Every Del Mar summer season is a homecoming for Dan Ward, Jr., the top assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.
Ward's parents, Dan, Sr., and Joan, live in Carlsbad and, since going to work for Hollendorfer in 2008, Dan has been able to stay with them, make the short commute to Del Mar and be an integral part of 29 of Hollendorfer's 32 career stakes victories here.
Ward has helped prepare and saddle recent champions like Shared Belief (2014 Pacific Classic), Songbird (2015 Del Mar Debutante), Battle of Midway (2017 Shared Belief Stakes and Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile) and, last Sunday, Unique Bella in the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes.
“It's always great to come back down here,” Ward said. “It's a good chance to stay with my folks for the summer and see them. Del Mar has always been special to me.”
Ward, 59, was born in Washington, D.C., and came west with his family at age three. His younger brother, Mike, who now works at Morton's Restaurant in San Francisco, was born in San Diego.
Dan Ward, Sr., worked for Delta Airlines in Washington and later for American Express Travel Related Services on the West Coast. The family moved to the Los Angeles area through Junior's elementary school years, but moved back to San Diego County and Dan attended Pershing Junior High and Patrick Henry High before transferring for his senior year to then-University, now Cathedral Catholic.
Ward played basketball and baseball at Patrick Henry, but his fondest sports memories were of times when he was still in junior high and would go with friends to basketball games there to see Bill Walton, playing for Helix. Or, in his senior year at University watching recent baseball Hall of Fame inductee Alan Trammel play shortstop for Kearny.
“A lot of good players have come from this area, but not me,” Ward says. “I was a better handicapper than I was a player.”
He became a fan of the sport when the family lived in the Los Angeles area, near Pasadena and Santa Anita in Arcadia. When Majestic Prince and so many other marquee horses lit up cards virtually every weekend. When Riva Ridge came out for the 1972 Derby at Hollywood Park, the family was there to watch.
“I was a fan,” Ward says simply. “A fan of the horses, the jockeys and the trainers. And I was especially a fan of (trainer) Bobby Frankel. Then, when (his family) moved back down here, we were almost regulars at Del Mar.”
Ward attributes a recommendation by longtime track publicist Dan Smith to trainer Joe Manzi for Ward securing his first summertime job at Del Mar as a teenager.
Ward made a feint toward college after high school graduation, briefly attending Cal State San Luis Obispo, but was drawn back to the track, and Manzi's stable, by the summer of 1977.
A short time spent with Manzi led to an opportunity to work for young, Hall of Fame-bound trainer Frankel and, as Ward puts it, “The kind of experience money can't buy.
“(Frankel) said 'I'll start you out (hotwalking) one horse, then two, three and four,'” Ward recalled. “By the time we headed for Hollywood Park, I had gotten up to four, and I was a regular groom.”
Frankel had a reputation for being a taskmaster to his help. And Ward concedes that while the six-time Pacific Classic-winning trainer, who ranks fourth all-time here with 70 stakes victories, could be tough and demanding, Frankel and his No. 1 assistant Humberto Ascanio, were very good mentors.
“He was always good with me,” Ward said. “He would help me with things, answer questions I had. I started traveling for him in 1979, took a horse named Johnny's Image to New Orleans.
“I traveled quite a bit for him and it's always good to see different tracks and different trainers and how they do things.” When Frankel entered two horses in the 1990 Kentucky Derby (Pendleton Ridge, Burnt Hills), Ward was holding one for “The Walk,” from the stable area past the grandstand to the paddock for America's most famous race.
The travel, the long hours and the 24/7 aspect of the job wore a little thin, however, and after 22 years with Frankel, it led Ward to accept full-time work at a restaurant where he had been doing some nighttime work as a bartender.
“I wanted the days off. It was more money, working nights and it was right near where I lived,” Ward said. “But you get away and you do something and it's OK, but you miss the competition.
“Nothing can match when you take a horse over for a big race and have a win. There's nothing in the outside world like it.”
Nine years after stepping away from the game, Ward came back in 2007. He worked for trainer Peter Miller at the start of the 2007 Del Mar meeting, then was offered the job with Hollendorfer that he holds to this day.
Back to dawn arrivals for workouts and late-afternoon saddling of horses, be it stakes or low claiming levels. Days off? “Just a couple days a year and it's usually on a Monday,” Ward said.
There's no comparing the two Hall of Fame trainers he's worked for, but there are some similarities.
“Bobby didn't get up as early as Jerry,” Ward said. “But they both put their own money into the horses. They stay on top of what every horse is doing every day, and they have responsibility for a lot of horses.
“Jerry puts his own money into horses and it gives people confidence in horses that they're going to buy if he owns a quarter or a half. And he works hard every day.”
Hollendorfer, whose overdue induction into the Hall of Fame came in 2010, has had several long-term employees in his nearly 40 years as a trainer. So he's unsure if Ward has seniority as a top assistant. But he appreciates the quality that goes with the quantity of years they've had together.
“Whenever you're working with someone in this kind of business, the trust has to be there,” Hollendorfer said. “I trust Dan and he trusts me. We're both dedicated to the game.
“His strength is that he's been around the game a long time and has learned it from the ground up. He can read the (Daily) Racing Form, knows horses and is good at figuring out what needs to be done and what spots are best for them.
“He's not afraid to work and we have a way of doing things at all our stables that he knows as well as me. You have to pay attention and try to do everything right. If you're just going through the motions, you're not getting things done.”
Seventeen months ago Ward married for the first time and became a stepfather to an 11- and 13-year-old boy and girl.
“Life can change quickly – and for the better,” Ward said. “It took almost 60 years, but I finally found the right woman. You have kind of a bad day, it's nice to have someone to come home to. It changes your perspective.”
It's happened before. So, Hollendorfer was asked, what would he do in the unlikely event that domesticity and the pull of more regular hours and a more regular life moved Ward to exit the racing game again?
“I'd give him the highest recommendation possible,” Hollendorfer said.
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