Donn's Articles » Royal Ascot raiders

Royal Ascot raiders

When Wesley Ward goes to the races, he likes to wear jeans and slippers, hang out in the grandstand and have a couple of beers. The problem with jeans and slippers at Royal Ascot is that they won’t get you very far – they certainly won’t get you past the bowler-hatted bouncers who patrol all entrances to the Royal Enclosure – so the trainer figured he’d wear whatever he had to wear. If it had to be a top hat and tails, then a top hat and tails it would be.

It wasn’t the only first for Ward. He had never been to Ascot before, he had never been racing in England before – heck, he had never even been to England before, but when the Ascot executive invited him to run his four-year-old gelding Cannonball in one or both of the sprints, he figured that, not only would he accept the invitation, but he would also bring some of his two-year-olds over to contest the juvenile races.

It doesn’t happen often that American trainers take horses to race in Europe. The prize money in the States is so good, the racing programme is so comprehensive over there, and the big European races really don’t command the same level of prestige in America as they do here, that there really isn’t any need. Europe simply doesn’t feature on their radar. Before this year, there had never been an American winner at Royal Ascot. Actually, no American-trained horse had ever won a flat race in Britain. The last American to try was the Jeff Mullins-trained Mighty Beau, who came to Royal Ascot at York in 2005 to contest both the King’s Stand Stakes and the Golden Jubilee, finishing fifth in the former and 11th in the latter. Before last Tuesday, we didn’t know of any American juvenile who had run at Royal Ascot. Now we do.

We have got used to foreign raiders at Royal Ascot. Ever since Paul Perry brought Choisir over to blitz his rivals in the King’s Stand Stakes in 2003, the Antipodeans have been making the sprints their own. The Tatling is the only British-trained winner of the King’s Stand in the last seven years. The Aussies have won four, the French one, even the Spanish have chipped in with one. The Golden Jubilee has gone for export just twice in the same period, once to Australia, once to Hong Kong, but there have been a couple of other near misses.

The foreign invasion presents a difficulty for the punting classes. Punters are generally a patriotic breed. They like to back the indigenous horses, the ones they know. How can you determine how good a foreign raider is? How can you equate Scenic Blast’s win in the Group 1 Newmarket Handicap at Flemington in March, on his prep race for Tuesday’s King’s Stand Stakes, with Amour Propre’s win in the Palace House Stakes at Newmarket or with Tax Free’s win in the Prix du Gros-Chene at Chantilly? The fact that Scenic Blast’s compatriots Takeover Target and Miss Andretti had both won Flemington’s Newmarket Handicap en route to winning the King’s Stand was a clue, as was the fact that Australian horses had won three of the previous six renewals of the race, but still the punters weren’t sure, still they allowed Scenic Blast go off at 11/4. If the race had been run in Australia, he would have been an odds-on shot.

In the last 11 years, 26 horses trained outside of Britain have contested the King’s Stand Stakes, Royal Ascot’s quintessential Group 1 speed test. Six have won. Foreigners have won 55% of the renewals from a mere smattering of representatives. If you had bet €1 on every foreign runner in the race in that period, you would be showing a net profit of €55.75. We are getting better at facing up to the reality that the Australian sprinters are simply faster than the British ones – Choisir was a 25/1 shot when Johnny Murtagh took him and his eye-shield down the rail and into the record books in 2003, Takeover Target was only 7/1 when he won in 2006 – but still the raiders remain under-rated.

Australians are one thing, to be treated seriously now, but Americans are quite another. Not much was known about Wesley Ward before Strike The Tiger went behind the stalls for the Windsor Castle Stakes on Tuesday. If he was presented in the media at all, he was presented as a novelty act, some Californian who was bringing a pallet-load of juveniles over. If we had dug a little deeper, however, we would have discovered that he was a consummate horseman, the son of a trainer, the grandson of a blacksmith, who had received an Eclipse Award in 1984 as an outstanding apprentice rider. We would have known that he rode for Charlie Whittingham, and that he rode 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand to win his maiden. More than that, we would have found out that he was a top class trainer, particularly of two-year-olds, the Richard Hannon of California, who wallowed in a strike rate of almost 50% for his speedball juveniles.

We couldn’t really have known about Strike The Tiger. Ward bred him and broke him himself, and on his only racecourse start before the Windsor Castle, he had won a maiden claiming stakes race over four and a half furlongs at Churchill Downs on a track that was described as sloppy. We didn’t know how he would handle turf, we didn’t even know if he would stay five furlongs. He did. He burst from the gates under rider John Valazquez’s American crouch, led his field over towards the near side, and clung on to win by a neck. The last European race that was won by an American-trained horse was the 1991 Irish 2000 Guineas, which was won by Fourstars Allstar, trained by Leo O’Brien, father-in-law of John Valazquez.

“It proves American horses can come here and win,” said Ward afterwards. “I think it’s going to open the doors.”

It did, but probably not as Ward meant. Punters began to cotton on. Ward’s filly, Jealous Again, who had been available at 33/1 for Wednesday’s Queen Mary, was suddenly very popular. 10/1 was the best you could get on Wednesday morning, 13/2 by the time the stalls opened, and 1/100 as Valazquez crouched lower passing the furlong pole and the filly pulled clear. The rider didn’t have to do much more than sit and point. Some of her rivals may be better three-year-olds, but this filly was trained to the minute to jump and run for her life as a two-year-old, by a man who knows how to train two-year-olds to jump and run for their lives.

It was the second American victory at Royal Ascot in two days, the second in 200 years. Wesley Ward may have to hold on to that top hat.

© The Sunday Times, 21st June 2009