Wesley Ward is nothing if not audacious. In 2009, he ventured across the Atlantic with a handful of horses and saddled two stakes winners at Royal Ascot, thus becoming the first U.S.-based trainer to capture a stakes race at England’s most prestigious “carnival.” That surely made an impression on the bluebloods of European racing.
But Ward, a former champion apprentice jockey from a small town in the Pacific Northwest, has yet to make any kind of impact in the greatest race in his own backyard, the Kentucky Derby. He came close in 2010 when a horse he trained, Pleasant Prince, finished second by a nose in the Florida Derby, one of the traditional Kentucky Derby prep races. If only Pleasant Prince had been born with a longer nose – a victory would have sent him to Kentucky. Instead, when it came time to narrow the Derby field to the maximum of 20 starters, he was excluded because he lacked sufficient earnings in graded stakes races.
Fast forward to 2013: The Derby qualifying rules have changed – most horsemen say for the better – and Ward is back with another possible contender. If Undrafted, a horse he trains for NFL wide receiver Wes Welker, finishes first or second Saturday in the $750,000 Blue Grass at Keeneland, Undrafted would be assured of a stall in the starting gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
Undrafted has taken a roundabout path into Derby contention. He has never finished worse than third in six career starts, so his record is outstanding. But under the new system that will narrow the Derby field to 20, horses must earn points in designated Kentucky Derby prep races, and while Undrafted has competed at three different tracks, and on three surfaces – grass, dirt and synthetic – he has yet to compete in an official Derby prep race. Until now.
At stake in the Blue Grass – and also Saturday in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park – are 170 Kentucky Derby points, including 100 for the winner and 40 for second. It might take as many as 40 points to earn a golden ticket to Churchill Downs. From zero to hero? Ward is hoping for the best at Keeneland, the Lexington, Ky., racetrack where Undrafted won his first start nearly a year ago.
“Everything looks good,” Ward said this week in a chat with The Blood-Horse magazine. "He's never had a problem running in his life. He ran his best number when he broke his maiden here going a short distance, so he has that going for him. The question is how far he's going to go."
Ward, 45, knows what a Kentucky Derby winner looks like. He rode Ferdinand, the 1986 Derby winner, during Ferdinand’s 2-year-old season, back before Ward was forced to retire from riding because he got too heavy. At least time was on his side; he was only 21 years old when the bathroom scale told him he had to change careers.
Ward made a smooth transition to training, working first with his father, Dennis Ward, a trainer in Washington State, and then heading out on his own. After some good years in California, Ward moved his permanent base to South Florida, where he breeds horses on his farm and spends down time with his wife and three kids. If he were so inclined, Ward could tell them fantastical stories about 1984, when as a 16-year-old apprentice, he won 335 races, captured the riding title at New York’s venerable Belmont Park and earned the Eclipse Award as the nation’s leading apprentice, in a landslide.
Once the toast of American racing as a jockey, Ward in recent years has become the standard-bearer for the quality of U.S. horses overseas. His trip to Ascot in 2009 was dismissed as a lark in some circles, and certainly British punters didn’t take him too seriously; his first winner, Strike The Tiger, was a 33-1 long shot. A day later, his brilliant 2-year-old filly, Jealous Again, won the Group 2 Queen Mary Stakes by five lengths.
Ward has ferried other horses to Europe in recent years, saddling winners in both England and France. His intent was to take Undrafted to Ascot last summer, but persistent rains in the London area scuttled those plans. Now Undrafted is chasing an even bigger prize. No need to leave home when the Kentucky Derby is just a stone’s throw away.