Ward and his first Lady fly in for showdown with British leaders
Aurelia heads charge in US trainer's 'best team ever'
In the entirely possible event that Lady Aurelia blitzes her field in the King's Stand Stakes next Tuesday, there will be a delirious bunch of Americans in the winner's enclosure and an ecstatic Italian in the saddle. One man, however, may be forgiven if his reaction to the victory is a shade more subdued.
Crack American Johnny Velazquez rode the flying filly on her reappearance win at Keeneland in April and no doubt entertained hopes that he might be given the chance to accompany her in her bid for a second Royal Ascot success. The fact that he was overlooked for the ride might have been easier to bear had cold tactical logic been the clinching factor in the decision, but trainer Wesley Ward can offer no such crumbs of comfort.
"Understandably a lot of the jockeys who ride for me in the States are wanting to come over," smiles the effervescent Californian, "so we had a discussion over dinner the night Lady Aurelia won her comeback race, me and her owners, Peter Leidel, George Bolton and Barbara Banke, as to which of the two should ride the filly, Johnny or Frankie Dettori.
"We laid down all the scenarios, all the positives on both sides, the weight issues, the course experience, the loyalties, and ultimately it came down to if we happened to be so lucky as to win the King's Stand with a three-year-old filly, which of the two jockeys would we have a better time with at the dinner party – and that's the reason Frankie got the call!"
If it sounds a frivolous (if admirable) way of making a booking, rest assured 49-year-old Ward, an Eclipse Award-winning apprentice jockey himself, can back it up with rather more empirical evidence, partly concerning Dettori's Queen Mary and Prix Morny wins on Lady Aurelia last season, but more specifically the Diamond Jubilee Stakes success of Undrafted two years ago, which still leaves the trainer clutching for adequate words of gratitude.
"Without Frankie I don't win the race with Undrafted," he says with simple humility. "I don't think Billy Shoemaker on his best day would have rode the race Frankie did to win the Diamond Jubilee, so when you have a man like him open, when you've got the best there is, why would you go to the expense of bringing someone over?"
Velazquez may yet get his wish to partner some of the Ward squad, who boarded the plane last Monday for their holding camp in Newmarket – where they will soon to be joined by their Californian conditioner – ready to continue their preparation both in HQ and on the hallowed Berkshire turf. And what a squad it looks set to be, if the reality is even half as exciting as Ward's enthusiasm would have us believe.
"I think it's the strongest team I've ever brought over," he says, displaying a refreshingly un-English lack of restraint. "I'm getting a higher quality of horse to bring over, the owners are giving me a greater depth of horses to develop, and as a result I'm able to bring the best group I've ever put together for the meeting."
Where once Washington-born Ward gatecrashed the world’s most illustrious garden party like a transatlantic Fagin with a band of cheap and cheerful pickpockets, now he has big bucks behind him – including some of Coolmore's – but this year's raiding party is still informed by the same spirit of adventure, the same love of speed and more speed, that characterised the stunning success of Strike The Tiger at 33-1 in the 2009 Windsor Castle, followed the next day by the Queen Mary romp of Jealous Again.
Ward was off the mark on his first visit, and any thoughts that this was a flash in the pan, an impulsive jaunt rewarded for its audacity, were dispelled by the winning efforts of No Nay Never, Hootenanny, Undrafted and Acapulco. The victories were achieved with varying levels of surprise but none of them was unplanned.
"The first year was 2009 but I was looking at it from an earlier stage than that," explains Ward. "It's a long way home if you lose and there's so much build-up that it's a big let-down if you don't do well, so you don't go over there lightly, but I had the horses, I thought I could do some damage and I wanted to give it a try.
"It's early in the season and a lot of your better younger horses are still babies, so I knew if I could bring a horse who would like the turf, could show the speed and the talent straight away, I had a chance, so that's what I brought over."
What a stir those Yankee speedballs caused when they arrived in the Ascot paddock looking twice the size and with twice the attitude of their domestic counterparts. "Like looking at a line of bulldogs," is how Ward still describes the view in his barns at home, and some of his early challengers certainly had too much bite for the opposition.
"The British horses get better as they get older, whereas the American breed is all about pace and precociousness in two-year-olds," he explains, "so you're going to have a bigger, stronger physique that the European horses may develop but don't have yet. I decided to come over and try that out, and it was successful, but it was a nervous time dipping my toe in the water.
"I'd never been to Royal Ascot and the first day there was a lot of excitement, everybody dressed to the nines, Queen Elizabeth was there, horses coming from all over the world, and I had to tell myself it was still just a horserace. Then Cannonball finished sixth in the King's Stand and I said 'uh-oh, maybe it's not just a horserace, maybe I'm in trouble'."
The key to the rest of that first week and the future of Ward's love affair with Ascot was the weather. The barometer started out fair and stayed put, which came as no small relief.
"I was lucky in getting the fast ground," he admits, "because had it been soft I probably wouldn't have come back. I'd have run anyway, not knowing – because at home we take races off the soft turf, so you don't get a chance to find out – and they'd have run dismal and that would have been it. If the stars hadn't aligned, had it rained all week, that would most likely have been that.
"Now I keep coming back because there's nothing like Royal Ascot, and I'm proud to have encouraged more American trainers to come over and give it a try, which is something we were afraid of in the past – coming all this way to run badly.
"Mark Casse opened things up a little more with Tepin last year and personally I'm always looking for ways to improve for the following year, to keep learning as you do when you travel. I always try to talk to as many people, ask as many questions as I can of the great trainers, listen to as many of the stories that are told at every racetrack around the world, and gain experience for the future."
The near future holds a week of excitement for the likeable father of three, despite the prospect of another testing time in a top hat. His team will be the subject of mass fascination, but none will be more eagerly anticipated than Lady Aurelia on the opening day, and if Ward is to be believed, the trainers of her King's Stand rivals should start quaking in their boots well in advance of race day, now that the disappointment of her Cheveley Park flop has been overtaken by the return of her early brilliance.
"Her Ascot win last year was something special, and when we scoped her and found she'd bled at Newmarket, at least it gave us a reason that validated her loss. We gave her plenty of time to recover and she had a wonderful comeback, really explosive.
"Since then her work just got better and better and better. She's doing fantastic now, scoping clean with no Lasix, no medication at all, all natural because that's the way she'll run at Ascot. She's clean as a whistle and I'm really, really excited, very, very confident."
Even factoring in Ward's natural enthusiasm, it's a ringing endorsement of one of the most exciting juveniles seen at the royal meeting in donkey's years. She remains the living embodiment of her trainer's modus operandi and the culmination of his dreams, if not the endgame for his career.
"I try to spend as much time as I can with the babies every day," he says of his winter work in Florida. "You correct their shortcomings, try to keep them heading in the right direction very much as you would with a young child. If something seems not quite right, I like to get on them and feel it rather than just see it.
"I do like the young horses and I do like fast horses but as I'm getting older, I feel I'd like to take the success I've had and maybe convince the clients that I have and future clients to give me horses who can stretch out a little longer.
"But when you look down the shed row at the moment and see the physiques of the individuals I train, they aren't going to go two miles, so you can only do what you can do with what you have."
For the time being, what Ward has may well be enough to treat his many British fans to another ray of Californian sunshine on the royal turf.
The rest of Ward’s royal team
Early on he breezed much better on the turf than on the dirt. They took his race at Belmont off the soft turf and on to the dirt and he still won by many lengths, but to me he's much better on the grass so we've decided to bring him over. I think he's a big horse with a big chance.
Elizabeth Darcy and Nootka Sound
Windsor Castle Stakes
From the same stable and both very good, but we'll go with one and send the other for a Group 3 in France. We'll decide which way to go next week.
Happy Like A Fool
A big, talented filly blessed with great natural speed and a beautiful mind. Anything you want to do with her you can and when they say go, she'll be gone. Another exciting runner.
Con Te Partiro
I just worked her with Undrafted and she outworked him by a couple of lengths. He was waiting his turn to go and got a little hot which maybe compromised him a little bit, but take nothing away from her because that was about as beautiful a work as you could ever see. She shows speed in the mornings but when the gates open in the afternoon she'll drop back to last and come with one big charge – and I've only had a few horses who will train that way.
He's a little bit of a handful so I'm sending his regular rider over, an old cowboy guy that's been with me for 27 years. He's kind of a 'studdy' colt but when he gets on the racetrack he's always been very professional. The pre-saddling thing will be a worry but he's beautiful to look at and has an action that's all turf, despite a pedigree that's all dirt. He's training beautifully.
Bound For Nowhere
A big colt with a long stride, he's been working with Lady Aurelia and giving her all she can handle. In his second run at Keeneland he was ridden with great confidence by Julio Garcia and when he eased him out on the turn he just exploded. He ran a big figure that day and it really improved him, so much so that on one of Lady Aurelia's comeback works he was better than her and I ended up putting her on the lead because she couldn't get by him. He's training good and although he lacks experience I really believe he’s got the talent to do it.
She'll be in the Queen Mary as well and the Coolmore team will decide where to go. She’s a big, long-striding filly who's blessed with speed but looks like she wants to go a little further. She's training awesome and I look forward to a big run from her.
She's another who's better on the turf than on the dirt, but not as good as Fairyland – and I've told that to the owners. It's a horserace though, and you never know what's going to happen.
The trainer's summary
Until I see the line-ups I can only say that when everybody's putting their money down over there, they should know I'm bringing my A-game to the table. They're all flawless, sound, fit as a fiddle, extremely talented and given fast ground, which is the key, they're all going to run big.