06/18/2009 11:00PM

Juveniles can be fine in the fast lane

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NEW YORK - Wesley Ward's historic triumphs at Royal Ascot last week, when he won a pair of races including a Group 2 event with American-based juveniles, provided a fascinating snapshot of the state of 2-year-old racing both here and abroad.

Ward's decision to run some 2-year-olds at Ascot, where no American-based horse had won a race of any kind, was a bold and brilliant piece of handicapping. He is one of the few trainers in America whose primary focus is 2-year-old racing, and it was astounding to learn that he had already won 19 juvenile races here this year before sending his contingent abroad. A few racetrackers joked that this might start a new trend - if you can't get a one-other-than allowance race for a 2-year-old to fill at Churchill or River Downs, you might as well ship in for Group 1 at Royal Ascot to get a race into him.

Despite the inaccurate claims every spring that American horses are pushed too hard too early, early 2-year-old racing is in fact becoming a fading memory in this country. As Mike Watchmaker pointed out in these pages a few days ago, Belmont Park has canceled all four of its summer 2-year-old stakes in the last five years, and there had been only four juvenile maiden races at Belmont this year as of June 15 - compared with 12 just four years ago. Racing officials had to hustle statebreds into open-company races just to round up fields of four to six for those events this year.

Horses used to start their careers much sooner, and not just the precocious ones with likely distance limitations. Consider the 2-year-old debut dates of some of the best horses of the 1970's: Affirmed (May 24), Alydar (June 15), Bold Forbes (March 12), Dearly Precious (April 15), Foolish Pleasure (April 4), Honest Pleasure (June 4), Numbered Account (May 14), Riva Ridge (June 9), Ruffian (May 22), Shuvee (May 8).

Even Secretariat (July 4) and Spectacular Bid (June 30) were early starters by today's standards. Now we don't even have a Grade 1 race for 2-year-olds in this country until the final days of Del Mar and Saratoga in early September.

Ward got the idea to try his 2-year-olds at Ascot only after receiving an invitation to run the older turf sprinter Cannonball in another race. When he then looked at the rest of the Ascot stakes schedule, the light went on.

"In accepting the invitation for Cannonball, I saw that there are quite a few 2-year-old stakes at Royal Ascot," Ward told DRF's Alan Shuback. "I've had 19 2-year-old winners so far this year, and as there are few opportunities in America for juveniles to run in stakes at this time, it seemed like a good idea to try them over there."

Ward's assault on Royal Ascot, of course, was not simply a matter of needing somewhere to run. His hole card was the once-prized quality of early speed, which he correctly guessed would be in short supply in June among European juveniles.

"In America, we train for speed, and the reason I came over here was I thought the others in the race are trained to go on for next year," he told the British press after Jealous Again won the Group 2 Queen Mary by five lengths, leading every step of the way. "I just thought I'd get a jump on the other trainers over here. Your horses are bred to go longer, and ours are bred for speed, and it worked out today."

It was a bit reminiscent of another kind of American assault on the British turf 30 years ago. When Steve Cauthen went to ride in England in 1979, a key to his early success was winning races on the lead while the local riders were all galloping along at the back of the pack. Cauthen was frequently able to gain a tactical advantage by increasing his mounts' early cruising speed only slightly, giving him a head start on the others when the real running began only late in the race.

One of the the late Joe Hirsch's favorite phrases was that "Early speed is always dangerous," but he meant that it made a horse a dangerous rival, not that it put the horse into danger. Some have applauded the decline of American 2-year-old racing as being somehow kinder and gentler to horses, but the evidence is inconclusive if not contradictory. A study by The Jockey Club last year amid the Eight Belles hysteria suggested that some early racing in fact subjects a young horse's bones to a beneficial amount of stress that aids, rather than impedes, proper skeletal development.

Ward's success at Ascot stands on its own as a spectacular achievement, but it might also serve as a wake-up reminder to American horsemen that there's nothing wrong with letting a fast young 2-year-old do what he was born to do: Go to the races.