You won’t often find trainer Dennis Ward in the Tampa Bay Downs winner’s circle following a victory by one of his Thoroughbreds.
Most racing afternoons, Ward works as a pony person escorting skittish racehorses to the starting gate. ”In England, they don’t even use ponies. Those relaxed horses over there are going a mile-and-a-half on the grass,” he says. “It’s a different kind of horse over here. They are usually on the muscle, their jocks are riding seven or eight a day and you don’t want to get them (the riders) too tired.”
Ward – the Zerillo’s Italian Grill Trainer of the Month after climbing into a tie for third in the track trainer standings with 14 victories – also works out many of his horses in the mornings using a pony. “I don’t put a rider on their back,” he explains. “Once they are fit, all they need is exercise.”
As a jockey from 1962-68, ponying work horses in this manner is second nature to Ward, even though it looks like a recipe for serious entanglement to the untrained eye. “You just have to hang on,” he says. “Once you teach a horse to pony and they like it, after that it’s easy.”
Ward keeps two stable ponies, both Thoroughbreds he trained during their racing careers. One, 16-year-old Surprise Halo, won the Alamedan Handicap at Pleasanton in California in 2003 and had a retirement ceremony in his honor at Bay Meadows. He wears a saddle with the inscription “Big Fresno Fair Trainers Award.”
“The lady I gave him to after he raced loved him, but she couldn’t ride him very good,” Ward recalls. “So I bought him back and we’re old friends.”
Ward claimed his other pony, 14-year-old Windsor Lodge, from a race at Zia Park in New Mexico in 2005. There were 18 other claims submitted for Windsor Lodge; Ward won him in a 19-way shake. “He’s a good-looking horse,” Ward says. “I never won a race with him, but when I found out what was wrong with him, I made a good pony horse out of him.”
Ward has always traveled in style, on and off the racetrack. As a 16-year-old apprentice jockey in 1963, he celebrated a successful meeting at Delaware Park by purchasing a brand-new, powder-blue Chevrolet Impala Super Sport off the showroom floor for $2,300. “That was kind of the ruination of me,” Ward says now, chuckling.
“I was under contract to Virgil ‘Buddy’ Raines, a well-known horseman, and he let me buy my first car. I was 16 and on the road, and after I lost the bug (apprentice allowance), I started riding races all over and my career hit a lull. I was a young kid and everybody wanted to ride around in my car,” Ward recalls.
Truthfully, Ward actually enjoyed his fair share of success in the saddle from 1962-68, but quit riding soon after the birth of his son Wesley. The younger Ward was an immediate sensation as a jockey, winning 335 races as a 16-year-old in 1984 to earn an Eclipse Award as Outstanding Apprentice Jockey.
A quarter-century later, in 2009, Wesley Ward became the first U.S. trainer to win a race at the Royal Ascot meeting in England, sending out Strike the Tiger and Jealous Again on successive days. Talk about rarefied air – Dennis Ward still calls being there his greatest experience at a racetrack.
The elder Ward, who has saddled 851 winners in his career, has a reputation for claiming horses and getting them to the next level. Often, that involves switching them to the turf, as with 4-year-old gelding Hawkeye Jimmie, a Smarty Jones offspring who won on the lawn for a $16,000 claiming tag recently after being claimed by Ward for $6,250. It was Hawkeye Jimmie’s first turf start
Another recent $6,250 pickup, 4-year-old filly Denyit, won for Ward for a $16,000 tag in a race taken off the turf.
Most of Ward’s horses run under his Ridenjac Racing banner, named for Wesley and Kimberly’s three children: grandson Riley, 15, granddaughter Denae, 12, and grandson Jack, 9. Ward believes Jack might one day have the goods to follow in the Ward footsteps as a jockey.
“He has no fear,” Ward says, “and he’s an athlete. Every time I go down there, he is right by my side.”
Ward usually handles the saddling chores for Wesley when he sends horses to Tampa Bay Downs from his south Florida base, and on those occasions, he will make it to the winner’s circle. Earlier in the meeting, he accepted on behalf of his son following 4-year-old filly Shrinking Violet’s victory in the $100,000 Lightning City Stakes on grass.
Ward’s partner of 15 years, Jeanne Shand, is his assistant. “She goes over every horse in the barn every morning and if they make one bad move, she knows it,” Ward said. “If they have a little filling in an ankle, she knows. She’s on every horse, health-wise, and she does the bookwork.”
Ward’s four sisters all galloped racehorses at various times. Their mother, 87-year-old Jeanne Ward, is a caretaker in Spokane, Wash.
On Wednesday’s card, Virginia breeders-owners Mr. & Mrs. Bertram R. Firestone – the owners of Genuine Risk, the second filly to win the Kentucky Derby, in 1980 – combined to win the sixth and seventh races. Arnaud Delacour is the trainer of both and Luis Garcia was the jockey.
In the sixth, 3-year-old filly First Glance rallied on the outside to post a three-and-three-quarter length victory in her career debut in a swift 1:04.41 for five-and-a-half furlongs. Seventh-race winner Special Envoy was making only his second start, but the 3-year-old proved much the best in a field of nine on the turf, drawing off by four-and-a-half lengths in 1:42.62 for the mile-and-a-sixteenth.
Jockey Ricardo Feliciano swept the early daily double with his only two mounts. He won the first race on 4-year-old gelding Don’t Doubt Dylan for owner Pyrite Stables and trainer Miguel Feliciano (his uncle), and added the second on 5-year-old mare Take What You Can for owner Captain Jack Racing Stable, LLC and trainer Anthony Granitz.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes on Thursday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. Racing is conducted five days a week in February, Wednesday through Sunday.
Tampa Bay Downs is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.