05/11/2012 2:28PM

Churchill Downs: Ward having the run of his career

Keeneland/Coady Photography
All Squared Away, with Julio Garcia riding, wins the Coolmore Lexington.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Wesley Ward is a lot like a football coach in that, even late in the game, you can’t tell by his expression whether he is winning or losing. With few exceptions, Ward doesn’t do any rooting for his horses, even in the stretch run of their races. Rather, he watches closely and impassively, far more clinician than cheerleader.

Not that Ward is bereft of emotional outbursts; far from it. The 44-year-old trainer is known in some circles as a hail-fellow-well-met, one known to joke with prospective employees that if they don’t drink, well, they’re looking for work with the wrong guy. He also knows how to self-deprecate, because if you start talking about all the phenomenal success he has enjoyed with 2-year-olds, he is apt to say, “Well, at least I’m good for something.”

Ward has been spending more time than normal in Kentucky this spring, and it’s paying off with one of the most rewarding spans of his 21-year career. He was the leading trainer for the first time at the recently ended Keeneland spring meet, where he also upset the Lexington Stakes with All Squared Away, and he won the Twin Spires Turf Sprint on the Kentucky Derby undercard with Great Attack. For someone whose motto might well be, “Have Condition Books, Will Travel,” these have been five weeks of deep gratification for Ward.

“I’m not real big on being leading trainer anywhere, because it gives you a lot of unwanted attention and pressure,” he said between races Thursday at Churchill Downs. “But if there’s one place I’ve ever wanted it, it’s Keeneland. I absolutely love running and winning there.”

Ward said he currently has about 80 horses at Keeneland and is only shipping in to race at Churchill. Most are 2-year-olds, his widely acclaimed specialty. “Pretty soon I’ll be sending quite a few out to Arlington and Monmouth,” he said. “We’ll probably have about 30 head still here.”

In the meantime, he will continue to be a major force in 2-year-old races here. After sweeping the early double Thursday with Walkin in a Shadow and Handsome Jack, Ward watched his color-bearer in a third consecutive juvenile race, Fierce, get beat a neck following a grueling stretch drive. Ward was unfazed.

“We’ll have more chances,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll have a horse for every single 2-year-old race at this meet, but I just might.”

Neck ‘n Neck looks strong

Neck ‘n Neck scarcely could have been more impressive in winning a first-level allowance here Thursday by 6 1/2 lengths, finishing the 1 1/16-mile distance in 1:43.53 and earning a career-high 90 Beyer Speed Figure. Trainer Ian Wilkes said he most likely will send the 3-year-old colt back in the Matt Winn Stakes on the June 16 Stephen Foster undercard, as opposed to seriously considering the Belmont Stakes.

“He didn’t exactly beat an I’ll Have Another or Bodemeister in there,” conceded Wilkes. “But I was very happy with how he ran, and he galloped out real strong. I hadn’t really thought about the Belmont at all yet.”

Neck ‘n Neck, bred and owned by A. Stevens Miles, ran fifth in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis, fourth in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, and fifth in the Grade 1 Florida Derby before Wilkes gave him a class break. The dark bay colt is by Flower Alley, just like Derby winner I’ll Have Another.

High five pays $4K

The $1 super high five with a big carryover pool was easily taken down Thursday when the 3-1 second choice, Laope, dominated the ninth and final race, and none of the four horses following him were higher than 8-1.

The winning payoff was $4,325.20 for the winning numbers of 9-4-1-8-2, with a total of 260 tickets sold here and through offtrack outlets. The carryover into Thursday was nearly $277,000, which had resulted from no bettors having the super high five on the Derby. Another $1,051,184 was bet into the pool Thursday.

Leigh due back after surgery

Longtime racing official Rick Leigh is scheduled to return to the stewards’ stand Thursday at Churchill after recovering from major kidney surgery in mid-April. Family members said the long-term prognosis is positive for Leigh, 64. He replaces Ron Herbstreit in the stand.