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Ward takes a Royal chance
Wesley Ward is embarking on a groundbreaking raid on Royal Ascot this week, when he will be saddling not one, but six horses at Great Britain's most prestigious race meeting.
England, or indeed, Europe, has never seen anything like it, American-trained horses across the Atlantic being about as rare as snow in July. The last American-trained runner at Royal Ascot was the Jeff Mullins horse Mighty Beau, who finished fifth in the King's Stand Stakes in 2005. Before that, you have to go back to 1929, when Reigh Count finished second in the Ascot Gold Cup. The Ken McPeek-trained Hard Buck did finish second in Ascot's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes in 2004, but that race is not a part of Royal Ascot.
The 30-race Royal Meeting, at which Queen Elizabeth and her court will be in attendance on each of its five days, features 17 group races and five listed contests. Ward will have horses in five of the group races and one of the listed events. Five of his runners are 2-year-olds. They will be joined by his 4-year-old turf sprinter Cannonball.
It was an invitation extended by Ascot to the owners of Cannonball, Ken and Sarah Ramsey, to run in either the King's Stand Stakes or the Golden Jubilee Stakes that inspired the Keeneland-based Ward to expand his horizons to an extent that not even Todd Pletcher or Bob Baffert have ever contemplated.
"In accepting the invitation for Cannonball, I saw that there are quite a few 2-year-old stakes at Royal Ascot," Ward said. "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 is not fooling himself about his chances.
"I'll be at a disadvantage," he admitted. "I've never had a runner there before. I've never even been to Ascot before. All five of my 2-year-olds will be racing on turf for the first time, but they've been training well on the Keeneland Polytrack. I breezed them on the River Downs turf and some of them moved up on it."
All six of Ward's world travelers arrived at the Abingdon Place yard of trainer Mike de Kock in Newmarket last Thursday. They worked on the gallops there Monday and again Wednesday under the eye of Ward's assistant Jose Corrales. Kieren Fallon, under suspension until September, has been riding some of them in the morning between stints for Michael Stoute. John Velazquez will ride all of the Ward horses on race day.
Ward himself will arrive at Newmarket on Monday, the day before the Royal Meeting gets under way. On Tuesday he will have two runners at Ascot, which is 70 miles southwest of Newmarket, from which the trainer and his horses will make the daily commute. Honor in Peace, like Cannonball also owned by the Ramseys, will go in the six-furlong, Group 2 Coventry Stakes, a race won in recent years by Henrythenavigator and Fasliyev. The five-length winner of a five-furlong Churchill Downs maiden on May 13, Honor in Peace is a late replacement for Ward's own Grand Times, whom the trainer thought might be ill-suited to Ascot, where all sprint races are run on an undulating straight course.
An hour after the Coventry, Ward will saddle a horse he owns as well as trains. That is Strike the Tiger, winner by 3 3/4 lengths of a Churchill Downs maiden race, in the listed five-furlong Windsor Castle Stakes. On the surface, it seems foolhardy to be trying maiden winners in group company, but most of the English and Irish horses that go in Ascot's juvenile stakes are only maiden winners themselves.
On Wednesday, Ward will have Jealous Again in the five-furlong, Group 2 Queen Mary Stakes. That race was won in 2003 by subsequent English and Irish 1000 Guineas winner Attraction, but Ward has hopes for this Trippi filly.
"She worked really well on the Keeneland turf just before she left for England," he said. "She's improving all the time."
Ward is undaunted by the arduous journey he is asking his youngsters to make. "I've sent horses from south Florida to Del Mar, and they've come up winners. The trip from Keeneland to Ascot isn't that much further."
On Thursday - traditionally Ladies Day at Royal Ascot, when the crowd swells from 50,000 to upward of 70,000 - Ward has Yogaroo in the five-furlong, Group 2 Norfolk Stakes. A speedy sort, Yogaroo won his maiden race by 5 1/2 lengths going 4 1/2 furlongs on the Keeneland Polytrack second time out on April 23, and has been working sharply since then.
Ward will take a break on Friday, when he can enjoy what will probably be the race of the week. The Coronation Stakes will feature the winners of all three major 1000 Guineas in Ghanaati (English), Elusive Wave (French), and Again (Irish).
On Saturday, Cannonball is slated to line up for the six-furlong, Group 1 Golden Jubilee Stakes. A close second in both Keeneland's Shakertown Stakes and Churchill's Turf Sprint in his last two starts, Cannonball is doing so well at present, Ward said that he may have to revise his thinking vis-a-vis the betting angle.
"I'm not a gambling man," he said, "but I see where he's 50-1 over there. He's in peak form, so I'll have to think about changing my philosophy."
In the Golden Jubilee, Cannonball will be facing a top-class international field that includes South African sprint champ J J the Jet Plane, who earned a Racing Post Rating of 126 for his victory last Monday in Windsor's listed six-furlong Leisure Stakes, and Australian speedster Takeover Target, winner of the five-furlong King's Stand in 2006 and second, third, and fourth in the last three Golden Jubilees.
Aegean, who beat Jealous Again by 1 1/4 lengths in winning the Grade 3 Kentucky Juvenile against males at Churchill Downs on April 30, is the most accomplished of Ward's juveniles. She will go in the six-furlong, Group 3 Albany Stakes against her own sex on Saturday, when she will run into the Aidan O'Brien-trained Lillie Langtry, the 2 1/2-length winner on June 1 of the six-furlong, Group 3 Naas Juvenile Fillies Sprint Stakes.
The last American-trained horse to win a flat race in Europe was Fourstars Allstar. That was in 1991 when he landed the Irish 2000 Guineas for trainer Leo O'Brien and rider Mike Smith. The odds are against any of the Ward sextet finding the winner's circle at Royal Ascot, but if it happens it will be cause for an American celebration, one that would hopefully prompt other Yank trainers to try Europe's best on their terms.