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Late surge personifies team's trek

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001


LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- It began with a career newspaperman, Jim Squires, a cub reporter who matured into a bear of a big-city editor, opting at age 47 to stop the presses and smell the roses.

I mean, the roses.

Squires was boss at the Orlando Sentinel, moving on to a fancier journalistic calling as editor of the Chicago Tribune In 1990, he accepted a $1-million buyout, riding a golden corporate parachute to Kentucky, taking a mild plunge into horse racing as a breeder with the purchase of a mare.

Eleven years later, Squires having been sidetracked for a spell as Ross Perot's press secretary in the 1992 presidential campaign, the old editor's original equine investment has evolved into Kentucky Derby dominator Monarchos, crashing headlines around the world.

Winner of the Florida Derby in March with a killer late move around six horses, Monarchos then became a listless New York runner-up five weeks ago in the Wood Memorial. His stock plunged. Cameras pointed elsewhere. Bettors found alternative romances.

Then came Saturday, in the greatest horse race of all, with 10-1 shocker Monarchos reacting to a stern nudge from rider Jorge Chavez to go blurring around Run for the Roses rivals like a Ferrari acing a truck route.

Monarchos was running 10th with a half-mile to go, but quickly powered to sixth, attaining second place at the head of the Derby stretch before gobbling up well-regarded Congaree and becoming unstoppable.

Chavez shouted, "We got it! We got it!" as his colt flattened celebrity trainer Bob Baffert's double-barreled favorites -- Point Given and Congaree -- along with 14 others for a cruising 4 3/4-length win in the 127th Kentucky Derby.

A minority of bettors became extremely joyous. For a $2 win ticket, the return was $23. Combined with runner-up Invisible Ink, a 55-1 stunner, two clams turned into a $1,229 exacta. Then, for the true lotto few, a trifecta blending in 7-1 show horse Congaree, for a $2 wager, delivered a gulping $12,238.40.

Monarchos was the blasting cap. From all but overlooked in pre-Derby hours, due to the Wood falloff, he became all but unbeatable in the mile-and-a-quarter exam.

As the full Monarchos melodrama unfolded, Squires would be but one shiny tile in a captivating Churchill Downs mosaic. Not an infrequent occurance, since hurrahed favorites seldom win Derbys and suppressed stories can suddenly flower. Just once in 22 years has the most heavily bet horse earned the roses.

Chavez, a late-blooming jockey, first climbed onto a horse at age 20. Most jocks are in the saddle by 12 or 13. Jorge didn't crack the thoroughbred majors until he was 27. So bubbly he could hardly speak, the 39-year-old rider from Peru called it "the greatest, most historic moment of my life."

Monarchos ran the second-fastest Derby ever. "I'm glad we are No. 2," Chavez said, with a hint of reverence. "I'm not sure any horse should ever beat Secretariat."

As a grim Baffert took his overmatched animals to a barn, alongside Middle East oil sheiks whose fortunes had again failed to buy them a Derby, the Louisville dusk was illuminated by the pleasant grin of John Ward.

At 55, a third-generation Kentucky horseman who, with his Monarchos conquest, Ward matches the family acclaim of his Uncle Sherill, trainer of a spectacular horse named Forego.

"You imagine how it might feel if your magic Saturday comes at a Derby, especially for a Kentucky guy who grew up with Churchill Downs magic all around," Ward said. "But when I saw Monarchos put on that incredible move on the far turn, the thrill was more than I'd ever imagined. I'm glad my heart survived it."

Another part of the victorious Monarchos portrait, the one with the heaviest wallet, was owner John Oxley. A owner of thoroughbreds for 27 years, his fortune came from Oklahoma oil. There are Oxley homes in Florida, Colorado and Kentucky.

Toys are everywhere.

In the tycoon spirit, Oxley is a polo aficionado. With a brother, Tom, he owns Royal Palm Polo Club in Boca Raton and is former chairman of the U.S. Polo Association.

"I love my polo, having won a U.S. Open, but never has there been a feeling like taking this Kentucky Derby," Oxley said. "It's a wonderful story that includes a talented breeder in Jim Squires, a wonderful jockey in Jorge Chavez and that amazing horse, Monarchos."

Monarchos, named for the Byzantine era Greek ruler Georgios Monarchos, is expected soon in Baltimore, searching for a second Triple Crown leg in the Preakness. Baffert should be there with his wounded, but nonetheless imposing, Point Given and Congaree, continuing to receive much attention. But the lights in Maryland will be far brighter than during Derby week for the Monarchos brood.

"That's okay," said Chavez, honored in 1999 as America's top rider. "Winning a Kentucky Derby means that people will expect more. Good. I expect more. Monarchos probably hasn't run his greatest race."

That's scary.

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