LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The racing world stood poised to welcome its next Triple Crown winner. Point Given, the large, flashy chestnut, was the anointed one.
But yesterday, as horses thundered down the long stretch of Churchill Downs in the 127th Kentucky Derby, a streak of gray named Monarchos carried the hopes of racing for its next star.
Overshadowed before the race by the Bob Baffert-trained pair of Point Given and Congaree, Monarchos drew off to a 4 3/4 -length victory in only the second Kentucky Derby ever run in less than two minutes.
In 1973, Secretariat completed the 1 1/4 miles of the Derby in 1 minute, 59 2/5 seconds. Monarchos stopped the clock in 1 minute, 59 4/5 seconds (1:59.97) over a racing surface blazing fast all afternoon.
Now Monarchos will venture to Baltimore for the second leg of the Triple Crown on May 19 at Pimlico. His trainer, John Ward Jr., did not over-train his colt before the Derby in hopes of reserving strength for the Preakness and Belmont.
"I have a fresh horse going into the Preakness," Ward said. "He was still closing. He won by opening margins. We're going to be able to take on all comers at Pimlico."
Monarchos won the Kentucky Derby with the same electrifying move with which he won the Florida Derby in March at Gulfstream Park. He swept wide around the final turn, passed horses as if in another gear and kept powering down the stretch toward the finish line.
But as jockey Jorge Chavez whipped him right-handed turning for home, Monarchos ducked inside and cut off the advancing Invisible Ink. Invisible Ink's jockey, John Velazquez, filed an objection with track stewards. They reviewed tapes and disallowed Velazquez's protest.
Invisible Ink still managed to claim second by a nose in the final stride from Congaree. The odds of the first three were 10-to-1 on Monarchos, 55-to-1 on Invisible Ink and 7-to-1 on Congaree. That produced hefty payoffs.
The exacta returned $1,229, the trifecta $12,238.40. Monarchos paid $23 to win, and Invisible Ink paid $46.60 to place and $21.20 to show. The generous returns were the result of Point Given, the 9-5 favorite, finishing out of the money.
Breaking from the outside post in the 17-horse field, Point Given, with jockey Gary Stevens, settled into favorable position into the first turn. Point Given was seventh - three-wide but in the clear.
Stevens launched what he hoped would be a winning move in the final turn. Point Given followed his stablemate, Congaree, around the horses until, when they turned for home, Congaree was in the lead and Point Given in second.
But Point Given surrendered as Monarchos blew past. Point Given finished fifth.
"He never felt comfortable out there," Stevens said. "The odd thing is, 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.
"He had a hectic two weeks here. And he had some commotion this morning. Maybe that took something out of him. But I don't really want to make excuses for him. In the end, he got beat."
Early yesterday morning, after stretching his legs around the track, Point Given reared on his way back to the barn. His exercise rider flew off, but Point Given's handlers quickly caught the colt before he could run off.
Baffert, Point Given's trainer, was seeking his third Derby victory. He had said during the week that he believed he could run one-two with Point Given and Congaree.
Of Point Given, Baffert said: "He looked like he was in a good spot the whole way. But the pace was harder than expected. Maybe he needed to be farther back. Maybe it was the heat. I don't know.
"He just didn't fire his best shot. We didn't see the real Point Given. The horse I know didn't show up."
The pace was torrid. Breaking from the rail, Songandaprayer carried the field through the fastest early fractions in Derby history - 44.86 seconds for a half mile and 1 minute, 9.25 seconds for three-quarters mile.
That suited Ward, Monarchos' trainer, just fine. When he saw the fractions he said: "Oh, we have got it made now. I knew we were sailing on now. That had to fry the rest of them. And Monarchos was just getting to the part of the racetrack he likes."
To get there, Monarchos overcame a rough break. Starting from post 16, Monarchos lunged out of the gate only to be slammed from the right by Point Given and forced to the left into Jamaican Rum. But his jockey, Chavez, steered Monarchos into a vacant spot near the back of the pack.
Entering the first turn, Monarchos had four horses beaten. Down the backstretch, he and Chavez bided their time until the final turned beckoned. Then Monarchos began accelerating and never stopped until he passed under the wire.
The victory by Monarchos, in front of 154,210, the second-largest crowd in Derby history, was the culmination of a plan set in place after the 1995 Kentucky Derby. In that race, the John Oxley-owned and John Ward-trained Jambalaya Jazz and Pyramid Peak finished 15th and 17th, respectively. But it was enough to give Oxley Derby fever.
Owner and president of Oxley Petroleum, based in Tulsa, Okla., Oxley began shifting his focus from buying and racing fillies, eventually adding them to his broodmare band in Kentucky, to buying and racing colts for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
He gave Ward and Ward's wife and assistant, Donna, the go-ahead and bankroll to hire workers experienced with young horses. The Wards assembled what they consider one of the best staffs in the country. Then they helped Oxley pick out colts with pedigrees for the American classics.
Finally, Ward trained them "the old-fashioned way."
"We have a motto that Donna and I follow," said Ward, a third-generation Kentucky horseman. "From the first time a horse comes in, we treat him like a champion. We train him like a champion. We give him every, absolute possibility.
"Every day, you take care of the horse, and he'll take care of you. That's the old-fashioned way. This is a victory for tradition."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun