Although he is on pace for a third consecutive top-10 finish in the Tampa Bay Downs trainer standings, the victories haven’t come with the same frequency for Dennis Ward during the 2014-2015 meeting.
But the 68-year-old Seattle native isn’t sweating the small stuff. Having enjoyed success at the racetrack for nearly his entire life makes arriving at his barn before daylight seem like a non-stop vacation.
“I really look at it like I’m retired, because I do what I want to do every day, when I want to,” said Ward, the Zerillo’s Italian Grill Trainer of the Month. “And Tampa Bay Downs is the place I want to be in the wintertime. I just bought a house in Oldsmar, and I don’t want to be anyplace else.
“Whenever I think about going to all these different places, I just go to Clearwater Beach five miles away and I’m there,” Ward said.
By saddling four winners over the past two weeks, Ward -- who races the majority of his horses under his own Ridenjac Racing banner -- moved into a ninth-place tie in the trainer standings with 14 victories to go with 23 seconds and 20 thirds, from 154 starters. He sent out 22 winners last season to finish seventh and was ninth during the 2012-2013 meeting with 19 victories.
Ward plans to move his 30-horse stable to Monmouth Park in New Jersey following this weekend’s action after spending last summer at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach. “Being at Monmouth, there are six racetracks within a 100-mile radius,” said Ward, who hopes to find a race or two at Belmont for his 7-year-old New York-bred gelding, More Zen Tea.
“An optional $40,000 claiming race there has a $65,000 purse, so we might be able to sneak in and get one – you never know.”
Ward is known throughout the industry as the father of top trainer Wesley Ward, who won Breeders’ Cup races at Santa Anita last fall with Judy the Beauty in the DraftKings Filly and Mare Sprint and Hootenanny in the Juvenile Turf.
The elder Ward’s thrill was magnified by saddling Hootenanny for his race while Wesley was home in south Florida to watch his teenage son Riley compete in a state cross-country meet.
In 2009, when Wesley became the first American trainer to win a race at England’s Royal Ascot meeting (scoring with Strike the Tiger and Jealous Again), his dad was decked out in a top hat and tails for what he called “the greatest experience I’ve ever had at a racetrack.”
Dennis Ward was a top apprentice jockey at Longacres in Washington state in 1962 but stopped riding in 1968, a week after Wesley was born. While working the next 15 years as a jockey’s agent and valet, primarily in Washington, he also passed along his knowledge to his son, who caught the Thoroughbred world by storm at age 16 in 1984 by riding 335 winners and totaling $5.2-million in purse earnings to win an Eclipse Award as Outstanding Apprentice.
“Wesley has determination, the same as I do,” his father said. “He’s always looking in the future to know where he’s going – which I try to figure that out myself.
“Even when he was a little wrestler at Selah (Wash.) High School and nobody was small enough to wrestle him – he won a few matches, lost a few matches – he started going 30 miles away to Ellensburg and entering freestyle tournaments.
“I didn’t know what freestyle was, but he said ‘Dad, I think I can win (a major tournament).’ So he got himself a ride to the tournament and came home with a trophy bigger than he was,” Ward recalled.
By then, Wesley was already making a name for himself as an up-and-coming jockey, riding as many races at bush tracks in the Pacific Northwest and southwest Canada, and even into Montana, as he could enter.
“He started galloping horses when he was 12 and riding races when he was 13. He got ruled off once when he went and hustled a mount off a girl and she turned him in because he was only 15,” said the elder Ward. “He won 300 races before he even went to Aqueduct and won (an official race). It didn’t make any difference what they were running – Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, Arabians – he rode them all.”
Memories aside, Ward – who took out his trainer’s license in 1983 – doesn’t spend much time waxing nostalgic. He jokes about being retired, but admits working hard at the barn is what keeps him fit, enthusiastic and full of energy. He also ponies his horses to the racetrack in the afternoons.
“If I’m not working, I’m not living,” he said. “I’m not feeling good otherwise. I’ve got to keep going, got to keep going, looking for that turnkey horse.”
Ward’s partner of 15 years, Jeanne Shand, is his assistant. “She is my right hand and my left hand,” he said (Wesley’s mother lives in Arizona.).
Ward also works closely with such jockeys as Mike Allen, Brian Pedroza and Alice Cartwright, who don’t get many headlines but produce results for his barn.
“Alice is just coming back from getting hurt and is also going to Monmouth,” he said. “I like the way she rides. Certain horses run through the bridle for her, and those are the ones I put her on.”
History has shown that when Dennis Ward thinks someone is going to be good on a horse, you had better pay attention.