Washington native Wesley Ward is one the great pioneers of modern day Thoroughbred racing. Though the Hall of Famer left to go on and conquer the world, first as a leading jockey and now as a reputable trainer, his global success traces right back to his Evergreen State roots.
Yakima County Roots
Wesley A. Ward, born March 3, 1968, in Selah, hails from generations of horsemen, leaving him little choice but to excel on the same path. Maternal grandfather Jim Dailey was an outrider in New York, while paternal grandfather Glenn Ward rode races and later worked as a blacksmith. His father Dennis Ward is still training and Wesley’s mother, Jeanne, was also once a trainer
Although as a four-year-old Ward made a somewhat infamous riding debut via a runaway horse that he fearlessly got under control, by the age of ten he was learning to ride properly under the tutelage of his father. By the time he turned 12, Ward was racing on the fair circuits in Washington and British Columbia, racking up wins with an eye on getting his riding license as soon as age allowed.
Eclipse Award Winning Rider
At 16 and under the eye of agent Lenny Goodman, who had handled the book for young Triple Crown winning rider Steve Cauthen, Wesley Ward made an immediate splash on the racing scene. He rode 335 winners during his march to be the Eclipse Award champion apprentice jockey title in 1984, collecting riding titles at Aqueduct, Belmont Park and The Meadowlands. In 1985, he guided a horse named Ferdinand to win a maiden race at Santa Anita; Ferdinand later won the 1986 Kentucky Derby (G1) under Bill Shoemaker.
As he aged, Ward dealt with an increasing weight issue by riding abroad, racing in Italy and Singapore before he was forced to retire as a jockey in 1989. [His final official ride occurred at Longacres on September 24, 1985.]
Another Skill Set
After two years of serving as an assistant to his father, Ward began training on his own. He saddled his first winner – Martini Red – at Yakima Meadows on January 6, 1991. Just three years later he won his first stakes race as a trainer in the Will Rogers Handicap (G3) at Hollywood Park when Unfinished Symph scored a 16-to-one upset by a head. The Aloha Prospector colt won the Cinema Handicap (G3) next out to prove his mettle. At the end of the season, Unfinished Symph finished third at 25-to-one in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1). He ultimately won a pair of Grade 2 contests the following year.
Ward’s career was stagnant for several years, but he never lost sight of his belief that as a trainer, he needs to be the first rider on the back of each young horse in his care, learning their quirks and talent before passing them on to other riders weeks later. When not in Kentucky or traveling the world, he spends his hours at his Ward Ranch in Ocala, Florida, where he lives with his wife Kimberley and children Riley, Jackson and Denae. It is in Ocala that he breaks many of his equine charges himself.
This careful attention has led Ward to finding success with precocious juveniles. Since 2009, Ward has won 48 percent of the two-year-old sprints run during the Keeneland spring meets, and he also trained Madman Diaries to be the 2010 Sovereign Award champion two-year-old male in Canada. Next, Ward took his show to Royal Ascot in England.
Ward became the first American-based trainer in history to win a race at the prestigious Royal Ascot meeting when his 33-to-one shot Strike the Tiger won the Windsor Castle Stakes in 2009. Just days later, Ward proved the first victory wasn’t a fluke when Jealous Again took the Queen Mary Stakes (G2) by five lengths.
He still considers receiving that trophy from the hands of Queen Elizabeth a thrill.
Since then, he won the 2013 Norfolk Stakes (G2) in track record time with No Nay Never, a son of Scat Daddy.
That runner became a Group 1 winner when taking the Prix Morny at Deauville in France two months later. That trip to France was a triumphant return for Ward, who two years earlier had become the first American trainer to win at Longchamp with Tiz Terrific.
In 2014, Hootenanny won the Windsor Castle Stakes over 23 rivals, and Sunset Glow finished second in the Albany Stakes (G3). Sunset Glow, who raced for David Mowat’s Ten Broeck Farm, Inc., came back to win the Grade 2 Sorrento Stakes at Del Mar less than seven weeks later, and three weeks after that added the Del Mar Debutante (G1) by a neck.
In 2015, Ward saddled a pair of brilliant chestnuts to Royal Ascot glory. The filly Acapulco broke her maiden in the Queen Mary Stakes and the Scat Daddy daughter won the Sole Power Sprint Stakes at the The Curragh in Ireland in 2017, increasing her record to four wins in seven starts. Ward’s popular runner Undrafted won the Diamond Jubilee Stakes (G1), a race where Ward had run second with Cannonball in 2009. Undrafted has earned over $1.3-million with three stakes victories on his résumé.
Perhaps the most brilliant of all of Ward’s runners has been Lady Aurelia. Yet another Scat Daddy, the bay filly broke her maiden going 4 1/2 furlongs at Keeneland in 2016, scoring by 7 1/2 lengths as the odds-on favorite. She took the Queen Mary Stakes at Royal Ascot, then the Prix Morny, and was the first American-trained Cartier Award winner when named champion two-year-old filly that year. After an extended break, Lady Aurelia returned at three, once again at Royal Ascot, to win the King’s Stand Stakes (G1) by three lengths over older male sprinters. That effort earned accolades as an outstanding feat for a young, lightly-raced filly.
Leading owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey, who are best known for the success of their champion grass runner and sire Kitten’s Joy, employ Ward as one of their trainers with the goal of winning a race at Royal Ascot. So far, Ward’s best luck with the Ramseys has come domestically, with Pleasant Prince winning the Ohio Derby (G3) after running second by a nose in the Florida Derby (G1). Grade 3 heroine Emotional Kitten missed by a half-length in the $350,000 American Oaks (G1), while Luck of the Kitten broke his maiden at Arlington Park, won the Zuma Beach Stakes at Santa Anita, and ran second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) in 2014.
That Breeders’ Cup day was the best of Ward’s career to date. He won the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint (G1) with subsequent Eclipse Award champion Judy the Beauty and ran one-two in the Juvenile Turf with Hootenanny and Luck of the Kitten. None of the six horses that Ward started that weekend ran worse than third, as he picked up second place finishes with Sunset Glow (Juvenile Fillies Turf), No Nay Never (Turf Sprint), and a third with Undrafted (Turf Sprint).
Ward, who in North America reached the 1,000 win milestone as a trainer in 2011, now has over 1,600 victories and $53-million in purses to his credit. His ingenuity and courage in tackling new heights have not only endeared him to those around the globe, but those in his home state of Washington, where he was enshrined in the Washington Racing Hall of Fame in 2015.
Emily Shields is a freelance writer based in Southern California. She has been covering horse racing since 2006.