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In step with Monarchos


The last time Yvonne Azeff was at Pimlico, she stood on a balcony of a barn on the backstretch and watched Secretariat win the Preakness.

The year was 1973. Azeff was 12. She stood with her mother, who worked with horses at Bowie and had introduced Yvonne to the racetrack.

Now 40, Azeff is back at Pimlico as assistant trainer to John Ward Jr. A week and a half ago, the Ward team celebrated at Churchill Downs when Monarchos won the Kentucky Derby. That team has reassembled at Pimlico for Monarchos' assault Saturday upon the Preakness.

Although Ward, based in Kentucky, has 80 employees, the four who work with Monarchos are what he calls "the front-line offensive unit. If this was the Navy, they'd be the SEALS."

Ward hired them in December and January during his recruitment of top horsemen and women experienced with young colts. Ward and John Oxley, the Oklahoma oilman who owns Monarchos, had shifted focus from fillies and mares for Oxley's breeding operation to colts for running in the Triple Crown races.

On their first try, Monarchos in the Kentucky Derby, they succeeded. Members of the Monarchos team hugged, cried and exchanged high-fives.

"Maybe that is what's special about this crew," Azeff says. "We've got a lot of experience, but there's still a large deal of wonder in it for us. That's what makes it all so magical."

Winning was the reward for their daily drudgery and migrant lifestyle. Like their counterparts at racetracks around the country, they labor in obscurity for the glory of the horse.

Tammy Holtz, 37, is Monarchos' groom. She sleeps on a rollaway bed in a small room two doors down from his stall. Where's home?

"Where my cat is," Holtz says of the black-and-white feline named Holstein scurrying around the stakes barn. "He adopted me nine years ago at Arlington [in Illinois] when he was a couple of months old."

Holtz gets up about 4 or 4:30 a.m., mucks stalls, puts bandages on horses' legs, brushes horses, puts saddles on them, bathes them, cleans water buckets and performs myriad other tasks.

She began working for Ward in December after working 13 years as a groom for such trainers as Carl Nafzger, Jack Van Berg and Pat Byrne. She normally takes care of three horses. But here at Pimlico, with the focus on the Preakness, she takes care of two: Monarchos and Mouse, the pony that accompanies Monarchos to and from the track.

Holtz is the most reserved member of Team Monarchos. She works at a steady pace with the measured discipline of a farmer.

"I'm getting tired of traveling and not having a home," she says. "But I wouldn't know what else to do. I just like taking care of the horses."

Hot walker

Teri Upton, 42, quit her job as a hairdresser a year and a half ago to spend her days walking horses. She's been in the right place at the right time.

"I'm the luckiest person alive," says Monarchos' hot walker. "In one year and four months I've walked the winner of the Travers and the winner of the Kentucky Derby. I'm astonished. I'm amazed."

Upton met an exercise rider who worked for Nafzger. Nafzger trained Unshaded, who won the Travers Stakes last summer at Saratoga in upstate New York. Then the exercise rider, Bob Lewis, accepted a job with Ward, and Upton followed.

She began working for Ward in January at Gulfstream Park in Florida. Monarchos was one of the horses she regularly walked around the shedrow as he cooled down after workouts.

"I've got one of the easiest and best jobs on the racetrack," Upton says. "My job is, I just love him."

Actually, her job is to lead horses in endless circles around the barn, help with their baths and assist in other chores.

Upton feeds Monarchos carrots and peppermints. She hugs, pets, kisses and talks to him.

"The more you do that, the more he likes it," she says. "I raised two sons. He's just an extension of my sons.

"Leading up to the Derby, I kept telling him, he's my 'Little Engine That Could.' He can do anything he wants to. ... Now he's my champion."

Exercise rider

Bryan Beccia, 35, is Monarchos' exercise rider. The former jockey jogs and gallops the horse in the morning.

Beccia began working for this stable in January after stints with trainers such as D. Wayne Lukas, Van Berg, James Keefer and Dale Romans.

"Monarchos is pretty much a push-button horse to gallop," Beccia says. "He's gotten more aggressive through the months. He knows it's all about him out here now."

Ward trains Monarchos mainly with long gallops. He does not breeze the colt -- work him out in the morning at near-race speed -- as often as other trainers.

"Monarchos gets more out of his gallops than other horses get out of their works," Beccia says. "Is he fit enough for the Preakness? He's fit enough. There's no doubt in my mind that he's fit enough."

Beccia took the job because of Azeff, the assistant trainer.

"She is one of the best, or I wouldn't be here," he says. "She didn't just fall off the turnip truck outside the stable gate."

Assistant trainer

Azeff grew up in Bowie, about two miles from the racetrack, which is now a training center. Her mother, Barbara Barnhill, worked there with ponies and thoroughbreds. Azeff tagged along.

"I was kind of just a racetrack, backstretch brat," she says. "I just never really left it."

Azeff, who lives in Kentucky, has packed a lifetime of horse experience into her four decades: exercising horses, showing horses, breaking yearlings, buying and selling horses, riding as a jockey, learning about horses at college in a four-year equine-studies program, managing a farm and training horses.

She worked as an assistant trainer for Randy Bradshaw, Pat Byrne and Lukas. In December, she says, Ward "made me an offer I couldn't refuse."

Azeff says that no matter what she's done -- riding, managing or training -- she's always dreamed of winning the Kentucky Derby.

"That's been my dream forever," she says. "This is a hard way to make a living. You give up a lot of things. A lot of times you're not home on holidays. You don't see your family. Relationships don't work out because you're always traveling."

But winning the Kentucky Derby, Azeff says, makes up for 14-, 16-, 18-hour days, cold days, rainy days, sad days. Was it everything she had hoped it would be?

"Absolutely," she says.

Can she put it into words?

"Absolutely not."

Then she says she watched the Derby next to the rail in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs. Just as it was in 1973 at Secretariat's Preakness, her mother, who lives in Florida, stood next to her.

Azeff couldn't identify Monarchos, that streak of gray, as he churned down the stretch until it was clear he was going to win.

"I never cry," says the long-time rider. "I've busted every bone, practically, but I never cry. I turned to my mother and hugged her. And I cried."

Race facts

What: Second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown

When: Saturday, 6:04 p.m. post time

Where: Pimlico Race Course

Distance: 1 3/16 miles

Purse: $1 million

TV: Chs. 11, 4 (coverage begins at 5 p.m.)

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