03/16/2015 5:19PM

Beyer: Ward has major success over here and over there

Edward Whitaker/Racing Post
Wesley Ward after one of his two Royal Ascot victories in 2009.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – For most of his life as a Thoroughbred trainer, Wesley Ward endured a frustration common to his profession. His horses weren’t good enough.  He didn’t have wealthy owners behind him, and his modestly bred stock was often overmatched on the major-league tracks where he wanted to compete.

So Ward devised an ingenious strategy for training and managing his horses, one that enabled him to make a living at competitive tracks such as Santa Anita and Keeneland. And then he employed his ideas to make a great leap forward. He didn’t merely make a living. He made history.

Since the 1950s, European horses have been shipping to the U.S. and winning important grass stakes on this continent. However, U.S. trainers almost never tried to win overseas. The obstacles seemed too difficult. Improbably, it was Ward who demonstrated that an American could take his horses to England and France and win at some of their most prestigious racecourses.    

Horses have been a central part of Ward’s life since he was growing up in Washington state. His father, Dennis, was (and still is) a trainer, and Wesley became a successful jockey, earning the 1984 Eclipse Award as the nation’s outstanding apprentice. His rapidly increasing weight halted his riding career, and he decided to become a trainer on the tough Southern California circuit.

“As a trainer,” he said, “if you can get any advantage in racing you’ve got to take it.”

If he had an advantage, he thought, it was his ability to develop young horses. Even as a schoolboy he had worked with youngsters, breaking yearlings on a farm, giving them their first lessons in becoming runners. As a trainer, he rarely goes to the races, preferring “to spend all day, every day, on the farm with babies.” He learned to recognize what kind of talent horses possess before they ever compete. He thought he could take the precocious ones and win maiden races for 2-year-olds early in the season – before most elite Thoroughbreds are ready to race. He bought horses who would fit into this plan, ones who had inexpensive pedigrees but had the physique of sprinters.

After some success in Southern California, Ward moved his base of operations to Florida, seeking more opportunities in the East. In 2007 he set his sights on a high-profile objective: Keeneland. The Lexington, Ky., track’s April meeting draws top stables from all over the country, and it features many 4 ½-furlong maiden races for 2-year-olds. They were Ward’s target.  In the first week of his first foray to Keeneland, he started a filly named One Hot Wish, who ran 4 ½ furlongs in 48.87 seconds, setting a world record that still stands. Ward has dominated these baby races ever since. Over the past five years, he has won with 38 percent of his first-time starters at Keeneland – an extraordinary record. Racing fans bet his 2-year-olds blindly.

His ability to win against the strong Keeneland competition with fast, well-conditioned 2-year-olds gave Ward an even more ambitious idea. He paid attention to racing in Europe, and he knew that bad winter weather invariably compromises horses’ training. A 2-year-old in Europe couldn’t possibly be as fit early in the year as his counterparts who trained in Florida. Moreover, he believed that American horses would have an edge in sprints against European horses who are rarely trained for speed.

“I thought,” Ward said, “if I went over there with horses who are speed-sharp, and if the course was dry and firm, our horses would have a monstrous advantage.”

In June 2009, Ward and six horses arrived at Royal Ascot, the grandest race meeting on Earth. Uncharacteristically, Ward felt daunted when he arrived at the magnificent venue.

“I’m in the deep end of the pool,” he said to himself.  “I’m going to look like an idiot with these moderately bred 2-year-olds.”

But on opening day at Royal Ascot he saddled the modestly bred gelding Strike the Tiger to win at odds of 33-1, and on the second day he captured a Group 2 stakes with the filly Jealous Again. Both had won 4 ½-furlong maiden races at Keeneland. People in Great Britain quickly recognized this was no fluke. A London newspaper wrote: “The chance that a Ward-trained juvenile would not be taken seriously . . . disappeared forever.”

Ward has made forays to Europe every year, winning important stakes in France as well as England. He’s a recognized training star. He has met the queen. His elevated profile has enabled him to attract more clients and better horses. (He now trains some runners for the principals of Coolmore Farm, the mighty Irish breeding operation.) With a stronger stable behind him, he entered six horses in the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita last fall, and came away with two victories, three second-place finishes, and a third-place finish. It was his greatest achievement in North America, and in the process he redefined himself as a trainer.

Judy the Beauty had won her first start as a 2-year-old at Keeneland in 2011, but she maintained top form over four seasons before winning the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint at the age of 5. Hootenanny looked like a one-dimensional speedster at the outset of his career in 2014, but he developed enough stamina to rally and win the one-mile Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf.  This was hardly the work of a trainer who can only manage fast young sprinters. Ward may never lose his reputation as a specialist with quick 2-year-olds, but he is now demonstrating how much else he can do.