For more than a decade, American trainer Wesley Ward has been bringing over young sprinters who conquer Europe’s best at the Royal meeting. Rory Fairfax asks him how he does it.
What makes Royal Ascot such a special place for you? Describe the emotions of your first runner.
It was a little overwhelming the first time I ran a horse at Royal Ascot. That was quite some time ago – 11 years ago! Then to come back and win the Queen Mary the next day… it didn’t really sink in how big a meeting that was until later on. It was a great accomplishment and opened up the doors for a lot of American horsemen, owners and trainers who didn’t think something like that could be done.
For years and years, the Europeans had been coming over and dominating the bigger turf races, like the Arlington Million and the Breeders’ Cup. All the significant turf races in the States. Nobody thought you could go into the lions’ den and actually win. Everybody in my team works so hard, from a low-level claiming race at a small track to Royal Ascot and the Breeders’ Cup. Now plenty more American owners and trainers are striving to come over year after year. It’s on a lot of the owners’ bucket lists.
Do you see yourself as a bit of a trailblazer for American trainers and jockeys to come over and try to crack Royal Ascot?
Now? Yes. At the time I was just thinking about getting it done. Looking back, I had everything in my favour the first year I went there. Last year, with all the rain, it was only one of my fillies who stepped up to run a big race [Kimari finished second in the Queen Mary]; the rest of the horses didn’t perform very well. The first year I went there, it was a record heat. That really helped my horses.
You’ve now won an incredible 10 races at Royal Ascot. To what do you attribute your success there?
I usually have a lot of success in the first part of the year with the two-year-olds. I start early, and they are very well schooled and educated. When I lead them over, a lot of the big-name two-year-olds, as it would be in England, really come out later in the summer as they are developing, whereas I will focus on the speedier-type-physique two-year-olds that’ll come out earlier in the year. I can utilise that God-given talent they have physically to get them to the stage where mentally, when the gates open, mine are gone. In a short race, if you’ve got a couple of lengths’ head-start, along with everything else that’s involved, it’s a big advantage.
That brings back fond memories of Lady Aurelia in 2016, one of the most electric performances you’ll see at Royal Ascot. Were you expecting her to be so much better than her rivals?
I was that day, not to sound cocky. If you or anybody were to see her breezes from her maiden win going into the Queen Mary, you’d say there was no way she was going to get beat. It was like putting a fish into water: you put her on that grass and she was just gone, breathing different air to the other horses I was putting her against.
You had Frankie on board that day and have forged a strong relationship with him on your Royal Ascot journey. Talk us through when you first met him and how he became your jockey.
I didn’t really know him at all when I first started going to Ascot. My son, Riley, who has been coming over with me since he was 10 years old, has read about him and was enamoured by him. One day we went into the jockeys’ room early… we had a conversation with him for the first time. He was thinking that was going to be his last year of riding – he just thought he wasn’t in favour any more – so I invited him to come to Saratoga. The American fans got a taste of him and his flying dismount after a few winners. From that point on, he started riding for me. We won at the Breeders’ Cup together on Hootenanny that year, and in the years that followed he won on Undrafted in the Diamond Jubilee, and then with Lady Aurelia. We’ve had a fantastic roll with him.
What do you think it is that makes Frankie Dettori so special?
You don’t get there unless you’re great. Like all the great sports athletes around the world, there’s a certain unique quality that he has. When you get him on the back of a horse, he has an X factor. The horses run for certain guys and they don’t run as fast for others. They want to do it; they want to run for him. It is a bit like race car driving, too: he knows when to step on the pedal and when to ease back. He has a sense of pace and a sense for the track. He has that experience. He’s just a master on top of everything else. I have Italian stable lads who come through America and work for me from time to time. They tell me when Frankie comes over he leaves all his tack for them. That goes without saying. He doesn’t do that to make him look better; that’s the type of guy he is. He’s a fantastic guy and has always been a great friend.
There’s been a lot of debate, in these extraordinary circumstances, about whether the two-year-old races should go ahead. Where do you stand on that? Are you bringing any over?
I intend to bring horses over. We’ll see how it goes. We are moving forward. Unfortunately, the way I’ve been training these two-year-olds for years and years has altered as well. We halted racing over here. I had horses up here in Kentucky that we didn’t have races for, so I shifted them all the way down to Florida. You’re going from cold up north to hot, hot, hot weather. The horses haven’t been running the way they have historically for me in the past. My better ones have just started to come out recently, so it’s hard to judge which ones are Royal Ascot quality. It costs a lot of money to bring them over there. You want to make sure you pick the right ones.
Have you ever had a bet on any of your horses at Ascot?
I’m not a bettor. Early on in my career, you like to have a bet on your own horses. I got to the stage where I want to lead them over when they’re at their best. Every time I lead one over now, I’m trying to win. They are put in spots where they can win. Before, you’d have a horse that was maybe overmatched in a race and you wouldn’t like him looking at the competition. Now I’ve found it a lot easier as a trainer just to focus on winning.
How does a day at Royal Ascot compare to a big day in America?
A day at Royal Ascot supersedes everything in racing. To actually win Group One races at Royal Ascot has been phenomenal, especially with all of my children there. Some of the greatest days of my life.