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Monarchos racing his trainer's fears

The Kentucky Derby winner faces tight turns and blazing speed in his Triple Crown quest.

By Times wire services

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 19, 2001

BALTIMORE -- The sky turned gray Friday around rusting, rattled Pimlico. There seems to be a constant film that hovers above this smudge on earth.

They've run the Preakness 125 times at Pimlico, and John Ward, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos, has probably heard about most of them this week. Heard about this track's tight turns, how it favors front-runners, how it may be the toughest of the Triple Crown races to win.

Ward understands all the obstacles facing Monarchos tonight when he lines up against 10 others in the Preakness Stakes.

And it's against this backdrop -- against this cold, steel factory known as Pimlico -- that Ward says, "I'm just scared of Pimlico racetrack itself."

It should scare Ward. Though horses do close from behind over this track, the Preakness has never been kind to horses like Monarchos, who like to run from behind.

Ward believes Pimlico won't hurt Monarchos, but he also said it's the one track "I'm probably more concerned about than any of the three (Triple Crown tracks)."

No horse has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, and doubts spring up about Monarchos' ability to adapt to the conditions he must overcome to duplicate Affirmed's feat. In the Derby, five fast horses vied for the lead, setting an extraordinarily fast pace that weakened them all and enabled stretch-runners in the field to come flying by. Not only is Pimlico a track with a reputation for favoring speed horses, but the composition of the Preakness field is completely different from that of the Derby.

Richly Blended is the principal speed horse in the field, and rival trainers and jockeys seem prepared to concede him the lead. Instead of a half-mile in 44.86 seconds, the pace of the Preakness might be more like 47 seconds, and the race might develop like the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct in April, when Richly Blended, Monarchos and Congaree faced each other the first time.

Richly Blended took an uncontested lead, Congaree stalked him and Monarchos lagged. Congaree shot past the leader and seized command, and Monarchos got into gear too late. That was Congaree's third impressive win in a row and certified him as one of the leaders of his generation. His reputation was scarcely tarnished by the Derby, in which he pressed the fast pace before finishing third, and he remains the only horse to defeat Monarchos this year.

So what does Ward do in his attempt to make John Oxley's Monarchos the first Triple Crown winner in 23 years? How can he change the game for the roan colt, winner of the Florida Derby as well as the Kentucky Derby, who likes to settle off the pace before making what amounts to a 4-furlong move?

"I would say it's too chancy to adjust his game," Ward said when asked if he would have jockey Jorge Chavez race closer to today's pace. "He's got a pretty patented game. I do think that Jorge will probably have to be very aware of his ride. I think if you get too wide on these turns ... I think you're going to lose a lot of ground.

"I think Jorge will have to be a little bit more sensitive to the fact that a two horse-wide or three horse-wide move is probably acceptable. A six horse-wide move is probably going to be pretty hard on the animal."

Chavez and Monarchos had a dream trip in the Kentucky Derby. Despite breaking from the No. 16 post, he was alone and just off the rail around the first turn and encountered a clean trip in the crowded field. Contrast that to Congaree, who pressed a record-fast pace and finished a game third. Or Dollar Bill, who got steadied sharply three-eighths from the finish. Or A P Valentine, who was steadied twice in the Derby.

With a brisk pace likely -- "It will probably be hot," said Bob Baffert, trainer of Congaree and Point Given -- the race would appear to set up nicely for Congaree. If jockey Jerry Bailey can restrain Congaree off the pace likely to be set by Richly Blended, he could move Congaree to the front approaching the far turn and open up on the closing Monarchos.

"Maybe the thing to do is get the jump on (Monarchos)," Baffert said.

Despite the track, despite the pace, there's plenty of reason to believe Monarchos will be the victor. While Congaree ran a huge race in the Derby, there's reason to believe the lightly raced colt may have peaked in Kentucky and will bounce at Pimlico.

Then there's Monarchos. While Fusaichi Pegasus came here a tired horse after his Derby win last year, Monarchos has been bucking and playing all week. And while the 1 3/16-mile Preakness distance is shorter than the Derby, Monarchos closed to win at 7 furlongs, 1 1/16 miles and 11/8 miles at Gulfstream Park. Finally, there's the colt's athletic ability and a closing punch that seems a furlong more than most possess.

"When he starts his run," Ward said, "he drops about 2 inches lower. He pins those little ears against his neck. And then he starts to work his way in and out of traffic. He's such a powerful horse up in his shoulders that he is able to have this turn of foot and also to maneuver laterally both left and right. ...

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