06/02/2017 2:36PM

Americans now getting the Royal treatment at Ascot


Ten years ago, a small subset of American horsemen might have tuned in to watch the big races run at the Royal Ascot meeting each June in England.

A decade later, an American trainer with a high-class turf horse thriving during the spring probably is at least considering going to Ascot to race.

It’s getting to the point where there are nearly as many Americans shipping overseas for Royal Ascot as Europeans shipping overseas for the Breeders’ Cup: The American invasion for the Royal meeting that runs June 20-24 could number as many as 15 or 16.

At Royal Ascot, racing’s problems are at least temporarily buried beneath an avalanche of tradition – the queen’s arrival by carriage before each card and all those fancy hats – and truly high-level racing over a five-day period.

“Ascot was one of the greatest experiences of my training life,” trainer Mark Casse said. “My wife calls it the Kentucky Derby on steroids.”

Casse went to England with his first Ascot starter in 2016, Tepin, and left with a win in the Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes, always the first race of the Royal meeting and among the top one-mile races in the world.

“It’s like nothing that you’ll ever experience in the U.S.,” said Casse. “It’s a true sporting gesture. It’s not about the money.”

The Queen Anne’s 2017 purse is $738,000. Casse plans to return to Ascot with the 3-year-old filly La Coronel, who runs in the $492,000, Group 1 Coronation Stakes, bypassing the $1 million Belmont Oaks Invitational.

Tepin’s victory showed that older American horses, not just 2-year-olds, could succeed at Ascot. Tepin had been a champion in 2015, and Casse initially balked at sending her overseas.

“The Lasix, the ground, all that stuff worried me,” he said.

The Lasix and the ground – those two concerns were the apparent impediments to Americans racing in England. Race-day Lasix isn’t permitted in England, and at least until high summer, course conditions often are softer than the standard American horse prefers. Even more daunting are irregularly configured courses that are nothing like American ovals: The Queen Anne is run over a straight course filled with dips and rises. Ascot races not run on a straightaway are contested right-handed, the opposite direction of American races.

Flying from the East Coast is not much different than going from New York to California, but once there, things get more complicated. English horses are stabled at private training yards rather than racetracks, and English training routines look little like mornings in America. There are countless details to test an American horse’s sense of routine.

“It’s a lot different,” said Casse, whose son and assistant, Norman, looked after Tepin in the days before her race. “There are no valets, so you get your own saddle. You can saddle in the paddock, but we ended up saddling Tepin at the barn. We’re in a stall that’s very low, and Norman is acting as the valet. He leans over to me and says, ‘Dad, did you ever think we’d be doing this?’ ”

Casse said he wouldn’t have been doing it had Tepin’s owner, Robert Masterson, not pushed Casse to make the trip. And there’s a good chance that nearly no Americans would be doing this had Wesley Ward not come along.

“Really, it’s all thanks to Wesley,” said trainer Graham Motion, who will send Miss Temple City to Royal Ascot for her third start there. “Other people had gone before, but not like he did. He made it seem more doable.”

Ward is as closely linked with Royal Ascot as any trainer, English or otherwise. It was in 2009 that he hatched his plan. Ward excels with 2-year-olds, especially early-developing types, and his most advanced young horses would have been in serious training for several months by the time Ascot came around. Ascot is the first European race meeting featuring noteworthy 2-year-old stakes; overseas, the juveniles are just taking the training wheels off in late June.

Ward weighed the challenges against what he perceived to be his advantage – and went for it. When Strike the Tiger captured the Windsor Castle Stakes in 2009, he became first American-trained horse to win at Ascot. Ward now has won seven Royal Ascot races, and he will be there again this year with his largest, strongest group yet.

“If you go to Ascot, you understand,” Ward said. “You can feel the greatness of racing that once was. When I was a kid and the stands were packed at Belmont, or you go to the Santa Anita Handicap and you couldn’t move, those days are gone in the States, but they’re still over there. It takes you back to yesteryear.”

Lady Aurelia, who scored a stunning blowout win in the Queen Mary last year, is the star of Ward’s Ascot show and will be favored on opening day in the King’s Stand Stakes, a five-furlong dash. Ward also has Bound for Nowhere for the Group 1 Commonwealth Cup, a six-furlong race for 3-year-olds, and the 3-year-old filly Con Te Partiro for a listed stakes. He’ll have between six and eight 2-year-olds to run, with Fairyland, who goes in the Albany, and Happy Like a Fool, who starts in the Queen Mary, perhaps his best chances.

In addition to La Coronel, the good turf sprinter Long On Value is scheduled to travel, and Todd Pletcher, who has run at Ascot before, will send Maker’s 46 Mile winner American Patriot to the Queen Anne. It will either be the Queen Anne or the Duke of Cambridge for Miss Temple City, who was fourth in the Coronation two years ago and fourth in the Duke of Cambridge in 2016.

Motion was born in England but first raced there in 2013 with Animal Kingdom. The horse had won the Dubai World Cup but barely lifted a hoof in the Queen Anne, a victim of his own studdish behavior as much as anything. Two years later, Motion was back with Miss Temple City, whose fourth-place finish in a loaded Coronation was far more satisfying.

“I went because I had some very game owners, and the fact I had a really good filly that wasn’t a bleeder,” Motion said. “I think having done it before made it more comfortable. I feel like we tried to ride Animal Kingdom in too much of a European style, and I feel like we might have done that again last year with Miss Temple City.”

As an assistant to trainer Jonathan Sheppard, Motion traveled with Flatterer to England, where the great steeplechaser finished second in the National Hurdle.

“Jonathan was adamant that we not ride the horse like everyone else there did, and I think I need to let the horses just be who they are,” Motion said. “I feel like I learn something every year I go.”

Not every horse sails smoothly through the English experience. Trainer Ken McPeek, who sent Hard Buck to finish second in the Group 1 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes in 2004, shipped Daddys Lil Darling for the Epsom Oaks this year. Warming up before the race Friday, she became agitated and ran off with jockey Olivier Peslier, who, for fear of injury, jumped off the filly, who escaped injury but had to be scratched. Even so, McPeek seems certain to be back in England as the American presence continues to expand.

“It’s a challenge going there,” said Motion. “But for me, the challenge is what it’s all about. At the end of the day, that’s why we all get into this.”