Monarchos loses his 'Crown'
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
BALTIMORE -- There was a mile left to go and John Ward Jr. knew it was already over. This was not the same Monarchos.
"Going down the stretch the first time, he didn't want to use his right lead," the trainer said. "That meant he wasn't comfortable. Going around the first turn he was kinda scooting a little bit."
Translation: He just didn't have it.
How can a horse look so good one day and so bad the next? That has been the mystery of this year's Triple Crown series, first with Point Given, now with Monarchos. It is the question that will mystify handicappers forever, which is why there are a lot more broke horseplayers than rich ones.
On May 5, Monarchos won the Kentucky Derby, beating Point Given by 11 1/2 lengths. On May 19, Point Given won the Preakness, beating Monarchos by 7 1/2 lengths. That's 19 lengths difference in just two weeks. We have three weeks to the Belmont to figure out this mess, to concoct theories to try to solve the puzzle. We will dissect every factor, from track conditions to weather situations to pace scenarios to the trainers's horoscopes. Ward and Baffert will do the same.
After it was over today and tens of thousands of win tickets on the Derby winner were littering the ground at Pimlico, Ward and jockey Jorge Chavez said this time it was the track. Monarchos, they claimed, took to it like a fish to quicksand.
"I feared going into this race that with the configuration of this track and the way he is this may not be a match made in heaven, this racetrack and him," Ward said. "There is nothing wrong with the Pimlico surface. It is very fair and very safe. He just didn't like it."
It was a predictable excuse. When an important horse runs an otherwise implausibly bad race, trainers usually blame the track surface, as if their horse were running over broken bottles and barbed wire while everyone else was cruising down a four-lane highway. But what else was Ward going to say? His horse didn't have any obvious excuses. When in doubt, blame the track.
At least Ward was able to put things into perspective. A level-headed individual and a veteran trainer, he's had his share of disappointments. Just when it looked like he had everything figured out with the way he prepared Monarchos for a sparkling effort in the Kentucky Derby, this time he sent over a horse who was empty.
"I'm not shocked," he said. "I was shocked to win the Kentucky Derby. This is the normal part of racing, getting beat. It happens."
Baffert obviously knows what Ward is going through. Point Given was so highly regarded going into the Kentucky Derby that some predicted he would win the Triple Crown. He was very good in the San Felipe and brilliant in the Santa Anita Derby. The Kentucky Derby was supposed to be his virtuoso performance. Instead, he was as flat as 10-year-old can of cheap beer. Maybe Gary Stevens didn't ride the best race. Maybe Point Given wasn't enamored with the Churchill Downs track surface. Maybe Mars wasn't aligned with Venus that afternoon. Who the heck knows. The bottom line is that Point Given stunk in the Kentucky Derby.
"Sometimes they don't show up," Baffert said. "It could be a number of things, like the heat or maybe they didn't take to the track surface or something else wasn't right that day that you can't put your finger on."
Though Congaree, who was third again, is a trier, it's clear that Monarchos and Point Given are the best of their generation. Ward wasn't sure about the Belmont Stakes, but he seemed inclined to give the third leg of the Triple Crown a shot. Barring any setbacks in the next three weeks, Point Given should wind up there, as well. There will be some new faces in the race and A P Valentine, who finally turned in a big effort in the Preakness, will probably be back for another shot, but the Belmont should boil down to Monarchos and Point Given.
Who will win? I will be reduced to throwing darts at the entry page. I have spent 15 years of my life trying to do the impossible, figuring out this game.