A royal ride

July 18, 2009 by  

Selah native becomes first US trainer to win at Royal Ascot ||

YAKIMA, Wash. — Since his days growing up in Selah, Wesley Ward has gone a country mile in thoroughbred racing as a jockey and a trainer. But last month his career — and that of his country — took an historic turn.

Not once, but twice. And nearly a third time.

Strike The Tiger, with John Velazquez aboard, wins The Windsor Castle Stakes during the Royal Ascot meeting on June 16 in Ascot, England. (Horsephotos.com)

Strike The Tiger, with John Velazquez aboard, wins The Windsor Castle Stakes during the Royal Ascot meeting on June 16 in Ascot, England. (Horsephotos.com)

Ward ferried a group of six horses to England’s prestigious Royal Ascot — the British version of the Kentucky Derby — and came away with two winners and a runner-up. When Ward’s 2-year-old Strike The Tiger captured the Windsor Castle Stakes — racing against 33-1 odds — he became the first American-trained horse to win a stakes race at the nearly 300-year-old Ascot meeting.

The next day Ward put filly Jealous Again, another 2-year-old, in the Queen Mary Stakes and she dominated the elite field by five lengths. He then doubled back 4-year-old Cannonball for a second-place finish in the Golden Jubilee Stakes on the final day.

With his historic victories, the 41-year-old Ward, decked out in top hat and tails befitting the regal attire of the event, was greeted by the Queen of England.

“It’s just unbelievable to have this much success. What an honor,” Ward said afterward. “It’s such a great sporting event, and more American owners and trainers should come here and see how big it is.”

Wesley Ward

Wesley Ward (Horsephotos.com)

Ward’s father, Dennis, also a longtime trainer, was there with his son and after traveling the world over he quickly put the Royal Ascot at the top of the list.

“It was the greatest experience of my racing life, and I know it was for Wes, too,” said Dennis from California last week. “I thought I’d seen everything in racing, but this was something else. I know now that if I died tomorrow I really have seen everything.”

Cannonball was the invited entry to the Ascot, and Ward lobbied his other owners to send a group of juveniles to the five-day meet on the venerable turf track. Known for his emphasis on developing speed in younger horses, Ward thought the expense and risk were worth a shot.

“There are few opportunities in America for juveniles to run in stakes, so it seemed like a good idea to try them over there,” said Ward, who trained Aegean and Jealous Again to a 1-2 finish in the Kentucky Juvenile Stakes at Churchill Downs this year. “All five of my 2-year-olds were racing on turf for the first time, and I’d never even been to Ascot before. There were disadvantages.”

But not, the Wards firmly believed, in speed on a relatively short course.

“We’ve always welcomed a challenge,” Dennis said. “Wesley looked at those races over five days and saw a lot of them were 2-year-olds over five furlongs and that’s our style — goodbye starter, hello judge.”

Ward’s hope was that his youngsters could break hard and carry enough early speed to hold off the European-trained competition, which does not typically focus as much on the front end. While Ward’s crew suffered a few disappointments, the strategy for Strike the Tiger and especially Jealous Again were stunningly effective.

“In America, we train for speed, and the reason I went (to Ascot) was I thought the others are trained to go on next year,” he said. “This just proves if you get a horse right on the (right) day it doesn’t matter if they’re racing in Australia or China.”

Ward’s 2-year-olds were clearly ready for big things, but he admits there was some good fortune involved.

“I was really lucky that the filly I had (Jealous Again) was on the top of her game, just breathing fire,” he said. “Also, we didn’t have any rain. I don’t think my horses would have run as well if it had. On firm turf my speedier horses could get ahold of the ground.”

Making such a bold and confident run at the Ascot isn’t surprising for the unconventional Ward, who left the 10-acre family ranch in Selah at the age of 16 to launch his career as a jockey. And what a start it was as he earned the Eclipse Award as top apprentice of 1984, winning 335 races, over $5 million in purses and jockey titles at Belmont, Aqueduct and the Meadowlands.

After retiring from riding in 1989, Ward assisted his dad’s West Coast training operation before embarking on his own career in 1993. Based now in Florida with his wife and three kids, Ward posted 94 wins from 361 starts in 2008 with stable earnings of more than $2.2 million.

Part of that ‘08 season was the rise to 3-year-old prominence of Cannonball, who had drawn the invite from across the pond.

“Everything was perfect. It was the right time to go to England,” said Dennis. “It was thought these horses would be lucky to run fourth or fifth, but I knew what Wesley had. To say you’ve accomplished something that’s never been done before, you never forget that.”

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