One fine spring morning at Belmont Park about 12 years ago, outrider Jim Dailey hoisted his 4-year-old grandson, Wesley Ward, onto a thoroughbred in the stable area just to see how the boy would look up there. Suddenly trainer Dennis Ward, Wesley's father, playfully gave the horse a slap on the rump, never expecting that the horse would move. But the thoroughbred took off toward the training track. A horrified Dailey, who spent most of his career catching loose racehorses, started running after it. But not to worry. By the time Dailey reached the horse and rider, Wesley had pulled the thoroughbred up and turned him around. "Boy, I bet you were scared when that horse ran off," said the relieved Dailey.
Replied little Wesley, "No, Pop, I just said 'Whoa, you son of a bitch!' "
Ward, now 16, has cleaned up his mouth since then—in fact, he scarcely talks at all—but he still has that cool composure on the back of a hot-blooded horse. Last February he shipped into the New York area from his hometown, Selah, Wash., and in less than 10 months rode 335 winners, was the leading rider at both the Belmont and the Meadowlands fall meetings—simultaneously—and earned $5,188,642 in purses. On Jan. 8 he was named the winner of the Eclipse Award, the equine Oscar, as the leading apprentice jockey in the nation. "Yeah, I was going for the Eclipse," says the laconic Ward, who stands 5'3", weighs 100 pounds and still wears braces on his teeth. "I set a goal for myself, and I decided to work as hard as I could to obtain that goal. I gave it 100 percent."
That's no surprise, considering his breeding. Wesley is by a former (1962-63) leading apprentice jockey in New York, Dennis Ward, out of Jeanne Dailey, by Big Jim Dailey, former steeplechase rider and for 29 years an outrider—one of those men in scarlet hunting coats who lead the horses to the post and keep order on the track—for the New York Racing Association. Big Jim loved children (he and his wife, Irene, had seven) and animals (he was Belmont's unofficial gamekeeper, feeding the wildlife at the track and freeing the ducks frozen in the infield pond), and when his eldest child, Jeanne, gave birth to his first grandson, he started making plans for the boy. Wesley Alan Ward weighed in at 8 pounds, 2 ounces on March 3, 1968; the next week his father, Dennis, weary of fighting weight, rode his last race. He would become a trainer in Arizona and Washington.
"My father taught me to ride," says Wesley. "I started getting on a pony at 10. In the winter when I was 11 my dad started breaking horses and he'd let me ride them around the track." By the time Wesley was 12, he was riding his father's horses on the rough-and-tumble fair circuits of Washington, British Columbia, Alberta and Montana, making about $100 for each winner and learning the basics: breaking from the gate, jockeying for position, using the whip. He rode the fair circuit through the summer of '83, winding up that part of his career with a remarkable record of 158 winners in 300 races over four years.
The Wards traveled to New York once a year to see Jim and Irene Dailey, and in August 1981, when Wesley was 13 and back East for the annual family get-together, his grandfather introduced him to Lenny Goodman, the most famous jockeys' agent in America. "My grandfather told Lenny I was going to be a jockey," says Wesley, "and that he should handle my book when the time came."
That September, Dailey, 54, died. But that conversation wasn't forgotten. Two years later, Jeanne wrote to Goodman:
"I'm writing you concerning my son Wesley. He wants to ride in New York, and he would like you to be his agent.
"My dad was Jim Dailey, the outrider. ...It was Dad who told us that when Wes was ready, he'd get the best for him, and that was you, if you were able to handle him, and nothing would please our family more, except we wish Dad were still here to help make all these arrangements for Wes."
"It was a sentimental letter," said Goodman recently, standing in his usual spot in the racing secretary's office at Aqueduct, smoking his usual $2 Partagas cigar and watching the races on closed-circuit TV. "Jim was an old friend. So I took Wesley right away, sight unseen."