No Place Like Home for Nowhere

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Bound for Nowhere (outside) by a nose in the Shakertown | Coady photo

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Of all the different ways our community is slowly retrieving its bearings, few can be as heartening as the return of the Keeneland spring meet. Its loss, last year, was one of the first crashing waves of Covid's inundation across so many routine pleasures. And last weekend could scarcely have offered more reassuring navigational markers. The fans privileged to return to their boxes saw a Derby favorite warming up in the GII Blue Grass S. and, if uncertain in their wagering, could simply back the hometown barn of Wesley Ward, who sent out four winners (one stake, three graded stakes) plus three seconds from nine starters.

But if you wanted to condense that sense of homecoming to a single moment, then it was no contest. Because here he was again: Bound For Nowhere in the Shakertown!

This is one remarkable racehorse. In the long history of the breed, there can't be many that have run four times in the same race within a sequence of just ten starts. Now seven, and still flying the flag for the debut crop of The Factor, Bound For Nowhere took his earnings to barely cents short of $1 million, and his race record to 1-2-3-1, when getting up to land the GII Shakertown S. by a nose.

Last year, when the race was postponed to July, he set up a track record by leading until deep in the stretch, collared by a head and a neck. It had been pretty similar in 2019, when just nailed by a neck. In sum, then, he has come within half a length of winning four Shakertowns off the reel, having romped by four lengths in 2018, a record margin for this 5.5f dash over the grass.

Bound For Nowhere has now won seven times from only 15 starts overall. He has, in other words, both demanded and rewarded patience. Just as well, then, that he runs in the silks of an owner who really understands the ups and downs of this business. Fellow name of Wesley A. Ward.

Bound for Nowhere wins the Shakertown | Coady photo

He first fell for the horse at Ashview Farm. Like everyone else in the Bluegrass, Ward knows the kind of stock raised here by the Lyster family, headed by Runhappy (Super Saver) and Johannesburg (Hennessy). But in this instance, he had an extra advantage. Ward leases a house on the farm, and every day in 2015 his eye was caught by a colt out of an unraced Alydeed mare the Lysters had bought for just $15,000 at the November Sale four years previously. That has turned out to be astute work, even by their standards. Yes, she was unraced and, at 11, had a pretty discouraging breeding profile; but the fact remained that she was a half-sister to dual GI Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Midnight Lute (Real Quiet).

Ward, moreover, had bought the Afleet Alex filly this mare was carrying when she came to Ashview. “And she could really run,” he remembers. “She broke her maiden here at Keeneland but just didn't keep going like she could have. Anyway, at this little house I've leased out at Ashview for the last however many years, I'm always looking out and watching what they have. And this guy was just a beauty. One of those that you just got to have.”

Ward managed to land the colt on a single bid at $310,000.

“At the time there wasn't anybody ringing the phone, I didn't have any orders,” he recalls. “So I kept him for myself, and was very happy to do so. Putting up that kind of money, it's not something I can [generally] do. But he was just one of those that you do whatever you can, because you believe in him so much. There's very few come through a sales ring that you feel that confident about, and this was one. He was just born to be a good horse.”

So Ward had an unusual combination of very high stakes but zero external pressure. He gave Bound For Nowhere all the time he needed: didn't run him at two, didn't push him into the Florida division.

“I was able to take my time with him, just let him mature and grow into himself,” he explains. “I kept him up at Turfway, to get through his maiden without it being a real contentious field, and then I waited and ran him at Keeneland. And then he just bounced right through that and was off to Ascot.”

Merchant Navy and Ryan Moore just win the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot from City Light and Bound For Nowhere | racingfotos.com

Bound For Nowhere has actually managed three Ascot raids in his staccato career. That first time, he ran a solid fourth to Caravaggio (Scat Daddy) in the G1 Commonwealth Cup for sophomores; but perhaps the peak performance of his career to date came the following year, when beaten under a length into third by Merchant Navy (Aus) (Fastnet Rock {Aus}) in the G1 Diamond Jubilee S.

“The first time over there, I really thought he had a big chance,” Ward remembers. “But he was just lacking in experience, especially on a straight course, and that's what got us, though he still ran a very creditable race. Then the next year he just had a little bit of traffic trouble. Joel Rosario is a fantastic rider, as you've all seen last weekend, but those 5/8th and ¾-mile races at Ascot, they're completely different. Maybe if we had Frankie [Dettori] that day, that might have made a big difference, because he knows that track like the back of his hand. Take nothing away from Joel, he's my rider, but on the day he went right and everybody else went left. And we were still just beaten on the line.”

The horse has always had the potential, then, someday to land a knockout punch at the elite level. It was a real pity, then, that he was unable to run at the Breeders' Cup on his “home” track last year. But his disappearance between his third and fourth Shakertowns was instructive of the challenges Bound For Nowhere has set Ward, overall. Because it's not as though he has always had to battle some kind of chronic soundness issue. Almost invariably, he has come up with some kind of quirky new puzzle.

“He's had some very strange issues over the years,” says Ward. “Last year, for instance, he had a little piece of shavings get stuck in his eye. Not a big deal, he was certainly able to run through it, though his eye was weeping. But what he also had, which was really strange, was some kind of pinched nerve or something. When we jogged him up and down, he was completely sound, perfect. But as soon as you put a rider on his back, he had a little hitch in behind; you could tell something was nagging him. I like to use the older vets that have seen everything, and we had chiropractors come in, we tried everything. But nobody could figure it out.”

So Ward pulled the plug for the year and took the chance to get the eye sorted, too. And somehow the time off has restored Bound For Nowhere to a condition that he has possibly never surpassed.

Perhaps there's a message here that might be worth heeding with a lot of horses. Nobody, admittedly, would deliberately structure a career this way; and his serial hold-ups have sometimes made him seem rather too aptly named. But the fact is that the horse has been able to reach physical maturity with relatively few miles on the clock.

Ward stresses that his patrons are exemplary, in terms of putting the needs of their horses first. But he does agree that Bound For Nowhere, crazy as it sounds, might only now be achieving his potential.

“Because he's been given all those winters off, I think that's where the longevity comes,” he reasons. “Whenever we felt it would be a good time to let down and build back up again, we turned him out. So really he's more like a 4-year-old. I guess it might be hard to convince an owner to have just 15 starts when you're seven. But patience has certainly paid off. As I said, it's always just been minor issues. But if you pushed on, then maybe they'd have become major issues.

“A lot of my owners, I do have that type of leverage with. And those are the owners I do the best for. The ones that just let you train the horse, and let the horse tell us where to run—because he's breathing fire, so to speak, and not just because you have chosen a race and try to force his schedule round it.”

Ward does tend to geld horses whenever it seems sensible, but Bound For Nowhere has been so immaculate in his behavior that he retains all necessary equipment for a stud career. At the very least, you would hope that he could yet secure a spot on a good regional program if finally nailing that elite win. The Breeders' Cup naturally dominates Ward's thinking, but in the meantime he must choose between a return to Ascot or the GI Jaipur S. at Belmont in June.

“He's never been one whose mind is wandering off, or who's hollering around the barn,” he says. “He's a real gentleman. He has a nice pedigree, he's got heart, and he's a beautiful horse so, yes, I'd hope there's a farm somewhere that might stand him, even if it's at a pretty nominal fee, just because he's such a wonderful horse.

“He's very pampered, a barn favorite. He's got his own personality about him. He's all boy, that's for sure, but he was one of those that was sent to private school! But Julio [Garcia] is 58 years old and about 102 lbs, and you can gallop him around there with two fingers.”

And actually Ward feels that this has contributed to Bound For Nowhere's lasting enthusiasm.

“He's very easy on himself,” he explains. “He knows his job. Lady Aurelia (Scat Daddy) would outwork him each and every week. And yet when he got to race, he'd run like hell. He knows there's not a lot of pressure in the mornings. A lot of horses can't differentiate: morning or afternoon, when they're asked to go, they're gone. This guy will go a half-mile in 52 seconds. Or, if you want him to, he'll work in 46 seconds.” Ward pauses and chuckles. “Though he's always happier with 52 seconds.”

If Bound For Nowhere won somewhat as the barn mascot, he had to yield the weekend headlines to other horses—notably Ward's latest Grade I winner, Kimari (Munnings) in the Madison S. Now six-for-10, she has “come out of the race fantastic” and Ward will now sit down with owner Dave Mowat of Ten Broeck Farm and Ben McElroy to discuss options, including a return to Ascot where she ran a fine second last year.

Regardless, Ward hopes to assemble his customary juvenile team for the royal meeting. “Though I've been a little backed up with my 2-year-olds this year, with the weather here in Kentucky,” he cautions. “In years past, they always come blasting right off here at Keeneland, but the better ones just aren't ready. They will be coming out in the next few weeks, and we'll just let them find their way.”

But nothing sums up the barn's overall momentum like the prospect of a first starter in the GI Kentucky Derby itself. Ward did have one make the line-up back in 2014, when drawn 20, but he was scratched and subsequently confirmed that he did not belong at that level. Now he has a legitimate contender in Like A King (Palace Malice), whose success in the GIII Jeff Ruby Steaks was one of five from just six starters at Turfway the previous weekend. (The solitary “failure,” incidentally, was beaten a neck!)

“We're real excited to get in there for the first time,” Ward enthuses. “And especially one with a chance. Because he comes from way back and makes a big run. You never know what happens with those horses. If the speed develops up front, here we come.”

The switch from synthetics is the obvious caveat against Like A King, but the GI Santa Anita Derby success of Rock Your World (Candy Ride {Arg}) confirms how a Derby horse can sometimes emerge from the most unconventional of groundings.

“Early on, he certainly had an affinity for the grass as well as the polytrack,” Ward concedes. “And his dirt works were average. But his last two works here at Keeneland, on the conventional dirt surface, were really good: 59-and-change, real fast times, and impressive visually. Churchill is always going to be a big question, because the two tracks have different dirt surfaces. But we're going to keep our work here at his home track, just to keep him sound going into the race.”

So here is a trainer with a real spring in his step, not least with his favorite meet contributing to a sense of new beginnings in the wider world. “Yeah, to see people getting out, traveling around a little bit, and the restaurants and everything opening up, we're getting a little bit of normalcy back,” Ward says. “And hopefully as more of the vaccines get out, everything can open up completely to where the fans are back, not only in our sport but in all sports.”

And if we've all been “going nowhere fast”, for the past year or so, we can now gratefully take a lead from the flagship of this thriving barn. Because if we're slowly getting somewhere, after plenty of patience, then so too is one of the quickest horses in the country.

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