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Saratoga: Next two weeks could put Ward on the rise
Wesley Ward laughs at the suggestion that he must be in more than one place at a time. Does a body double stand in for him at the various racetracks where he hangs his colors?
The idea isn’t without merit. At 7:30 on a recent Friday morning, Ward paced the shed row of Barn 6 at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens and instructed his grooms and exercise riders on the particulars of his 25 horses there. Three hours earlier he had gone over the same ground at Monmouth Park, his horses there piercing the retreating darkness under his careful watch. In a matter of hours Ward watched his horses train in two states at two tracks, separated by 60 miles.
This isn’t out of the ordinary for Ward, who has taken the gypsy life of the racetracker to another level. The night before, he had personally hauled a 2-year-old colt named El Hombre Grande – in the trailer he owns – from Aqueduct to Monmouth, passing over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on the way there. Illegally, that is. Transporting horses over the Verrazano Bridge is prohibited. “My guys didn’t want to do it,” he says with a mischievous grin. The horse was going to race the next day in a maiden claimer. “He should win,” Ward confides. (He would finish second as the slight favorite.)
Ward, 43, won’t make much hay out of it, but you would have trouble finding one of his peers among the upper tier of American trainers – Ward is ranked 30th in earnings – who occasionally hauls his own horses. Ward is an anomaly. He is always on the move precisely because he does it all himself. He owns half of the approximately 60 horses he trains, he has his own farm in Ocala, he breeds horses, breaks them as yearlings, buys and sells them, ships them.
Besides Aqueduct, where he stations his best horses, Ward maintains stalls at Saratoga, Monmouth, Arlington, and Calder. At Monmouth he has won close to 40 percent of his starts. Until recently he had 15 stalls at Woodbine. In the spring he sent a small group to Europe. He won five races at small courses in England and France in advance of the Royal Ascot meet.
This far-flung operation makes Ward perhaps the first realization of the global American trainer. Like the world itself, “racing’s getting smaller,” he says. Ward became the first American to win a race at Royal Ascot, when he pulled it off with Strike the Tiger in 2009, and this, more than anything else, propelled him on this international course. At Royal Ascot last June, the Telegraph dubbed Ward “the mad genius from America” in one of its headlines.
Except in America, Ward is less familiar. It may surprise some that he had been a successful jockey for six years, winning the Eclipse Award for outstanding apprentice in 1984. Some reporters might not be able to pick him out of a horsemen lineup. Before this year’s Preakness, NBC producers sought an interview with Ward, who had Flashpoint in the race. Except they didn’t know what he looked like, said John Fort, Flashpoint’s owner. So they asked Bob Baffert if he could point out Ward.
“He stays away from the press and the hubbub of racing,” said Fort, who races as Peachtree Stable. “You don’t notice Wesley. In the paddock before the race he stands to the side by himself.”
The next two weeks may permanently change that. Ward will saddle the fleet-footed sprinter Flashpoint in a compelling renewal of the King’s Bishop and then Judy the Beauty in the Spinaway next weekend. Judy the Beauty is pure Ward. She has already raced in three countries – here, France, and Canada – and won all three. Ever the bargain-hunter, Ward paid $20,000 for her at the Keeneland yearling sale in September.
Flashpoint made his first start for Ward in the Preakness, where he set the pace but faded.
Either horse could give Ward, who has won nearly 1,000 races and these days shows a winning percentage of 25 percent, his first Grade 1 win. Frustratingly, he pointed out, his horses have finished second in Grade or Group 1 races here and Dubai and Ascot, or won Grade 2 races stateside that were ultimately elevated to Grade 1 status.
Three weeks ago at Aqueduct, Ward sent both stars of his barn out for key breezes in the run-up to their big engagements. He carried an iPad and tapped on his iPhone to call the clockers. These are the tools of the 21st-century trainer, and one wonders what someone like Charlie Whittingham, who used Ward as a jockey and also mentored him as a young trainer, might say.
The iPad proves indispensable, however, for managing a business of this scale; Ward organizes notes on all of his horses, indexed by location, and with a flick of the finger he brings forth entries and charts and past performances. It’s the same technology that makes shipping anywhere so natural now for large stables like his. But it may also be deceiving in his case; Ward travels so frequently, by plane or car, because he wants to personally watch all of his horses’ workouts.
“I try not to miss any,” he said.
You couldn’t get more removed from Royal Ascot than summer at Aqueduct. This morning is sunny but not all that hot, and it is actually peaceful and quiet here. The barns are the opposite of Saratoga’s – they’re made of cinder block and painted white, and pigeons roost on their old, dirty, cracked glass windows. The ramshackle, windswept stable area has the feel of some small Caribbean fishing village. It has a forgotten charm. Weeping willows rooted in the embankment have the look of trails of fireworks frozen in the sky as they float over the aluminum railing where Ward and others stand watching their horses on the track.
Ward, who relocated five years ago to the East Coast from Southern California, where he trained for 17 years, could stable at Saratoga or Belmont. Why is he here?
“It’s not for the beauty,” he said, grinning. He pointed to the dirt surface. “It’s a great track.”
The location also figures prominently. Ward wanted a base that is close to north and south for regular shipping along the East Coast. Ward calls Florida home now; importantly, Aqueduct is a neighbor of John F. Kennedy Airport. He usually flies home Sunday night to spend time with his wife and their three children, then returns to New York on Wednesday morning. These summer months are particularly frenetic. Ward’s life finds a more manageable rhythm in the winter, as he keeps all of his horses at Gulfstream. In the spring he takes them to Keeneland, before breaking off to various summer points, and then returns there in the fall.
In another way, Aqueduct during the summer reflects and suits Ward’s temperament.
“The best thing about this place is it’s like a training center,” Ward said, motioning to the few horses loping around the nearly empty track. It was eight o’clock. To the west the A train lurched north past the faded grandstand like a silver-colored stream. Cranes were already busy on construction of the forthcoming casino.
Reserved and laconic, Ward doesn’t seem to relish talking about himself, but comfort is gained from hanging about. During a lull that morning he fielded a call from his wife. They talked about some around-the-house things, and when she presumably asked what he was doing, he said, “Just training horses.”
“He likes Aqueduct,” John Fort said. “It’s quiet there. He could be at Saratoga. I like that he’s not distracted by walking through the clubhouse and trying to pick up clients.”
Ward largely avoids the media’s glare, Fort said.
“He doesn’t want to be on stage,” Fort said. “He does love his horses, and he loves racing success, but it is a feeling of inner success for Wesley.”
Ward grows animated, however, when talking about his horses. As the striking, well-muscled gray Flashpoint bounced to the track, Ward called the clockers and announced happily, “The mighty Flashpoint is going three-quarters.” No fewer than three times that morning he mentioned Judy the Beauty. He pulled up her past performances on his iPad. “Three countries,” he said with obvious excitement. Later, he pointed out the chestnut Ghostzapper filly as she galloped around the first turn and said simply, “Spinaway.”
It is hard to make out the former jockey in Ward. His close-cropped hair is more than halfway gray, but setting aside normal aging, his built stature offers clues about the abrupt end to his career.
“It looks like he could play football now,” Fort joked.
Ward once rode for Fort, who remembers him as an unruffled teen who was skinny as a whip and as fresh-faced as a choir boy. He was also, Fort recalled, “the only jockey who came out with braces on.”
Ward was bred for this life. His father, Dennis Ward, was a leading apprentice jockey (1962-63) in New York and rode professionally until a week after his only son was born on March 3, 1968, when, weary of fighting weight, he hung it up. Dennis’s father was a blacksmith. Wesley’s mother, Jeanne Dailey, was the daughter of Big Jim Dailey, a former steeplechase rider and for 29 years an outrider for the New York Racing Association. Dennis Ward became a trainer in Washington – he trains now at Delaware Park, having followed Wesley to the East Coast – and taught his son how to ride from a young age.
Ward first got on a pony at 10, and before long Dennis would let him ride the horses he had broke. Two years later Wesley was riding horses for his father and others on the rough-and-tumble fair circuit in Washington, Montana, British Columbia, and Alberta. There was no scale of weights, so the 80-pound Ward might have 30 or 40 pounds on his older rivals. He’d sometimes sweep the card of six or 12 races, picking up the basics of riding as well as $100 for each winner. Ward won 158 of his 300 races on that circuit, according to a Sports Illustrated profile in 1985.
During Wesley’s early years riding, Big Jim would tell people in New York to expect his grandson’s arrival. He hoped the legendary agent Lenny Goodman would take Wesley’s book. Dailey, 54, died in September 1981, before he could see Wesley land with a splash in New York. Goodman, an old friend of Dailey’s, took on Wesley right away, sight unseen.
Ready to make the leap, Ward began riding at Aqueduct on his 16th birthday – March 3, 1984. He was 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 100 pounds. He was shut out his first three races that day, but the next he came home a winner on his last mount of three. His first five days he had five winners. The sixth day he fell and broke his elbow, sending him to the sidelines for a month.
His first check was for $12,000, a hefty sum compared to his earnings on the fair circuit.
“I had saved all of my money from the fairs” – around eight or nine thousand. After that first check arrived, “I gave my savings account to my dad,” Ward said, laughing. “Thank you, for teaching me a trade,” he told him.
Through the end of 1984, Ward rode 335 winners and earned $5,188,642 in purses. He was leading rider at Aqueduct and at the Belmont and Meadowlands fall meetings – simultaneously. He later rode in California, Illinois, and Florida, and in Italy, Singapore, and Malaysia. Recognizing that the experience was transitory, Ward closely observed how trainers operated.
“I knew there was going to be an end,” Ward said. “The way my dad was built, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I grew out a job.”
Ward’s last two years were torturous. “Horrendous,” he said. His chest was sunken in, his thighs the size of reeds. He had run with 20 pounds of sweats on to take off his water weight before the races, and then put it back on at night. He barely ate. In 1989, then 21, he quit riding.
“The last day I rode I weighed 120 pounds,” he said. “The next day – 24 hours later – I weighed 147.”
Ward wasn’t quite sure what he was going to do next. He had only finished ninth grade; maybe he’d finish school. He took time off, watched how other people live, and, as often happens, decided he wanted to stay in racing. He galloped horses for his father but then went out on his own. His reputation had followed him wherever he rode, but this was different: What owner wants to hire a 21-year-old trainer?
So it was then that his do-it-yourself business was forged. He bought a few inexpensive horses at auction. He broke horses for other trainers. It took him about six months to win his first race, and the next one didn’t come for another few months.
“I put all my own money into being a trainer,” he said. “I hauled my own horses, broke my own horses, trained my own horses. All in the service of saving money.”
He also noticed the work ethic of his father, who still gallops and shoes his own horses and hauls his own hay. Standing outside his Aqueduct barn, Ward grew reflective.
“I have an insatiable desire for this game,” he said.
Ward briefly trained at Longacres in Washington before settling in Southern California with a half-dozen horses. He’d stay there for 17 years.
“It was like going to school at Harvard,” he said. “I’d walk one over there I thought would absolutely win, and I’d get beat 15 lengths.”
Hall of Fame trainers Charlie Whittingham and Bobby Frankel were early mentors. Frankel, for his part, connected owner Ken Ramsey with Ward as he considered moving east. Ramsey called Ward and told him, “You must be a great friend or a great trainer, because I’ve never heard Bobby say something nice about anybody.”
Ramsey sent Ward a trailer of seven horses at Gulfstream.
In the early 1990’s, Ward began concentrating on young horses, an area that wasn’t stressed as heavily then.
“He decided to start working with babies and trying to get them going early,” says trainer Blake Heap, a longtime friend and sometime assistant of Ward’s. “He realized he could get an edge that way.”
That niche has paid off. Ward is known for his work with juveniles; they start firing in short races at Gulfstream and Keeneland in the early months of the year. These days he prefers to breed his own horses and buy weanlings or yearlings, at Ocala, Keeneland, or smaller sales, rather than 2-year-olds in training. With weanlings, he says, you usually pay half the price of a yearling, and after a lifetime of raising foals he trusts his sense of what they will grow into.
Ward, who has trained a host of good sprinters, looks for a faster type of horse, giving him a chance to catch his more royally bred competition early on – and the bigger purses that come with it. His juveniles are certainly more prepared and seasoned; he begins breaking them in Ocala in October, and they will be in a gate 40 or 50 times before they ever run. They’re also well traveled, especially the ones he sends overseas, which only enhances their maturity.
This is why he felt confident he could win in Europe – an idea he began talking about seven years ago.
“I thought he was crazy when he first started talking about it,” Heap said.
There, trainers slowly turn the screws on their juveniles until they are wound tight in the summer and fall. Hence in the spring Ward’s Keeneland-tested juveniles have a sturdier foundation. In 2009, Ward’s Strike the Tiger and Jealous Again (who was then sold to Darley Stable) both captured stakes at Royal Ascot. Heavy rains there this year spoiled his horses’ chances.
“I know my limits,” he said. “I can’t just bring a 3-year-old to the St. James’s Palace. But I can beat them with sprinters. Our horses are bred for speed and on a hard, fast turf course there’s no way they can beat us.”
And Ward will keep going back.
“It’s not just about the money in horse racing,” he said. “It’s about achieving success where nobody thinks you can do it – being a sportsman.”
Ward’s first break came with Unfinished Symph, a bay son of Aloha Prospector he purchased for $13,500 at a 2-year-old auction in 1993. At 3, Unfinished Symph won the Will Rogers and Cinema, both Grade 3’s, and finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. At 4, he won the San Francisco Mile and the Shoemaker, both Grade 2’s. Ward also trained the California-bred gelding Men’s Exclusive, who earned more than $1.4 million and retired in 2003 at age 10.
Flashpoint, a son of Saratoga-loving Pomeroy who was sold to Fort for $100,000 as a yearling at the 2009 Keeneland September sale, may deliver Ward that coveted Grade 1. Unbeaten as a sprinter, Flashpoint won the Grade 2 Hutcheson Stakes before stretching out for the Florida Derby and Preakness. Transferred from Richard Dutrow to Ward before the Preakness, Flashpoint rolled to a big-figure win in the Grade 3 Jersey Shore Stakes at Monmouth in his last start. [WATCH REPLAY: Grade 3 Jersey Shore »]
Given the pace Ward himself goes at now, victories in the King’s Bishop or the Spinaway might give him a chance to relax, if only briefly. Maybe even take a much deserved break. Or not.
“I never take a day off,” he said.
For his last “vacation,” Ward took his family and friends – and two horses to race – to Barbados, in March. They rented the house of English jockey Darryl Holland. With a horse named Grand Times, Ward got beat a nose in the Sandy Lane Spa Sprint, but weeks later he was elevated to first after the winner’s drug test came back positive. The so-called vacation put $25,000 into his pockets.
“It was a great time,” Ward said. And with a laugh, he added, “That’s how we do our vacations!”