Monarchos leads fast pack to line
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
LOUISVILLE, Ky. Monarchos was yesterday's news, barely noticed during Kentucky Derby week among the hype and hysteria that had surrounded racing's latest great chestnut hope, Point Given.
He won the Florida Derby in March with an electrifying move that had put him on top of everyone's charts, but seemed to have crashed and burned with a surprising defeat in April's Wood Memorial. What had he done for us lately? Nothing. What did he do for us on the first Saturday in May? Beat the tar out of some very good horses in the second fastest Kentucky Derby ever run.
Monarchos, dismissed at 10-1, picked the right occasion to get his game back. With another powerful move on the far turn, he burst past the pack at the top of the stretch and pulled away to a 4¾-length victory in America's most famous horse race. But even after he crossed the wire the easiest sort of winner, there were some anxious moments. John Velazquez, who rode runner-up Invisible Ink, claimed foul against Monarchos for alleged interference near the top of the stretch. The stewards, though, quickly dismissed what was, at best, a minor infraction.
The running time for the mile and a quarter over a track listed as fast was 1:59.97. Only the great Secretariat (1:59.40) won in a faster time, but Monarchos' clocking is misleading. The Churchill Downs track was harder and faster than nearby I-264 during an afternoon in which three track records fell.
On a warm spring evening in Louisville, the field of 17 bounded from the gate like they were on a mission. Songandaprayer was particularly revved up, leading the field through suicidal fractions that would set the race up perfectly for the late-running Monarchos. Chased by Balto Star, Keats and Millennium Wind, he completed a half-mile in :44.86, the fastest half-mile in Kentucky Derby history. They kept going, through six furlongs in 1:09.25, another record.
At this point, Monarchos was far back in the pack, still tenth, but jockey Jorge Chavez was sitting still, waiting and watching. And as he watched the race from his box, trainer John Ward Jr. was practically salivating.
"When they put that 1:09 up there, I said, 'Oh, we've got it made now,'" he said. "When they put up 1:35 (for the mile), I knew we were sailing on home."
On the second turn, Chavez started picking off horses one by one. Not one had a response to his challenge. Soon he was second, with only Congaree standing between him and immortality.
"I whipped him once and that was it, he started to roll," said Chavez, who won his first Derby.
Congaree never knew what hit him.
Invisible Ink, a 55-1 shot, snuck past Congaree in the final yards to get the place by a nose.
Monarchos paid $23, $11.80 and $8.80 and sparked a $1,229 exacta.
It was a particularly good day for John Oxley, who owns Monarchos and is the part owner of Invisible Ink.
The disappointment, of course, was Point Given. The 9-5 favorite among the on-track crowd of 154,210, the second largest in Derby history, Point Given seemed to have everything going for him coming into the race. Trained by a two-time Derby winner in Bob Baffert, ridden by a Hall of Famer in Gary Stevens, he was brilliant in his victory in the Santa Anita Derby and had trained like a Ferrari during the week. Some already were looking ahead to the Triple Crown sweep, speculating that Point Given might just be that good.
For much of the race, he looked to be in good position. Stevens had him settled into seventh, but when it came time to for him to put in a run he had nothing. He finished fifth and was beaten 11½ lengths.
"He never felt comfortable out there," Stevens said. "The odd thing about it was that he didn't seem to be tired when he pulled up. He wasn't breathing hard at all. It was like he didn't race. Maybe the heat had something to do with it. I don't know. He had a hectic two weeks here."
Stevens was not the only one who was baffled. Point Given's lethargic performance might have been the biggest surprise in the race.
Other disappointments included second choice Dollar Bill, who was 15th, and Arkansas Derby winner Balto Star, who was exhausted after chasing Songandaprayer and finished 14th. There were no feel good stories for 54-year-old Laffit Pincay Jr., who is in the midst of a remarkable comeback. Aboard Millennium Wind, he finished 11th.
There were long faces at their barns late Saturday night, a far cry from the celebration going on around the Monarchos camp. It was a particularly satisfying victory for Ward, one of the few who never lost faith in his horse.
"I saw some things in the Wood Memorial that I knew I could improve upon in a couple of weeks," Ward said. "He was a little pinchy in his hocks and I knew how to fix that. He had a rough plane ride up there and didn't acclimate well. But he ran his last five-eighths in that race in 1:00.80 and that is race horse time. No, I never lost confidence him. I knew that all I needed to win the Wood Memorial was another sixteenth of a mile."
The next assignment for Monarchos will be the May 19 Preakness at Pimlico where he will face new challenges in his attempt to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
"I know that I will have a fresh horse for the Preakness," Ward said.
It was unclear Saturday who else would be going on to Pimlico, but it wouldn't be shocking to see several of the Derby also-rans rebound with a big race in Baltimore. There will also be the usual contingent of fresh faces awaiting him. But until then, Monarchos rules. It's time to jump back on the bandwagon.