05/01/2017 3:10PM

Since 2001, it's been an odyssey for Azeff

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It’s a very lucky racetracker who can hold dear the memory of winning a Kentucky Derby. Then there is Yvonne Azeff, who is lucky to have any memory at all.

As chief assistant to trainer John Ward, Azeff was deeply involved in the development of 2001 Derby winner Monarchos. The son of Maria’s Mon carried the colors of Oklahoma oilman John Oxley, who owns this year’s likely Derby favorite, Classic Empire.

Azeff remembers details of the week spent in preparation for the big day, as most of the media swarmed around Derby favorite Point Given. On Derby Day, she wore a gray blazer and black slacks. She remembers the long, agonizing wait at the barn that May afternoon. She remembers the walk around the clubhouse turn to the paddock, as the twin spires of the grandstand loomed and post time drew nigh.

“You can feel the history as you walk over the track,” Azeff said. “It leaves you in awe. There’s just so much hitting you every step you take on the way over there. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Monarchos won the Derby by nearly five lengths, cracking the 2:00 barrier for only the second time in the 106 runnings of the race at 1 1/4 miles. As Monarchos and Jorge Chavez made their way back, taking the victory route along the turf course, Azeff got to her horse quickly and splashed him with cool water.

Over the next few minutes, in what seemed to be a whirlwind of sensory overload, she was posing for photos with her hand on his hip, covering his iron-gray coat with a light cooler, and making the same walk back along the clubhouse turn – this time in the company of the Kentucky Derby winner.

“I remember, after he was all done up and in his stall, we planned to go out,” Azeff said. “I couldn’t do it. I was worn out, exhausted. I had to go home and go to bed.”

Monarchos made it through the Belmont Stakes that year and then went to the farm with a fractured knee. When he came back, hopes were high that he would be a formidable 4-year-old. When he finished a puzzling third in a comeback race that he should have won, the stable spent the following week in close observation of their star, trying to find elusive answers.

Then, on the morning of Jan. 26, Azeff was aboard her pony leading a young colt off the track at Gulfstream when something spooked the horses. Azeff was dumped and then crushed by the fallen pony. The resulting head trauma sent her into a coma that lasted 27 days, followed by extensive rehabilitation.

Azeff was about a month shy of her 40th birthday when she was hurt. She had been the leading apprentice at Tampa Bay Downs in her youth and later worked as an assistant for trainers D. Wayne Lukas, Randy Bradshaw, and Pat Byrne. In late 2000, Ward hired her to handle a satellite stable of Derby hopefuls. One of them was Monarchos.

The resulting brain damage cut short a career that appeared to be on track for not only a stable in her own name but the acquisition of clients who already were convinced that she was a rare talent. Instead, Azeff has spent the last 15 years managing the physical challenges brought by the neurological injuries. She lives in Ocala, Fla., close to family and friends, with her 12-year-old German Shorthaired Pointer, Dakota.

“I bought him off the Internet when he was 5 weeks old,” Azeff said this week from home. “That’s right – computer dating works. I drive a golf cart, and he runs alongside, then stops to point at squirrels.”

Her speech is slow but clear, and her sense of humor is still intact.

“I use a cane and sometimes a walker,” Azeff said. “My movement is not smooth, kind of jerky, but it’s movement anyway. I was sick for a while not long ago, but now I’m ready to get back to the gym to get a little bit fit.”

Azeff echoed the theme of so many active people suddenly trapped in a body that no longer answers to the quick-twitch demands of an athletic existence. It feels like being imprisoned.

“Absolutely,” she said. “The gym gives my mind something to work on. I spend a lot of time in the pool. I get together with friends to go places. And the computer and the Internet keep me interested in a lot of things.”

Although it is not safe for her to be in close proximity to unpredictable horseflesh, Azeff remains thoroughly engaged in the sport, and especially the Kentucky Derby. You would think she’d have a soft spot this time around for Classic Empire flying the Monarchos silks, but her choice is McCraken, third last time out in the Blue Grass.

“I didn’t like that he lost, but I loved his race,” she said. “It ought to set him up just right for the Derby, just like when Monarchos finished second in the Wood.”

Azeff was able to visit Monarchos a couple of times several years ago while the Derby winner stood at Claiborne Farm. He died last October at age 18 from a ruptured intestine.

“My next birthday, I’ll be 55, which I figure is fine,” Azeff said. “It’s a lot more years than anyone thought I would have.”