Nijinsky and Sir Ivor still fresh in the memory.
ENJOYING life at 80 is something most people aspire to. For different reasons many never get to achieve that milestone in such rude good health as Liam Ward, who will celebrate that significant birthday tomorrow.
'Liam who' is a question the younger generation might well ask, as it is 39 years since L Ward called time on a riding career that brought him ten Irish Classic wins and six Irish Flat jockeys' championships.
Nijinsky, the horse Ward considers the best he rode, came towards the end of his life as a jockey which began when the native from Kilmallock, County Limerick started his apprenticeship with Roderic More O'Ferrall at Kildangan in 1945.
Ward went on to ride for most of Ireland's leading trainers, including Paddy Prendergast and Vincent O'Brien, during the 1950s and 1960s, and his total of six championships is a figure bettered only by Mick Kinane in the post-World War II era.
When I visited him and his wife Veronica at their splendid home of 30 years overlooking the River Liffey outside the village of Sallins in County Kildare, our conversation started at the end rather than the beginning of his career, with his recollections of Nijinsky, Vincent O'Brien's champion who dominated as a two-year-old in 1969 before going on to triple crown glory.
Lester Piggott rode Nijinsky in all his races outside Ireland but Ward was O'Brien's No. 1 in the country and was on board when the great horse captured the 1970 Irish Derby.
Ward recalls: "I was never beaten on Nijinsky and winning the Irish Derby on him was probably my greatest day as a jockey.
"Saying I was never beaten on him isn't meant to be a boast. Every time I rode him he was a steering job. He was an amazing horse who would blow Vincent's sprinters out of the way on the gallops.
"His best trip was probably a mile and a quarter and his sheer class enabled him to get a mile and a half.
"I remember being scared going to the start of the Irish Derby as he sweated up a lot. When I got to the start, Michael Kauntze, who was assistant to Vincent at the time, was there and he could see I was worried. He told me I needn't be as Nijinsky had done the same at Epsom. He was right and by the time I pulled him up after the race there was hardly a drop of sweat on him.
"Riding him was easy. He would stand in the stalls like a disinterested donkey and when the stalls opened he would drop the bridle. You could put him anywhere you wanted in a race."
Many perceived that Irish Derby triumph as redemption for Ward as it came two years after his defeat on Sir Ivor in the 1968 running, when Piggott, who had ridden Sir Ivor to a dramatic victory at Epsom, beat him on Ribero.
While Sir Ivor's defeat was disappointing Ward admits it didn't come as a complete surprise.
He explains: "Sir Ivor was a hell of a good horse - not quite as good as Nijinsky in my opinion, but a very good one nonetheless. But in the Irish Derby I knew I was in trouble once we hit the home straight. His stride was shortening and he was obviously feeling something.
"Vincent got very few things wrong, but in the week leading up to the race he left instructions to work Sir Ivor right-handed on the gallops. It was the only time the horse wouldn't go past his lead horse. What happened at the Curragh proved he wasn't at his best."
Recalling the aftermath of Sir Ivor's surprise defeat, Ward says: "There was supposed to be the mother and father of all celebrations on the night of the Irish Derby. Sir Ivor's owner, Raymond Guest, was the US ambassador to Ireland, and the party in his residence in Phoenix Park turned into a real damp squib. Everyone was down in the dumps after the horse getting beaten.
"Vincent would never say to you that you rode a good race or a bad race. But that night we were standing together having a drink when he reassured me by saying that Sir Ivor had to get beaten some time and I had ridden him exactly the way he hoped I would."
Ward began his association with O'Brien in 1964. "In my early days riding for him, he used to give lots of instructions before a race. That more or less stopped after about a year and a half. All he would say was, if it was a bad gallop not to be be far away, and if the pace was good he would leave things to me. I'm not sure what he did with Lester, who always did his own thing anyway.
"My involvement with Vincent was an education. He was a very good trainer at all levels, but a superb trainer of good horses with a great ability to keep them at the top of their game over a long period. He never gave them too much work and never galloped them over long distances, whereas some trainers overdid the galloping with the result that their horses were often over the top when they went to the track."
WARD also enjoyed a successful association with Anne Biddle, later Anne Brewster, an American ownerbreeder based at Palmerstown Stud, near Naas. As females were not allowed to hold a licence, she employed a number of private trainers and Ward rode two Classic winners for her, landing the 1960 Irish 1,000 Guineas on Zenobia, trained by Tommy Shaw, and the 1958 Irish Derby on the Michael Dawson-trained Sindon.
He recalls: "She was a real lady and a lovely person, who knew her horses and how to rate them. We had a lot of success together and she had many good horses. Apart from the two Classic winners there was Scissors, who was controversially disqualified after winning what is now the Racing Post Trophy, Ionian, who was beaten only inches in the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket, and Milesian, who was a very good sprinter."
Ward's link with Mrs Biddle followed a stint riding for Paddy Prendergast, a master trainer of juveniles during their association. "Paddy had some record with twoyear-olds," he says. "He was a hard man to work for and he loved a gamble. He would go bananas if you lost a race and he had had a few quid on.
"With most of the two-year-olds it was a case of going to the start and coming back in front. They all knew their job and they were very good out of the gates. Paddy specialised in buying good-looking early types and he went on looks more than pedigrees. He landed many Classics and other big races at home and in the UK, but when I was riding with him it was mainly about speed and two-year-old flyers."
Other trainers he rode for included Jimmy Lenehan, Mick Connolly, Kevin Kerr, Stu Murless, for whom he won the Prix Royal-Oak on Sicilian Prince, Michael Rogers, Morny Wing and Paddy Norris.
He says: "I rode my first Classic winner on Do Well for Morny in the 1951 St Leger and won the 2,000 Guineas the following year on D.C.M. for Michael Rogers. It is a long time ago and my memories of those wins are quite hazy.
"I rode a lot for Paddy Norris. His horses always looked great, if a bit over-dressed. He had so much gear on some of them they looked more like dressage horses at times. You always knew when he fancied one - he would be a nervous wreck in the parade ring."
Weight is often a serious problem for jockeys and Ward admits that he suffered in that department. "It was a real battle to do 8st 4lb. My problem was that I couldn't sweat. I'd spend two or three hours in a sweat box and come out losing less than one pound. I controlled my weight more by worrying than anything else."
Once a four-handicap golfer in the 1960s, Ward now plays off 16 - "they've given me back three shots recently, probably because of my age!" - and is looking forward to swinging the clubs at Portmarnock Golf Club and other venues through the summer.
Ward, formerly chairman of the stewards at Leopardstown and Naas, still reads the racing pages and watches the big races on TV, and from what he has seen this year he isn't wildly enthusiastic about the Classic crop. "It is early days yet but I haven't seen anything to get madly excited about yet," he concludes.
As well as golf, fishing and shooting are his sporting priorities nowadays. "I enjoy all three, plus walking the dogs. I'm in good health and I take a drink if required."
All part of his successful recipe for a long life, for he looks damn well on it.
FACTFILE Born May 18, 1930 Champion Irish Flat jockey Six times - 1953, '56, '57, '58, '59, '61 Irish Classic winners 2,000 Guineas D.C.M. 1952 1,000 Guineas Zenobia 1960 Derby Sindon 1958, Nijinsky 1970 Oaks Amante 1958, Aurabella 1965, Gaia, 1969 St Leger Do Well 1951, White Gloves 1966, Reindeer 1969 French Classic winner Prix Royal-Oak (St Leger) Sicilian Prince 1962
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|Publication:||The Racing Post (London, England)|
|Date:||May 17, 2010|
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