Thursday, June 25, 2009

Wesley Ward at Ascot: A postscript, and perspective

It's hard to believe I'm so unfashionably late to Wesley Ward's Royal Ascot party, but perhaps a bit more than a week of reflection can put the California-based trainer's accomplishments in Great Britain fully into perspective.

Ward made history June 16 when Strike the Tiger, whom he co-bred and co-owns, became the first American-trained horse to win a race at Royal Ascot, England's premier meeting, with a nearly 300-year history. The 2-year-old gelding dashed to victory in the 5-furlong Windsor Castle Stakes on June 16.

Only a day later, Ward upped the accomplishment when his juvenile filly, Jealous Again, ran off and hid with the Queen Mary S.-G2 by five lengths.

To use a word that has come into (and perhaps already gone out of) fashion among the younger set, I'm not much of a "fanboy" of any particular thoroughbred trainer. I know a few race fans who are as much a follower of a specific conditioner as they are of some of the horses; that trainer's methods and successes have earned their support. But the only trainer whose career I follow quite so closely is Maryland-based Phil Schoenthal, not just because I respect his methods, but he's also a standup guy who actually answers my e-mails.

Yet Ward has caused me to take notice of him more than once in the past.

The Eclipse champion apprentice jockey when he was just 16 (and I was only about 18), Washington-born Ward gave up riding early to due struggles with maintaining weight. After he took up training, I saw clips of him at the auction in a two-part TVG documentary about 2-year-old in training sales. In those snippets something about Ward just struck me; he seemed approachable, personable, honest. (Although I've never met the man and will concede that I cannot match the human-character-judging skills of, say, a top-notch golden retriever.)

So I was happy for Ward -- and relatively glad it was him and not any of a number of other unnamed American trainers -- who ventured to England and left his mark on Royal Ascot.

But then I thought to myself, how could it have been many of those "other" trainers? ... Because at Ascot, you're gonna have to run 'em on hay, oats and water. And a lot of our conditioners have no idea anymore how to do that.

American racing has gotten a bad rap at home and abroad for its reliance on drugs -- and I don't just mean the cheaters, who are a small but regrettable segment of the training colony. Even a number of the "clean" trainers (prior to increasing regulations to the contrary) were quick to use permissible steroids like Winstrol, while substances like Lasix, "Bute" and Banamine are or have been allowable "race-day meds" in many jurisdictions.

But they'll be having none of that across the pond, thank you.

Ward made a bold, but calculated risk in shipping the horses he chose to the Ascot meet. Of the six to travel, five were juveniles. He was playing the angle that American breeding is far more focused than is the typical European pedigree on speed and precocity, and that Ward himself is known even in the States as a trainer who can really get a 2-year-old ready to race. (Ward's detractors would say he's too hard on them.) There was a fair chance that Ward's 2-year-olds would be more "forward" in their training than the Euros, and victory was possible if his charges could attain the full measure of their early potential without the typical U.S. medications.

Ward, and his horses, proved that they could.

To be sure, there were setbacks. Three of Ward's 2-year-olds were also-rans in their stakes races. And his 4-year-old gelding, Cannonball, finished 5 1/2 lengths back of the winner in his first outing, the King's Stand S.-G1. Yet in Cannonball's case, Ward performed a second distinctly "un-American" training trick. He wheeled the gelded son of Catienus back just four days later -- not two months -- and collected second place in the Group 1 Golden Jubilee Stakes.

"This just proves if you get a horse right on the (right) day it doesn't matter if they're racing in Australia or China," Ward told The Racing Post.

And yet these Royal Ascot wins were something no other American trainer before Ward had accomplished. Only two other American-trained horses had ever won any flat race in Europe -- Reigh Count, 1928 Kentucky Derby winner, took the Epsom Coronation Cup for Bert Mitchell in 1929, and in 1991, Leo O'Brien prepped Fourstars Allstar to win the Irish 2000 Guineas under Mike Smith at The Curragh.

If anyone is likely to match Ward's "Great-British" feat, I suspect they'll go about it in similar fashion -- bringing speed-laden American-bred juveniles to out-drag-race their European cousins down the undulating Ascot straight. And I'm a little surprised it took someone this long to figure it out.

More power to Wesley Ward for so doing.


  1. American trainers have won races in Europe before. Off the top of my head, the American William Duke trained for American owner William Vanderbilt in France in the early 1900s, and he won several big races, including the French Derby and the Grand Prix de Paris. These winners, however, were trained in France.

  2. Perhaps the passage isn't quite clear, but that's what I meant. ... Horses not trained by a person who is or was an American, but trained IN America and sent to Europe for the key race.


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