LAS VEGAS — Wesley Ward admitted he really did not know what he was getting into when he took his first six horses to compete in England’s biggest races.
“It was completely foreign to me,” he said. “I didn’t even know how many days there were in the race meeting when I first came.”
Eight years later, Ward has gone from that naïve American rookie to a seven-time winner and one of the most respected international trainers who makes the annual pilgrimage to Royal Ascot.
Tens of thousands of people dressed in formal day wear will make the 45-minute train ride west from London to the racecourse that will also welcome the Queen in Her Majesty’s horse-drawn carriage every day from Tuesday to Saturday of next week.
Ask an American what the biggest race is in the U.S., and the instant response is the Kentucky Derby. Ask a British subject what the biggest race is in the U.K., and there is not one single answer. Instead it is all about a five-day happening filled with 30 turf races – including eight Group Ones – worth a total of $8.5 million.
“You don’t understand the magnitude of this five-day festival until you come over here,” Ward said by telephone Thursday afternoon British time. “It is really endeared by generations of people here. Horsemen bring their best to Ascot.”
Ward fits right in. The 49-year-old former jockey and native of southern Washington state has flown 10 horses over with four of them already favored in advance European betting. His sprinter Lady Aurelia is getting the most attention. A winner at Royal Ascot last year in the Group 2 Queen Mary for 2-year-olds, she graduates to being the 7-2 co-favorite to win the Group 1 King’s Stand Stakes over five furlongs Tuesday for fillies and mares 3 and up.
“She’s doing great – wonderful,” Ward said. “She had a very nice breeze over the grass (Wednesday). Ryan Moore was on her and he was ecstatic. He loved her. He said we have her right where we want to be. He went on and on raving about her.”
Last seen winning the Giant’s Causeway Stakes at Keeneland in April, the front-running Lady Aurelia figures to get her toughest competition from Marsha (7-2), an Irish-bred closer that won a Group 3 sprint last month at Newmarket, England.
Ward also sends the colt Bound For Nowhere (12-1) into Friday’s Group 1 Commonwealth Cup, a six-furlong race for 3-year-olds. Undefeated Coolmore colt Caravaggio (5-4), sired in Kentucky by Scat Daddy, is favored.
But as usual most of the rest of Ward’s horses are 2-year-olds, including Happy Like A Fool (9-4), the favorite in Wednesday’s running of the Queen Mary. A four-length winner on the dirt in an April maiden race at Keeneland, the filly by Distorted Humor could bring Ward his third consecutive victory in the race.
Ward also has McErin (4-1), another Keeneland maiden winner that is favored in Thursday’s Grade 2 Norfolk Stakes, a five-furlong race for 2-year-olds.
“I’m known for my 2-year-olds early in the year,” Ward said. “This time of year there is a bit of a lull. If you win in April and May you find there are no real stakes races in the United States for 2-year-olds until August. I saw there was this huge international meeting at Ascot so I thought I would give it a try, and it grew from there.”
This year Ward has no horse with odds longer than 12-1. Contrast that to 2009, when he found his way to Ascot’s winner’s enclosure for the first time with 33-1 long shot Strike The Tiger in the Windsor Castle. That is a Tuesday race in which he has this year’s favorite Nootka Sound (13-2).
“We were huge long shots our first year,” Ward said. “As the years go on I am learning every year all the time more and more. They’re starting to think it was not just luck that first year.”
Ward is not alone among U.S.-based trainers trying to take home Royal Ascot trophies. Mark Casse is back for more after Tepin won last year’s Grade 1 Queen Anne. Todd Pletcher, Bill Mott and British ex-patriot Graham Motion also have brought one long shot each.
But it is Ward who annually commands the most attention of the Americans. And the most respect.
“A lot of people listen to what I have to say, because there is a lot of gambling in Europe,” Ward said. “I want to be honest with them. I want the betting public over here to know what I have, because they will be putting a lot of their money down on these races.”
Ward admitted that what he had to say was not worth much in 2009.
“I was certainly winging it,” he said. “I sort of took it on my own to try and just set sail and see if I could get it done over here. Most times you do that, you fail. But the weather was in my favor that year. It was fast and firm, and our first colt (Strike The Tiger) that won over here went on to be a serious stakes horse back in the States.”
The weather is expected to be unusually dry again next week at Ascot, and Ward said that plays right into the favor of the U.S. imports.
“The ground looks like it is going to be very fast, and that enhances the chances of the American pedigree horses that have speed. That’s the reason they are a favorite in a lot of different races.”
And if they do not disappoint, then that means Ward will have a reunion with Queen Elizabeth II, who traditionally presents the trophies to the big winners every day.
“When I first came over here I went up and really didn’t know what to say to the Queen of England,” Ward said. “But she was so welcoming. She asked me all the questions at first. I spent about 15 to 20 minutes with her, and we were asking questions back and forth. It was unbelievable. She is such a wonderful, fantastic person who has such an interest in racing. That was a moment in my lifetime that I’ll never forget.”
Betting on the Royal Ascot races will be available through a U.S. pool that is separate from the track odds in England. The races are from 9:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. EDT each day from Tuesday to Saturday next week with the Queen’s ceremonial arrival shortly after 9 a.m. For the first time NBCSN will be doing live telecasts from Royal Ascot with coverage starting each day at 8:30 a.m. There will also be live coverage on TVG, which will take a feed from the British channel Racing UK.
Following are the U.S.-based trainers’ entries for Royal Ascot with odds to win posted by bookmakers in Europe:
Gun Runner favored in Stephen Foster
Second to Arrogate in this spring’s Dubai World Cup, Gun Runner comes back as the 4-5 morning-line favorite in open company Saturday in the $500,000 Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.
Trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen and ridden by Florent Geroux, the colt sired by Candy Ride was third in last year’s Kentucky Derby and second in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. Gun Runner finished 2016 by winning the Grade 1 Clark Handicap over the same nine furlongs of dirt as the Foster. He started his 4-year-old year with a 5¾-length victory in the Grade 3 Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn Park before his trip to the Middle East.
“No matter how the race develops he tries his heart out,” Geroux said. “He was beaten in his last start by one of the best horses in the world, so we really can’t hold that against him.”
Carrying 124 pounds, Gun Runner was assigned the top weight Saturday and will start from gate 3. His six rivals include Pletcher’s front-running 4-year-old Stanford (5-1) as well as Bird Song (6-1) and Honorable Duty (6-1), the top two finishers in last month’s Grade 2 Alysheba Stakes in the Churchill Downs slop.
Post time for the Foster is 9:43 p.m. EDT Saturday.
Arrogate is heavy Breeders’ Cup favorite
Already a winner this year of two races worth at least $10 million, world number-one Arrogate is already a heavy favorite to successfully defend his championship this fall in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.
The Westgate book in Las Vegas has shortened the Bob Baffert-trained 4-year-old from 2-1 to his current odds of 6-5. Shaman Ghost, the winner of last month’s Grade 3 Pimlico Special and second to Arrogate in the $12 million Pegasus World Cup in January, has gone from 16-1 down to 7-1. The 12-1 odds for third choice Gun Runner will no doubt be impacted by how he does Saturday in the Foster.
This year’s Breeders’ Cup races will be run at Del Mar, where Arrogate is expected to end his four-month break July 22 in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap, a $200,000 race that will be bumped up to $300,000 if he starts. It will be Arrogate’s first race since he won the $10 million Dubai World Cup in March.
Baffert has also indicated that Arrogate may take aim on the $1 million Grade 1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar on August 19 and then continue to prep in southern California until the Breeders’ Cup.