jambalaya Jazz (15th) and Pyramid Peak (17th) were nowhere in 1995.

It took Ward six years to make it back, and last Saturday his rangy gray colt, Monarchos, made this Lexington native feel like the king of the world. His margin, 4 3/4 lengths, was the largest in 16 years. His time, 1:59 4/5, was second only to Secretariat's 1:59 2/5. Nice job.

The morning after, Wood stood near Barn 42 on the Churchill backstretch and reflected upon getting the prize at last.

"Being a Kentuckian, the best part of it is you are doing it in front of your peers," he said. "They're the people you have grown up with, people you have been associated with. This is every farm manager, every stallion groom and every broodmare groom in Lexington.

"Essentially, these people have been watching this chase for years with other people and it has finally come back to them at home, and they are very proud of it."

The victory gave Ward a Derby double that may never be duplicated. A year before guiding Monarchos to the winner's circle, Ward had a major role in Fusaichi Pegasus' story. Two years before that colt took the Derby, Ward picked him out for Japanese entrepreneur Fusao Sekiguchi and won a bidding war for the $4-million yearling at a Keeneland auction.

"This is the man who advises me the best," Sekiguchi said on that hot, muggy night in July, 1998. "He knows horses."

John Oxley, the Tulsa oilman who owns Monarchos, feels the same way. "I'm so proud of John Ward," Oxley said. "We've been together 21 years, and today was the culmination of a fabulous, hard-working career for a dedicated horseman."

So often in the Derby, the winner is part of a feel-good storyline. If 54-year-old Laffit Pincay Jr., riding in what might have been his final Derby, was the sentimental favorite, the likeable Ward was a close second. It's impossible not to be happy for an honest, articulate guy who's dedicated his life to the sport and finally won the big one.

You like local color? Ward is so Kentucky that it hurts. He's as bluegrass as bourbon straight up, as bluegrass as the sight of yearlings galloping in manicured paddocks inside white rail fences. Born in Lexington in 1945, he grew up near bucolic Keeneland Race Course and rode hunters and jumpers. The day after graduating from the University of Kentucky, he took the ultimate entry-level job, mucking out stalls at his father's farm. Although he's gone far in his career, he's never really left home. He and his wife, Donna, his assistant trainer and exercise rider, live on a farm across the road from Keeneland.

Ward learned the business from bottom to top, studying the ways of his father and uncle and of John Gaver and Woody Stephens, men he calls "masters of their trade." He has a degree in agricultural economics from UK and a Ph. D in racing.

"Tradition is that I worked for the Greentree Stable, my uncle was a Hall of Fame trainer, and Woody Stephens was essentially an uncle to me," Ward said minutes after the Derby. "I've known the great old stables like the Wideners, because that was the time I was rubbing horses. That's what Donna and I have tried to emulate and keep those traditions of training and keeping a horse in absolutely the best possible condition -- that's our motto."

Ward thinks Monarchos is in good enough shape to run another big one May 19 at Pimlico.

"One reason I didn't want to hammer on this horse last week was that if I won, then I'd have a fresh horse for the Preakness," Ward said. "So I had it in the back of my head that we're going to be able to take on all comers at Pimlico."

While other horses were dazzling clockers and the media horde with blazing workouts in Louisville, Ward gave Monarchos only one half-mile breeze eight days before the Derby. Instead, he built the colt's stamina with long gallops, a throwback approach that his Uncle Woody used while winning five consecutive Belmont Stakes in the '80s.

"I put myself on the line all week," Ward said, "because I was very outspoken about the way I was going to do it. We weren't going to waver for anybody, and I got away with it."

With that, he smiled and chuckled. No last laugh could have felt any sweeter, coming after a glorious triumph that ended a family quest begun 85 years before.

The next day, Ward said, "As far as winning the Kentucky Derby goes, it will be days and weeks before that sets in. We have a lot of stuff to happen before it finally gets slow enough to think about it."

When it does, the feeling will last forever.