05/01/2013 12:56PM

Ward’s juveniles cram hard to ace early exams

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Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Wesley Ward, 45, won four of the seven races for juveniles at the recently concluded Keeneland meet.

There were some awe-inspiring performances by the human participants at the Keeneland spring meet that ended April 26, notably the single-meet records established by owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey, trainer Mike Maker, and jockey Joel Rosario.

But just below all that Keeneland clatter could be heard a buzz of a familiar sort: Trainer Wesley Ward dominated the spring “baby races” yet again, prompting folks to wonder aloud how he does what he does with those first-time-starting 2-year-olds of his.

“It’s a lot of time and a lot of hard work,” Ward said after winning the final 2-year-old race of the meet on the closing-day program with a colt named No Nay Never. “A lot of time, I can assure you.”

Ward saddled the winner in four of the seven baby races run at the meet (and did not have a starter in one of them), sustaining a remarkable tradition of domination in what has become his trademark niche. On April 6, he won the first baby race of the meet with a filly named Sweet Emma Rose, marking the fifth time in the last seven years that a Ward horse had captured the first juvenile race at Keeneland.

Many of the Ward horses win by open lengths and at short mutuel prices, demonstrating not only how far ahead they are in their maturation process but also the fact that horseplayers long ago caught on to his prowess with youngsters.

Ward, a 45-year-old native of Washington state and the son of trainer Dennis Ward, said he selects certain yearlings he deems to be the most race-ready candidates and has them sent to the Palm Beach Downs training facility in Delray Beach, Fla., where the long process begins.

“Starting Oct. 1, my whole crew and I are pulling double shifts in Florida,” said Ward, who has won more than 1,130 races since he began training in 1991 after a riding career that earned him the 1984 Eclipse Award as top apprentice.

“We’ll do our regular morning work at Gulfstream or Calder or Palm Meadows or wherever we have our active runners, and then we’ll all take a 90-minute break or so and reconvene at Palm Beach,” he said. “We’ll work there until sundown getting those babies ready. I’m talking Thanksgiving, Christmas, the whole winter through.”

Ward said he and his staff even break some of the yearlings when the horses first arrive at Palm Beach Downs, an 85-acre, multiuse facility not to be confused with Palm Meadows, the better-known, Frank Stronach-owned facility just to the north.

“That’s one of the most satisfying things about all this,” Ward said. “You’re basically starting from scratch with a lot of them. Obviously, after a certain period of time, you know which ones are going to be quick like cats and which ones will need more time and maybe more distance. Some of them catch on really quickly and want to do the work, and others, not so much so. It’s not like we rush everything we have to the races, not at all. So, that’s basically how we determine who we end up sending to Keeneland and hopefully showing off for their owners.”

One of the most fascinating observations about the Ward 2-year-olds is they often outbreak their opposition and find themselves well ahead within a fraction of a second. Sometimes they look like rockets exploding from the gate.

“That’s a result of how familiar they are with the gate,” Ward said. “It’s very similar to kids going to school: The more education they have, the better off they’re going to be. It really is a function of the time we put in with them. You can draw a direct line from all the hours and hours spent at Palm Beach to the way they [run off] here at Keeneland. There really is no magic to it. It’s just those hours we’re hidden away in Florida, teaching them the ways of being a racehorse. It’s a big edge.”

Ward said the expense of renting stall space and paying his employees overtime equates to roughly an additional $40,000 a month, but those costs ultimately are recouped through the success of the horses, either through purse earnings or private sales. He said the day rate he charges his owners remains at $90 despite the excessive overhead.

Ward occasionally is approached by an owner or breeder who would like to have a new sire attract immediate notice. That’s how he winds up sending out an inordinate number of first-timers by noncommercial sires such as Bring the Heat, Weather Warning, Talent Search, and others, although he also is sent horses by proven sires such as Giant’s Causeway, Ghostzapper, and City Zip.

Invariably, Ward is criticized for being overeager with young horses who perhaps have not yet properly matured, but he bristles at the notion that he will run rampant through horseflesh just to maintain his reputation as a 2-year-old master.

“There are plenty of horses we’ve had that have done well at 2 and gone on to be graded stakes winners as older horses,” he said. Indeed, that list includes such notables as Gypsy Robin, Judy the Beauty, Politicallycorrect, and Pleasant Prince.

Furthermore, he said, he is able to manage a horse’s career for years, even after that horse wins as a 2-year-old. The best example is an 8-year-old gelding named New Believer, an eight-time winner at Keeneland for Ward before being claimed from him at the recent meet for $10,000.

“He won his career debut at Keeneland in the fall [of 2007],” he said. “Then he won here at 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. If that’s not taking care of a horse and managing it with care, I don’t know what would be.”

Ward does concede that being typecast as a 2-year-old trainer “is very nice in a way, mostly because it can open doors. You’ve really got to have a niche in this game to distinguish yourself from the other guy. I’m just like every other trainer in the game: I’d like to be involved in all the big races and maybe even win the Kentucky Derby one day.”

Alluding to how his horses are known for being so fast and precocious, he added with a big laugh, “Of course, my first Derby winner is going to go wire-to-wire.”

It happens every spring

Wesley Ward’s 2-year-old winners at the last three Keeneland spring meets, with margin of victory in lengths.
2013

WINNER MARGIN ODDS TO $1
No Nay Never (c) 2 *0.80
Mary At the Cove (f) 2 1/4 *1.60 
Pablo Del Monte (c) 5 *0.60 
Sweet Emma Rose (f) 9 *0.50

 

2012

WINNER MARGIN ODDS TO $1
Undrafted (g) 3 6.2
Barisoff (f) 8 1/4 *0.60 
Skylander (g) 9 *0.60

 

2011

WINNER MARGIN ODDS TO $1
Gypsy Robin (f) 7 1/2 *1.40
Holdin Bullets (c/g) 1 *1.10
Judy the Beauty (f) 1 3/4 *1.10
Everyday Dave (c/g) 2 1/4 *0.90

(f) - filly;  (c) - colt; (g) - gelding; * - favorite