Next Stop

by Ed Meyer

posted on January 31, 2009 in Kentucky Derby, News | 1 Comment >>

Trainers like to say they take things one race at a time. That’s John Ward’s philosophy with the 3-year-old colt Beethoven.

It’s just that the one race he is singling out happens to be the Kentucky Derby.

Any doubt of that was wiped away as easily as Ward erased the number 98 on his barn chalkboard and changed it to 97, one recent morning at Gulfstream Park. That was the number of days left until the 135th Derby at Churchill Downs. It’s now down to 93 — not that Ward needs a reminder.

“That’s for my help, to understand why everything is so critical,” he said at Gulfstream, where Beethoven will begin his 3-year-old campaign in Saturday’s Grade III Holy Bull Stakes. He’ll start from post 11 in a field of 11.

Then there’s Ward’s training book, in which one horse’s plans are laid out more than a week ahead. That’s Beethoven, whose schedule has been doped out for the next three months.

“This is a run date,” Ward said, pointing to May 2 in the book. “This is all his works. This is how many days until the race. He hasn’t run since Nov. 29, so he’s had about 60 days.”

“If I can get a really good performance in the mile and an eighth, I can wait the 56 days or whatever it is until the (March 28th) Florida Derby, then five weeks back to the Kentucky Derby. But if I don’t have a good race, then I have to question whether or not I can keep him at the level I want him to be just by training.”

Ward said he also used such far-reaching planning with 2001 Derby winner Monarchos, but there’s a big difference. Monarchos ran only twice at 2 before breaking his maiden early in Gulfstream’s winter meet.

Beethoven already has raced five times, with three victories and a defeat in a photo finish. He won Churchill’s Grade II, 1 1/16-mile Kentucky Jockey Club in a three-horse photo in his last start on Nov. 29th.

“If he runs the race I think he’s going to run, then I don’t have to wear the brake pads out,” Ward said of the Holy Bull. “I don’t have to burn him up for the Florida Derby, and the Florida Derby will set him up the way this horse likes to train. So what does that leave me? Hopefully, an animal that is healthy and not overtrained or overraced going into the Derby.”

“The difference between him and Monarchos is that he already knows how to execute. Monarchos was just learning.”

For Ward and owner John Oxley, there would be a sense of justice should Beethoven continue on the Derby path. He is a son of Sky Mesa, who won the Hopeful at Saratoga and the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland before his 2003 Derby aspirations were derailed by injury.

Ward and his wife, Donna, say Beethoven reminds them of Sky Mesa.

“The Sky Mesas have so much speed,” Donna Ward said. “Sky Mesa himself had a lot of speed, but he liked to break, let the really top speed run by him and sit still and close. And this horse definitely wants to do that.”

In the Kentucky Jockey Club, jockey Calvin Borel got Beethoven through on the rail to prevail by a neck over Giant Oak, with Iroquois winner Capt. Candyman Can another neck back.

“Very rarely at that time of year do you see three 2-year-olds look each other in the eye and come running down the stretch,” Donna Ward said. “And they were driving down the stretch. It was the first time he’d had to be on that inside rail, because he’s won his races on the outside.”

“I saw places in the race where Beethoven was looking like, ‘Are we going to move out?’ And Calvin was saying, ‘No, we’re going to stay right here.’ What I thought was neat was when Calvin finally threw his head at him, his ears went forward and he just pulled away. I think he has a lot to still learn — that’s what’s so good. The worst thing you can do is be at this time of the year and think the best has been seen.”