Updated on 09/16/2011 6:36AM

This year's model: A polished Monarchos

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - As they watched Monarchos* (click here for PP's) gobble up the Gulfstream Park stretch with each stride at the end of a five-furlong workout Sunday morning, owner John Oxley and trainer John Ward couldn't help but think back to a year ago this time.

"He was just a baby this time last year," Oxley said, noting that Monarchos had not even won his maiden race yet.

"He's so much smoother than he was," said Ward, who clocked Monarchos for a five-furlong move in 1:01.60 and caught him gallop out a mile in 1:43.20.

In late December 2000, few had heard of Monarchos, a son of Maria's Mon who had lost his first two career starts. It wasn't until Jan. 13, 2001, when Monarchos won a seven-furlong maiden race here by six lengths, that people began to take notice.

"It was the beginning of a beautiful trip from mid-January to early June," Oxley said.

That trip took Oxley, Ward, and their wives, Debby and Donna, to the summit of Thoroughbred racing when Monarchos stormed home a 4 3/4-length winner in the Kentucky Derby in the race's second-fastest winning time. The high didn't last long, however, as Monarchos was soundly defeated in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes by Point Given.

Following the Belmont, Monarchos was diagnosed with a hairline fracture in a knee that sidelined him the remainder of the year. The reaction in the Monarchos camp was unexpected.

"It was a total relief," Ward said. "Once you get past the Triple Crown, to me, the next primary goal is the 4-year-old campaign. You could see where a lot of horses were going to retire. A lot of horses were held over and brought back for 2001 but I couldn't see where a lot of horses were being held over for 2002."

Now healthy, Monarchos is back for his 4-year-old season and his connections are aiming once again for the summit. Monarchos is expected to make his 4-year-old debut in the $500,000, Grade 1 Donn Handicap here on Feb. 9

"I think if he stays healthy he will be Horse of the Year," said Jorge Chavez, the regular rider of Monarchos who has worked the colt the last two weeks.

"I think the handicap division is ours to lose if he stays healthy and we get a little bit of luck," said Yvonne Azeff, an assistant to Ward, who until recently, was getting on Monarchos regularly in the morning. "I think he was as good as anybody last year and he's certainly as good as anybody this year. I don't mean to sound cocky, he's just a good horse."

Gulfstream is the perfect place for Monarchos to return. He was 3 for 3 here last year including a victory in the Florida Derby.

"This is his house," Azeff said. "He likes it here, he likes the surface here."

During his recuperation, Monarchos never left Ward's shed row. He spent the summer at Saratoga where he simply walked around the barn. He then returned to Keeneland for the fall and began training before returning to Gulfstream in late November.

Ward has been extremely pleased with progress and physical appearance of Monarchos.

"He's a 20 percent better horse in everything I see and I think it's a pretty universal opinion," Ward said. "He's very smooth."

Ward described Monarchos as raw talent at this time last year. Now, he calls him polished.

"He's more mature," Ward said. "Mentally, he understands what the game is about."

Ward also believes that handicap racing will suit Monarchos better than 3-year-old racing. He reasons that in 3-year-old racing there are many speed burners who alter the way a race is run.

"In handicap racing, races set up so differently, you don't have that blinding speed," Ward said. "The races are more moderately paced where he'll be able to lay up in a little closer position where we don't have to make up quite as much ground."

Ward has not mapped out a campaign for Monarchos beyond the Donn Handicap, but said the ultimate goal is the Breeders' Cup Classic at Arlington Park in October. If all goes well in the Donn, Ward said he would look at the Santa Anita Handicap on March 2 or the Gulfstream Park Handicap on March 30.

That decision probably depends on what kind of competition Monarchos would face in each spot. In south Florida, other top handicap horses could include Red Bullet, the 2000 Preakness winner; Macho Uno, the 2000 champion 2-year-old; Traditionally, the Oaklawn Park Handicap winner; Graeme Hall, the Stuyvesant Handicap winner; and Ubiquity, the Clark Handicap winner now in the barn of James Bond.

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