How Ward Life Intertwines with Horse Life - Past and Present

Updated: Jun 23, 2019

Published June 21, 2019 - The Irish Field - The Owner: Hugh Ward

How did you get into ownership?

My first memory of a horse was one that my father bought for me as a boy in 1946. It was a chesnut pony called Nora and came on the train to my home town of Newcastle, Co Down. Many a fun day I had with that horse, giving pony rides on the beach or trekking to the local forest parks in Tollymore and Castlewellan.

When I got married to Rosemary we bought an eight-acre farm and had a few children (nine to be exact!). As the children got older they got involved in the pony/horse jumping scene in the late ‘70s through to the ‘80s and we would find ourselves all over Ireland at shows including in Claremorris in Mayo or down at a fledgling Millstreet of Noel Duggan’s.

The show jumping went reasonably well for a couple of my children, Hugh-Paul and Roisin particularly, and they managed to make various Irish pony teams and now their children are following suit so I suppose it’s in the blood.

I always loved racing and had a couple of broodmares in the stables with our ponies.

In your experience, which racecourse in Ireland treats owners the best and why?

While the facilities and hospitality may differ between racecourses, I’ve always felt welcomed and well looked after.

Flat or jump racing, which do you prefer and why?

I only have flat horses at the moment but we are on the lookout for a jumper. I won’t overthink which I prefer, beautiful images from both readily come to mind.

What qualities do you look for in a trainer?

I always kept a watchful eye on the racing and really just needed an excuse to get going again. I got chatting with Johnny Levins at Dundalk and we had a great conversation. It’s easy to spot a good horseman and very refreshing when you come across new perspectives.

I’ll be 80 on my next birthday and with my show jumpers I just haven’t the time to get back into the thoroughbred breeding but I decided to contact Johnny via his website and visited with him on the Curragh for a few work mornings.

I was able to experience first hand how he treats all the horses and the pets he’s responsible for. I got to know Johnny as a top-class trainer but integrity, a work ethic and doing everything in the best interest of the horses is important to me.

It wasn’t long before I asked if we could buy a few horses in training. My only remit was to get younger horses with quality pedigree and in the earlier stages of their development – any horse with a bit of potential to progress really. I was happy to pay a fair price to get the desired profiles. I told Johnny I wanted to have a bit of fun going racing with the wife as soon as possible really but he insisted we could get a bit of value with the help of Gaelic Bloodstock and I’ve been delighted with what the team have delivered.

What significance do your colours hold?

My colours were chosen by my wife with amethyst as her birthstone. She could talk you through the logic but the fact they were chosen by Rosemary is meaning enough for me.

When buying a horse, what do you look for?

Johnny has to analyse the horses and map their development on to his training methods, expertise and the current resources at his disposal. It takes a certain vision and anything less than the trainer being in full control of the buying process would be suboptimal so I’m little more than a soundboard when it gets down to the finer detail.

If we explore some breeding options then it’ll be more a conversation where I’d feel I could add value.

What horses do you currently have in training?

I’ve two horse in training with Johnny Levins; Tai Sing Yeh (by Exceed and Excel) a recent winner at Ayr and Burning Lake (by Le Havre) who has troubled the judges already and been in the prize money.

What’s next on the agenda for your horses?

I’m excited to find out! Johnny is meticulous in his race planning and often says, “small ships should sail close to the shores” so I’d say he has a small race planned somewhere. He’ll need a new saying when we improve our stock!

Have you any horses to look forward to? (i.e. young/unbroken horses)

I got into breeding as a hobby really, I could only invest as far as my pocket would stretch – often having to make the trip to visit Fairy King rather than his full-brother! I had one decent enough mare called Vaguely Jade who produced a few winners such as Shining Jewel who won 10 times with the great Lester Piggott managing six or seven of those wins.

I had stop everything and sell up when we took a big decision to emigrate to San Diego in the late 1980s where Rosemary’s family lived at the time. That doesn’t mean I didn’t keep an eye on what was happening in the world of horses and I encountered many an interesting character over there that kept my interests satisfied.

Del Mar racetrack was a 10 minute drive from my home and business in La Jolla and I managed to mix business with pleasure as many of my clients had a big interest in the horse business.

The biggest horsemen around then would have been the Preston bothers Jack, J.R. and Art Preston who were oil and gas owners from Texas and had a massive influence in racing with their Prestonwood Farm property near Versailles, Kentucky, which is now called WinStar Farms. Da Hoss comes to mind with Breeders’ Cup glory winning in the 1996 and 1998 Mile.

We had many a good time at Del Mar races and they also invited me to their Kentucky farm which was an experience – a different world at the highest end of the breeding and horse industry. Lovely people who understood big business and horses very well.

At the same time I’ve fond memories of friends who feigned interest in the horses but were in truth more excited by the prospect of a bet. I remember telling an old friend, Geoffrey Burbidge, (British-born astrophysicist) the man who traced life to stardust, that a horse bearing the name of another towering figure in astronomy was soon to hit the tracks back home and that there was some buzz surrounding him.

We had some fun trying to get a bet on a race 5,000 plus miles away and in a country that went out of its way to make that process a painful one, but Galileo won and the rest is history!

As I approached retirement age and was hankering to return to the auld sod I started to follow breeding lines in both show jumping and thoroughbreds.

I retired back to Newcastle in Co Down about 2010/11 after a 25-year stint in USA and after a year or two, I bought a 12-acre farm from my wife’s cousin, Ciaran MacFerran, who has been breeding racehorses for 25 years himself. It’s not far from my old farm close to Tollymore Forest Park.

I then went to Normandy, France and bought a lovely two-year-old called Vuelta Du Ter who was by Eurocommerce Berlin but who had a great breeding line through some old classical French show jumping lines. Vuelta’s half-brother Uitlanders Du Ter is now jumping 1.60m and is registered as a stallion with Selle Français so I’m content that the breeding is there.

She is a great mare and mother and has to date produced five lovely horses including a new arrival this month by Emerald.

We will be buying some young racehorses later in the year. Johnny and Gaelic Bloodstock have already been looking at yearlings and I’ve no doubt they’ll continue to deliver quality.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of becoming an owner?

Find another owner or group of owners with some experience and take the leap for small stakes at first. I’m most content when undergoing the process that leads to winners and looking forward to exploring a few more options with Johnny in hopes we can ultimately compete in a higher calibre of race.

I’m not too difficult to get a hold of and get to plenty of race meets if anyone wants to chat.

Hugh Ward was in conversation with Olivia Hamilton

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