Wesley’s World: An Owner, Breeder and Trainer

|

Wesley Ward | Coady photography

By Sid Fernando

I had no idea, back in March, that some folks in casual attire at Craig Bernick’s annual crawfish boil at Glen Hill Farm in Ocala would be on television or social media three months later in morning suits and top hats at Royal Ascot–except for Wesley Ward, of course. Ward’s name has become synonymous with Royal Ascot, just as it once was with the Fairplex fair and now is with early 2-year-olds at Keeneland.

I met Ward for the first time that evening outside the pristine mid-century modern home where Leonard Lavin lived at Glen Hill. He was nursing a glass of red wine and was surrounded by a group of young college women who’d started a racing partnership with Bernick’s help, and they were asking him questions and treating him like a rock star. Ward was modest, perhaps mildly embarrassed by the attention, but pleasantly acquiesced. He seemed to have a permanent smile on his face. Later, he welcomed my introduction, and when I mentioned a mutual friend, he quickly snapped a selfie of us together and shot it off to her.

It was easy to like the guy right away. He was smart, straightforward, had no airs and seemed genuine. I’d paid close attention to him in New York in 1984 when he won an Eclipse as the leading apprentice rider and later I’d casually followed his training career as it developed in the 1990s in California. What had particularly struck me through the years was that Ward was starting to train homebreds, too. It’s not often that an ex-jockey becomes a trainer, owner, and breeder.

One of Ward’s notable homebreds was the filly Bear Fan (Pine Bluff), co-owned with Peter Fan, and the arc of her racing career foreshadowed some elements of Ward’s Royal Ascot forays: breed a horse, take a partner, and ship to a place far from home where you can win a prestigious race and add to the horse’s value.

A California-bred foal of 1999, Bear Fan won her debut in typical Ward fashion at Hollywood Park, albeit at three instead of two; raced against state-breds early on; and was tried against graded California fillies later, finishing second in the GIII Desert Stormer H. at Hollywood. She was then shipped across the country from California to Maryland to target Laurel’s GII Barbara Fritchie H., which she won, in 2004. The mare would add the Grade 2 Genuine Risk and Vagrancy Handicaps at Belmont (by a combined 14 lengths) to her resume that year and retired with a record of eight wins from 16 starts and $808,150 in earnings.

These days, Ward said, he owns about 25 broodmares and is still passionate about breeding. He foals his mares in Kentucky now and is hands-on through every stage of their development, and slowly he’s been upgrading the quality of stallions he uses. Early on, he stood a few sires himself, horses like Bring the Heat (In Excess {Ire})–sire of two graded stakes winners Lost Bus and Madman Diaries, bred or co-bred by Ward–and Iqbaal (Medaglia d’Oro). But now his homebreds are by horses like Scat Daddy and Distorted Humor, the sire of Ward’s Grade III winner Happy Like a Fool, who now races for Merriebelle Stable and Coolmore. He noted that he uses several sires at Ashford, including American Pharoah, for whom he has high hopes.

Homebreds alone can’t wholly sustain Ward’s operation, so he’s fortunate to have a steady stream of owners and investors. Some of them from Ward’s orbit at the Glen Hill crawfish boil who later reappeared at Royal Ascot included Gatewood Bell of Cromwell Bloodstock and Hat Creek Racing; Bradley Weisbord, agent for the ubiquitous Sol Kumin; Walker Hancock of Claiborne; and Charlie O’Connor of Coolmore’s Ashford.

About 20-odd years ago, Ward told me recently, he’d forged a relationship with Coolmore’s Paul Shanahan under adverse conditions. Ward had “overbred a mare” to an Ashford stallion and couldn’t pay the fee when it came due and asked Shanahan for some extra time to pay off the debt. Shanahan granted it. Ward eventually paid it off, but was impressed and appreciative that Shanahan, without knowing him–a small-time trainer at the time–had agreed to the arrangement. “He’s a great friend of mine, a guy that’s really, really helped me to be successful. He’s been wonderful,” Ward said.

That Coolmore connection has paid mutual dividends through the years, notably with Acapulco (Scat Daddy), winner of the G2 Queen Mary S. for Coolmore, No Nay Never (Scat Daddy), winner of the G1 Prix Morny for Coolmore and Ice Wine Stable, and Hootenany (Quality Road), winner of the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf for Coolmore. Ward also raced his homebred Pablo Del Monte (Giant’s Causeway) in partnership with Coolmore and was third with the colt in the 2014 GI Blue Grass S. Both No Nay Never and Hootenanny were also Royal Ascot winners for Ward along with Acapulco. No Nay Never is now off to a hot start at stud with 10 winners–including one trained by Ward–from his first crop this year and is a potential big-time stallion for Coolmore as a son of Scat Daddy–also the sire of Ward’s marquee filly, Stonestreet Farm’s European champion and Royal Ascot Group 1 winner Lady Aurelia, who captured the King’s Stand in 2017.

Gatewood Bell, son of Darley’s Jimmy Bell, purchased both No Nay Never for $95,000 at Keeneland September 2012 and Hootenany for $75,000 at Keeneland September 2013 under his Cromwell Bloodstock banner. Cromwell also purchased Ward’s Grade II winner Bound for Nowhere (The Factor), who was a narrowly beaten third in the G1 Diamond Jubilee at Royal Ascot this year, for $310,000 at Keeneland September 2015, and at the same sale, Cromwell also signed the $130,000 ticket for the graded-placed stakes winner Con Te Partiro (Scat Daddy), a winner at Royal Ascot last year for Hat Creek Racing, a partnership that’s growing in popularity each year with Bell’s prowess for selecting stock at reasonable prices and Ward’s development of them. “Gatewood is very good at what he does,” said Claiborne’s Bernie Sams, who was also at Royal Ascot this year with Walker Hancock to see the Hat Creek 2-year-old Chelsea Cloisters (First Samurai) run unplaced in the G2 Queen Mary S.

Bradley Weisbord was at Royal Ascot with Kumin, whose wife Elizabeth is now a co-owner of Undrafted (Purim) with Wes Welker after Weisbord agented the deal. Undrafted was initially purchased for $50,000 at Keeneland September 2011 by Bell’s Hat Creek Racing and won the Diamond Jubilee for Ward and Welker at Royal Ascot in 2015.

Ocala to Keeneland

Ward didn’t have time for a formal education coming up, but his intelligence is apparent when speaking to him. He’s articulate, has a thirst for knowledge, and keeps calibrating his operation to yield maximum results. Because he’s a practical horseman with experience in all facets of the game, he decided recently to centralize his operations in Kentucky, at Keeneland’s Barn 68 and at the 100-acre farm across the road from Keeneland that he leases from Brad Kelley, whose Calumet Farm is nearby.

Ward still sends his Kentucky-bred weanlings to his Ward Ranch in Ocala to develop, but in a departure from the past and a move that’s distinctly against the grain, he brings his yearlings back to the Kentucky farm in the fall to break and train. He started this regimen last year, he said, so he could gallop them over the forgiving grass fields of his farm to get a better idea of how they travelled over turf, and also because he could have access to Turfway Park to breeze them on the all-weather over the winter–a better preparation altogether for his 2-year-olds for Royal Ascot, he said. He should know, because he’s the master of preparing juveniles in North America to strike on debut.

Ward noted that training 2-year-olds is an art form and that in Florida there’s an inclination sometimes to “overtrain” a horse. He said his fastest 2-year-old this year, the filly Jo Jo Air (Scat Daddy)–a $325,000 Keeneland September purchase by Andrew Farm and Mrs. Charlie O’Connor that Ward kept in Florida–came up with a shin after Joel Rosario worked her an eighth of a mile faster than Ward had wanted on the dirt at Palm Meadows. “It only takes one mistake,” Ward noted. Because of the shin, she missed Royal Ascot, but Ward is excited that she’s back on track and still maintains that she’s the fastest juvenile in the barn–and that includes the Royal Ascot winner Shang Shang Shang (Shanghai Bobby).

The latter was purchased for $200,000 at the OBS March sale by newcomer Breeze Easy LLC and is one of two Royal Ascot winners Ward has had that have exited juvenile sales–the other was Acapulco, purchased at the same sale in 2015 for $750,000 by M.V. Magnier–but in general he said the 2-year-old sales are too taxing on young horses for Royal Ascot. “Shang Shang Shang and Acapulco were extremely sound and trained on,” Ward noted, but he said they were exceptions and that most graduates of 2-year-old sales need some time off after purchase and are generally not good prospects for Royal Ascot.

With 10 winners and counting at Royal Ascot, Ward has established himself as a serious horseman on both sides of the Atlantic. And, yes, Ward is the master trainer of 2-year-olds in North America, but don’t pigeonhole him there, either. He’s had plenty of horses that have trained on, and that list includes Lady Aurelia and Undrafted, along with others such as Grade I winner Judy the Beauty (Ghostzapper), a filly Ward purchased for $20,000 at Keeneland September 2010 who won more than $1.8 million with over five seasons. Champion female sprinter of 2014, Judy the Beauty gave Ward another distinction–the first Eclipse Award-winning apprentice jockey to own and train an Eclipse Award winner.

Ward’s world is in good order right now.

Not a subscriber? Click here to sign up for the daily PDF or alerts.