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Beyer: Ward has major success over here and over there
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.
Wesley has come a long way. Remember both he and his dad when they both rode in New York. Both have made the transition to horse trainer with success. A good article here by Andy. Just want to say that Andy has been much maligned over the years by people who probably have trouble opening the racing form. I've never met Andy, but some years ago I sat next to him at the old paddock area at Gulfstream Park a number of times while he handicapped. Trust me, Andy is one knowledgeable handicapper who can think outside of the box. I have been in this game for over fifty five years as a back stretch worker, owner and full time bettor. Andy along with Ray Taulbot , Joe Conte, Julie Fink, Al Winderman, Vic Depierto, John Nerud and a number of other very sharp men helped me become the successful bettor I have become. Give Andy credit for not being afraid to announce his selections. Of course he is wrong more often than right. It is the nature of the game. Andy, just wanted to thank you before the "clock of life stops."
must be a slow news day to waste time on this trainer. his 2 year olds win and disappear. nothing to do with training.
I really admire Andy Beyer. He writes with clarity and purpose and he has done a lot to make comparisons between horses, distances, tracks and speeds conform to a number that can be relied on to a fairly high degree. He did this before it had been tried by others. . People complain that his system isn't perfect but none are. The fact that he is erudite and distant seems to cause many to think he is haughty. I don't think he is at all. This article really explained Ward's background, his expertise, and his success in Europe with young horses. Now, why is he succeeding here with older horses?
I despise andy beyer with know it all attitude but I'll give his credit this was an excellent well written article about Wesley ward.
can't believe drf gave away a "free" article. What happened to the race of the day? I would never pay anything to drf for PP or articles. Racing form is worth about $2.00 in my opinion.
Wesley is a very smart man and an excellent horseman. Thanks Andy for offering up a positive story.
Five year old SPRINTER, still at the top of her game? This man is a real horseman.
Wesley Ward? The best bug boy i have ever seen,,and now he`s respected as a family man and a successful trainer! Congrats Double W !
Not only is Ward a good trainer, he is also a good father; did not even attend the BC to be with kid who was graduating or something like that. Puts things in perspective. I like the guy and wish he would allow me to ride for him. Vince P
I don't know if it were due to my posts on drf, or if Gulf Stream has good handicappers, but my 30-1 long shot at gulf last weekend won and paid nothing because his odds went 2 -5 And he ended up winning