Wesley Ward, celebrated as a masterful trainer of precocious 2-year-olds and for breakthrough success at Royal Ascot, wants to take the next step in his career by targeting the Kentucky Derby as never before.
“I sure would like to get some athletes in the barn that can be on the big stage there,” he said during a recent interview at Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “It hasn't been a focus for me to be there until this point.”
Ward is a 10-time winner since he began journeying to Royal Ascot in 2009. He often showcases turf sprinting juveniles on that international stage that are better prepared than most of the competition. The Kentucky Derby has been elusive, though, and he could not be more eager to change that.
“Now is the time,” he said. “I'm 50 years old. You start thinking about time.”
While he will continue to emphasize 2-year-olds and Royal Ascot, Ward is eager to add to his stable prospects with starkly different pedigrees and body types. He said he is prepared to employ dramatically different training methods in order to reach the first Saturday in May with 3-year-olds that can contend at the classic distance.
“I am in hopes that this year we can get more than a handful of horses that would have the pedigree to go on and be Derby horses,” he said. “I am going to go to the Keeneland sales and go through the pedigrees myself. After that, I will probably make some phone calls to people and see if they want to give it a chance after I've identified some.”
Ward already made one call to prominent owner Ken Ramsey as a prelude to a visit he makes to Ramsey Farm in Nicholasville, Ky., every September. His mission in other years had been to climb aboard potential Royal Ascot standouts to gain a first-hand knowledge of each. That will change.
“He told me probably a couple of months ago that he was wanting to get on some this time that he thought could go a distance and might be able to get a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May,” Ramsey said.
Gatewood Bell, who works closely with Ward as a bloodstock agent and owner, is not surprised by the trainer's desire to somewhat alter course. Ward rattled off 10 consecutive victories with 2-year-olds at Keeneland's spring meet.
“He's obviously very good at what he does,” Bell said. “But I would think he doesn't want to get completely pigeonholed that people want to send him only horses that are precocious looking, and if he doesn't win at Royal Ascot, it's disappointing.”
Still, it is somewhat startling that Ward would want to make any change to a business model that is hardly broken.
“It might sound crazy to people who have gotten to know him the last 10 years,” Bell said. “But 10 years ago, it sounded crazy when he said he wanted to send horses to Royal Ascot and try that. I wouldn't put it past him. He usually accomplishes what he sets out to do.”
Ward is a former jockey who won the Eclipse Award as the outstanding apprentice in 1984 before weight issues eventually made it impossible for him to continue riding. He briefly assisted his father, Dennis, with his training operation before striking out on his own in 1991.
He twice came close to saddling a horse for the opening leg of the Triple Crown, with Pleasant Prince in 2010 and Pablo Del Monte in 2014. Pleasant Prince, second in the Florida Derby, missed qualifying under the system then employed by Churchill Downs that was based on graded stakes earnings. Pablo Del Monte, third in the Blue Grass Stakes, drew into the Derby field as an also-eligible. The majority owners decided to scratch because he would have started from the extreme outside in post 20.
Ward believes he has never been more prepared for the challenge he is laying out.
“As a racehorse trainer, for the most part the grayer your hair is, the better you do, which is different from most sports,” he said. “I can see why now, because you are going to learn from your mistakes. I do things now that are completely different from what I did in my 20s and early 30s. Whatever didn't go right for me then, I used that knowledge and turned it around.”
It helps, too, that Ward has developed strong financial backing. Ramsey is prepared to support Ward's newly-declared ambition – to a degree.
“Would I give my best Derby prospect to him right now? Probably not,” Ramsey said. “I'd probably give my best Derby prospect to Chad (Brown), who has been with me a bit longer than Wesley has.” Brown won the Eclipse Award the last two years and is steadily proving he is more than an extraordinary turf trainer.
Ramsey would not be surprised to see Ward follow a path similar to Brown's.
“I think it's going to be a little bit trial and error here,” he said. “But I have no problem giving him a few dirt horses and letting him get started, because he's bent over backward trying to get me a win at Royal Ascot.”
Ward knows that identifying the right horses and then exhibiting great patience with them will be critical if his Derby dream is to come true. He said he has studied the way past Derby winners were developed.
“It's a completely different approach, but I have a plan,” he said. “I think there are Derby winners in the past that I could have trained to get the horse there.”
Tom Pedulla wrote for USA Today from 1995-2012 and has been a contributor to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Blood-Horse, America's Best Racing and other publications.
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