Jockey Hugo Sanchez has been coming around the barn of trainer Dennis Ward since he began his career at Calder Race Course (now Gulfstream Park West) in Miami in 2012. From their first meeting, the then-20-year-old native of Lima, Peru wasn’t sure how to keep up with the 65-year-old conditioner.
“He is a hard-working guy who never stops,” Sanchez said this morning outside Barn 29, while waiting for the Zerillo’s Italian Grill Trainer of the Month to return from the track. “He’s ponying horses in the morning and during the races, or going over there to do something else.
“Since I started with my ‘bug’ (apprentice weight allowance), he has always helped me out and put me on a lot of horses so I can keep learning,” Sanchez said. . “He’s helped me to learn to be focused, and if you make a mistake, he just encourages you to do your best next time.”
Tampa Bay Downs announcer Richard Grunder, who works as a jockey’s agent during the summer, was looking for a rider last year when Ward clued him in on the industrious but soft-spoken youngster, who was still based in south Florida. After performing his own due diligence, Grunder agreed to take Sanchez’s book for the Canterbury Park summer meeting in Minnesota.
Sanchez rode 43 winners to finish third in the standings, with purse earnings of almost $1-million.
Ward comes by his penchant for helping up-and-coming jockeys naturally. His son, top trainer Wesley Ward, set the Thoroughbred universe ablaze in 1984, riding 335 winners to earn an Eclipse Award at age 16 as Outstanding Apprentice Jockey.
The elder Ward has also had a hand in helping tutor three other Eclipse Award-winning apprentice jockeys: Dale Beckner (1994), Ariel Smith (1999) and Christian Santiago Reyes (2009).
In each case, Ward has been in their boots. The win photographs on his office door, from an era when Thoroughbred racing reigned supreme among most American sports fans, show a handsome, self-assured youngster just starting to make his way in the “Sport of Kings.”
There is a 16-year-old Ward winning the Michigan Mile and 1/16 Handicap Trial in 1963 at Detroit Race Course on Greek Money, the previous year’s Preakness champion, for trainer Virgil “Buddy” Raines.
Other pictures show the apprentice phenom winning races for Hall of Fame trainers Frank Whiteley, Jr., at Delaware Park and Laz Barrera at Aqueduct. It was a heady time for the Tampa Bay Downs conditioner, who celebrated his success by buying a powder-blue Chevrolet Impala Super Sport for $2,300.
“I probably would have won an Eclipse Award too, but they didn’t give it away when I was riding,” he said, chuckling softly. “I was the leading bug boy in the country in 1962 and 1963.”
Ward retired from race-riding in 1968, soon after the birth of Wesley. While Wesley has made an even bigger name for himself as a trainer with such horses as Judy the Beauty, Hootenanny, Strike the Tiger and Jealous Again (the latter two won on back-to-back days at the 2009 Royal Ascot meeting in England, with the elder Ward on the scene), dad is living the good life at Tampa Bay Downs.
“This is probably my favorite spot, right here in good old Oldsmar,” said Ward, in fourth place in the Tampa Bay Downs standings with 13 victories. But Ward, who runs his 30-horse stable with help from his partner, Jeanne Shand, and others, doesn’t spend much time soaking up the sights in the Tampa Bay area.
“I don’t take any days off (from training),” said Ward, who has also worked in racing as a jockey’s agent and valet and ponies his own horses to the post.
“This beats having a job. If you like what you’re doing, man, you love getting up in the morning at 4:30, get out here by 5, 5:30 and just rock and roll from there,” added Ward, who races the majority of his horses under his own Ridenjac Racing banner – named for Wesley’s children Riley, Denae and Jack.
And Ward continues to mentor up-and-coming jockeys, just as he did with Wesley. “He’s taught me a lot of things,” said apprentice Chad Lindsay. “How to be a better horseman, how to work hard every day.”
Down the stretch. Today’s scheduled fifth race was declared “no contest” because of a starting-gate malfunction. All wagers on the fifth race were refunded, as were wagers on the Pick-5, which began with the fifth race on the nine-race card. For the purposes of the Pick-3 and Pick-4 wagers, the fifth race paid out on “all” entrants.
Owner-trainer Joseph Minieri sent out two winners today, both ridden by Pedro Cotto, Jr. They won the third race with 9-year-old gelding Holiday Boy, which paid $19.40 to win. They had a bigger surprise in store in the seventh race, as their 3-year-old gelding Peppi the Hunter – making his first start on turf – rallied late to grab the victory, paying $28.80.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. The feature is the ninth race, a conditional allowance/optional claiming event for horses 4-years-old-and-upward going a distance of six-and-a-half furlongs.
The morning-line favorite at 9-5 is 4-year-old gelding Video Mov, looking for his third consecutive victory. He is owned by Jagger, Inc., and Run To Win Stable and trained by Jamie Ness and will be ridden by Antonio Gallardo.
A strong 11-race card is on tap for Saturday, highlighted by the $100,000 Pelican Stakes for horses 4-and-upward and the $50,000 Minaret Stakes for fillies and mares 4-and-upward. Both will be contested at six furlongs. The Pelican is the eighth race and the Minaret is the ninth.
Barbados has been established as the morning-line favorite for the Pelican at odds of 9-5, with local favorite Fast Flying Rumor second choice at 3-1. The 4-year-old colt Barbados, owned by Suzanne Stables and trained by Michael A. Tomlinson, enjoyed an outstanding 3-year-old season which included victories in the Grade III Hutcheson and the Spectacular Bid Stakes at Gulfstream, plus three additional in-the-money finishes in graded competition.
Barbados, a competitor in the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Keeneland, will be ridden by Victor Lebron.
Another intriguing ship-in, the 5-year-old mare La Madrina, is among the top candidates for the Minaret. Bred and owned by Emory A. Hamilton and trained by Hall of Fame conditioner Claude “Shug” McGaughey III, she will be ridden by Elvis Trujillo. She is at 3-1 on the morning line, second to last year’s Minaret winner, 6-year-old Florida-bred mare You Bought Her from the barn of trainer David Hinsley, who is established at 5-2.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs is conducted Wednesday through Sunday. Thursdays will be dropped from the schedule in March. The track is open every day except Easter Sunday, March 27 for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.
Chaplaincy benefit golf tournament set. The Race Track Chaplaincy of America (RTCA) – Tampa Bay Downs Division will host its 24th annual “Hearts Reaching Out” golf tournament and fundraiser on Monday, March 7 to support the continued work of the chaplaincy. The tournament, which has a four-person scramble format, will begin at 11 a.m. at East Lake Woodlands Country Club in Oldsmar.
A dinner, awards ceremony and auction will be held beneath the pavilion tent at Tampa Bay Downs afterward, with the dinner getting underway at 5 p.m. The cost is $100 for the tournament, dinner and auction, $20 to attend the dinner and auction only.
The event kicks off the track’s Festival Week, which culminates Saturday, March 12 with the most lucrative card in Tampa Bay Downs history, featuring the Grade II, $350,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby; the Grade II, $200,000 Hillsborough Stakes on the turf; the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks on the turf; and the $100,000 Challenger Stakes.
Donors are asked to support the Tampa Bay Downs Division of the RTCA in any of the following ways:
- As a volunteer;
- By sponsoring a golf hole for $125;
- By playing in the tournament;
- By attending the dinner and purchasing an item in the live and/or silent auction;
- By donating money or an auction item.
For details or to reserve a spot in the tournament, call (813) 494-1870 or (813) 854-1313.