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HORSE RACING / BILL CHRISTINE

Ward Adds Fresno to List

October 14, 2005|BILL CHRISTINE

While eight thoroughbred races, with purses totaling $245,000, were being run at Santa Anita on Thursday, Tom Ward and two other state-appointed stewards were presiding over an undistinguished collection of mules, quarter horses and thoroughbreds at the Big Fresno Fair. Referring to the racing part of the fair as "big" is a stretch. Generally, an $8,000 purse is Fresno's idea of a rich race.

From 1987 through last year, Ward, 59, had worked all but one Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita, including the last two Breeders' Cups that have been run there. He also worked two Breeders' Cups at Hollywood Park. A state racing official since 1967 and a steward since 1971, Ward became the top California steward, in terms of seniority, when Pete Pedersen's contract wasn't renewed this year.

Napoleon had Elba, and Tom Ward has Fresno.

"It's part of the philosophy to mix up the assignments all the way across the board," said John Harris, chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, when asked about Ward. "Ingrid Fermin [executive director of the board] made the assignments, and I had no problem with them."

The first shoe dropped when Ward was told that he wouldn't be working the Del Mar meet, from July to September. Trying to remain upbeat, which is his style, Ward found something positive about being in Fresno.

"Overall, I'm confused about what's happened to me," he said, "but at least it's given me a chance to hit for the circuit."

What Ward meant is that he might be the only steward in California to ever work at all the major tracks in addition to the fairs. Until this month, the only fair meet he had missed was Fresno. Willingly, Ward said, he had even returned year after year to Ferndale, a mixed-breed meet at a half-mile speck in Humboldt County, not far from the Oregon border. Ward, the son of a San Francisco podiatrist and racetrack executive who had come from the harness and quarter horse ranks, was first introduced to Ferndale in the mid-1970s, and he said he's only missed a couple of seasons since.

"It's the same place it was when I first went there," Ward said. "It's certainly a departure from the norm, but it was a good place to get experience."

Ferndale once had a 25-mph speed-limit sign that greeted jockeys as they reached the first turn. Down the backstretch, there was a "deer crossing" sign. Ward remembers a horse bolting out of the final turn, jumping the outside fence and not stopping until he had crashed through a wall in the racing department's office.

The Fresno Fair's 11th and last day is Sunday.

"The pay's the same, whether you're at Fresno or anyplace else," Harris said, referring to the board's policy of paying stewards by the racing day.

Yes and no.

"The daily rate might be the same, but because of all the changes, I'm working 40 fewer days than I usually do," Ward said.

He'll return to the big leagues when the Hollywood Park fall-winter meet opens Nov. 9. Ward missed the inaugural Breeders' Cup at the track in 1984, but he was there when the international event returned in 1987.

"That was Ferdinand just beating Alysheba in the Classic," Ward said. "Only a nose separated them at the wire. A truly incredible race. You've got to be objective, but any time you see two horses finish up like that, it's still bound to get your blood going."

Some of Ward's other Breeders' Cup memories include two horses who won the Breeders' Cup Mile twice. Ward was on hand when Miesque won at Hollywood Park in 1987 and when Lure completed his double at Santa Anita in 1993.

"Miesque was quite a filly," Ward said. "She had such a turn of foot. Lure was fortunate, breaking from the outside at Santa Anita. There was a massive jam-up on the first turn, and he was able to avoid that."

Also indelible for Ward is March 5, 1994, the day when he and two colleagues, after a 10-minute review, angered many in the crowd of 34,138 by disqualifying The Wicked North, the favorite who finished first in the $1-million Santa Anita Handicap. Stuka, beaten by 1 1/2 lengths and not involved in the alleged interference, was moved up to first place.

"That's the most controversial decision I've ever been involved in," Ward said. "The hate mail poured in after that one. When we left the track at the end of the day, they gave us an armed escort. But the more you thought about it, that might have been the worst thing to do. It only drew more attention to us. Who else but the stewards would have been going out of there with an armed escort?"

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