06/05/2001 11:00PM

Ward's training methods his own


WASHINGTON - Trainer Wayne Lukas once observed, derisively, that the tenets of his profession are "chiseled in stone" and that the accepted methods of managing a Thoroughbred change little from generation to generation.

Because it is so rare to see trainers depart from orthodoxy, John T. Ward Jr. has been the cynosure of the 2001 Triple Crown campaign.

Ward confounded most experts by the way he got Monarchos ready to deliver his smashing victory in the Kentucky Derby. His judgment is once again being put to a test as he prepares the colt for Saturday's Belmont Stakes.

Perhaps the last trainer to defy convention so dramatically was Lukas himself. At a time when horses almost always had a recent prep race before running in a classic, Lukas brought Codex into the 1980 Preakness after a five-week absence from competition. His victory started the trend toward giving 3-year-olds more time between their races.

But even if horses were lightly raced, they needed sharp workouts to keep them fit. A horse's workout in the week preceding the Kentucky Derby constituted a cornerstone of his preparation. This precept was etched in stone - until Ward blasted it away.

When Monarchos had no workout in the seven days before the Derby, and his only official drill in a three-week period was a slow one, most experts concluded that something was wrong with him. As a result Monarchos went to the post at 10-1 - double the odds his racing record merited. Few skeptics were persuaded by the trainer's assurances. As he was about to saddle Monarchos, Ward told NBC: "He should be at his absolute top. If he isn't, then I'm a bad coach."

Before the Derby, the racing world didn't really know Ward, even though he is a 55-year-old veteran who operates a strong stable and has won an Eclipse Award with the mare Beautiful Pleasure. Ward had never before received the intense public scrutiny that is part of the Triple Crown series. Only after Mon-archos's Derby performance was it evident to all that he is an exceptional trainer who marches to the beat of a different drummer.

Ward is a third-generation Ken-tucky horseman, the nephew of Sherrill Ward, who trained Forego to three Horse of the Year titles. He grew up close to many giants of the Thoroughbred business and said that the legendary trainer Woody Ste-phens "was like an uncle to me." Ward went to work on the family farm the day after his graduation from the University of Kentucky, and his life has been devoted to the sport. So, too, has his marriage. His wife, Donna, is a full partner in his training operation and had primary responsibility for Beautiful Pleasure.

Ward defines himself as an old-fashioned trainer and after he won the Derby he declared, "This one is for tradition." He elaborated: "The motto Donna and I follow is: Treat them like a champion, train them like a champion, and make them disappoint you. Give the horse every possibility. Take your time; if it doesn't work, go back and do it again and do it again. But once you find out that the animal does not have the talent, then you move on to another one."

He demonstrated his patience this spring, when he had three colts considered candidates for the classics. They all got their chance, but only Monarchos proved himself ready for the Triple Crown. Ward didn't push the other two; he let them develop at their own pace. One of the trio, Hero's Tribute, has been a late bloomer, and seems poised to become a star in the second half of the season.

Of course, many trainers profess the patient philosophy that Ward espouses; there is nothing radical about taking time with a horse. What fascinated the racing world was Ward's technique. Before the Kentucky Derby, Bob Baffert had given the favorite, Point Given, some sizzling workouts. Fifteen of the 17 entrants had a workout in the six days before the Derby. Yet it was Monarchos who delivered the blockbuster performance.

How had Ward gotten him so sharp?

I asked the trainer this question one morning at Pimlico, just after Monarchos had completed a routine morning gallop for the Preakness. His response was a revelation. Ward pulled his stopwatch from his pocket and began to click it, displaying the split times from Monarchos's "routine" morning workout: 15.53, 14.94, 14.24. These were the times, in seconds, for each eighth of a mile that the colt galloped around the Pimlico track. On that morning, Monarchos had galloped a mile in 1:57.4 - faster than the proverbial "two-minute lick" that constitutes solid morning exercise. In Ward's view, these gallops are the foundation of training. Traditional fast workouts are a supplementary tool; if Monarchos were not exerting himself sufficiently in his gallops, he might need a work.

However, as he prepares for the Belmont, Ward is changing his approach, giving Monarchos a pair of workouts. Most people would conclude that he is intensifying the colt's training, but Ward says just the opposite. Because Monarchos is fit, Ward has given him less strenuous daily gallops, coupled with these two workouts. "I've really lightened his workload," he explained.

In three decades of covering the sport, I have never heard a trainer talk in such terms, putting the primary emphasis on his horse's daily gallops. There's nothing "traditional" about this. Old-timers loved to work their horses fast; one of the fastest drills for the Kentucky Derby was recorded by Forego, under the auspices of Uncle Sherrill. After Ward's unconventional approach to the Derby was such a resounding success, other trainers will surely emulate it in future years.

Now Ward is again putting his judgment on the line for the Belmont Stakes. Monarchos followed his resounding Derby victory with a lackluster sixth-place finish in the Preakness. He had no visible excuses and many handicappers would conclude either that the colt's form has tailed off or that he is being bothered by some physical problem.

Ward explained the Preakness debacle by saying that Monarchos had trouble handling the Pimlico racing strip. This is the hoariest and most dubious of racetrack alibis, but Ward believes it is true this time and has pushed ahead to the Belmont.

Having scrutinized Monarchos's training, he concluded that the horse is in ideal condition and that the Preakness must have been an aberration. "I think he's got all of the ability that he had in the Kentucky Derby," the trainer said, "and everything is ready to display. . . . He is going to put his best race forward." Skeptics who can't excuse the Preakness might ordinarily dismiss such remarks, but they have learned this spring that it is very dangerous to second-guess John T. Ward Jr.

? 2001, The Washington Post