October 28, 2012 -- One of the legendary riders of the 1970s and '80s, Barney Ward, died this weekend after fighting cancer for years. The father of two-time Olympic gold medalist McLain Ward, he was known as a tough guy, yet cited for his generosity and help by many in the equestrian community.
A horse dealer who produced many big name mounts, from Glandor Akai and Eclair D'lile to So Long, he was a character and a versatile athlete who had played semi-pro football and kept himself in top physical shape.
But after a career in which he won major grands prix, rode Sedac to the 1986 Mercedes Horse of the Year title and came back from a broken neck by virtue of his steely determination, he became infamous for his involvement with the scandal that involved killing horses for insurance money. Barney served three years in federal prison, pleading guilty to conspiracy after acting as a middleman for horse hitman Tommy Burns.
The toughest part of his punishment, imposed by the American Horse Shows Association, a U.S. Equestrian Federation predecessor, involved being banned from the grounds of recognized shows. In the days before streaming video, that meant he could not watch his son compete.
He tried to fight the edict, but an AHSA lawyer said Barney's presence at shows " would be harmful to the principles and purposes of the AHSA."
So Barney stayed away as the USEF carried on the ban, and continued teaching, providing horses for others and helping to prepare his son's mounts. He worked with McLain to realize their joint Olympic dream. "I'm grateful for the incredible time I had with him. He very much in every way is responsible for who I am and what I've done in my life and definitely was my greatest teacher," said McLain. "The years were checkered by some difficult times, but they made the good times all that much more poignant. For me, he was an amazing father."
Barney assembled a team at his Castle Hill Farm in Westchester County, N.Y., that stayed together for years and piled success on success, with McLain doing the riding. "He definitely was a person of extremes, but the extreme good was incredible, and the people he cared about and loved, whether it be our family at Castle Hill, which is an extended family, or the people he touched, you can see a lot of people who speak highly of him, there's a lot of passion in it," McLain said.
I asked Barney in a 1999 interview how he could have become involved in the insurance scheme that rocked the horse world and beyond..
"I don't know whether it was just conditioning," he mused, noting " I made a mistake not coming forward." Growing up, though, he explained, he saw equine death as a fact of life.
"I worked in stables where, when horses weren't useful, the meat guy would come," he said. "I never gave it a thought. I had to survive in this world I came from." After he had his own stable, however, he emphasized, none of his horses were killed for insurance money; in fact, none of them were even insured.
He noted he always tried to be charitable, saying, "If a kid needed a horse, I would give it to them."
"Much more than many people know, my dad helped a lot of people in our industry and did it very quietly and not for financial gain. You can't get too far without finding somebody he helped in one way or another through difficult times for them," said McLain.
"As much as we interacted in the last 25 years, I have people calling every day telling stories of things he did for them that I never knew about, without expecting anything in return, which is kind of unique."
Grand prix rider Candice King recalled today that he was very solicitous when she was a young working student in Westchester County, while she was missing her own father who had to stay on the West Coast because of his job.
Barney, she remembered, "was always a caring person and he always wanted to look after the people he believed in. He always was there for me to turn to," she said.
As an example, a few years ago she took out her cellphone on arrival aboard a flight to Europe and accidentally pressed his number. After the phone rang a few times, she realized her mistake and hung up. It was 1 a.m. in the U.S., but Barney, who had been awakened by the call, dialed back immediately, concerned that something was wrong and wanting to help.
"He was a passionate, caring person; he was very true to what he believed in," she said.
Another grand prix rider, Lauren Hough, reminisced with tears in her eyes about Barney as "a huge, huge influence in my life," helping her when she was getting started in the big classes nearly 20 years ago.
"He's an incredible, incredible man. We're all going to miss him a lot," she said. "He has taken so many people under his wing and been a very kind person to me and I love him dearly."
Trainer Frank Madden called Barney, "part of the old guard. I think he was a huge personality. It's great that his legacy is being carried on with McLain. Like everybody, we've made mistakes in our lives, but I think at the bottom, Barney was a great person and did way more good than bad."
David Distler, a show manager, judge and steward who knew Barney from his youth, commented, "Barney was Barney. But if Barney was your friend, he would go to the end of the earth for you. It was a shame USEF didn't let him back in. No one likes what happened back then. It was a sad time in our business. But if you pay your dues, there should be an end to the punishment."
In the days when he was riding, course designer Anthony D'Ambrosio was asked by Barney to take over his horses after he broke his leg and had to take time off.
"I'd say I learned a tremendous amount riding and training while working with him during that tough time for him," Anthony said. "He was a very good horseman, a good trainer, a great rider; his advice always was valuable and made sense."
Anthony is exactly correct.
"The success we have had is 90 percent due to my father," McLain told me after winning the 1998 American Invitational.
"He started years ago planning this. It's his horsemanship coming through."
Survivors include Barney's wife, Relda; two other sons, Jay and Dylan, and two grandchildren.
Services will be Monday in Brewster,N.Y.