A decade on from breaking new ground at Royal Ascot, Wesley Ward will return to Berkshire as hungry as ever to get his name on the winner’s board.
It is 10 years since a little-known Washington-born trainer sent a handful of horses across the Atlantic to test their powers at Britain’s showpiece summer meeting – and it did not take him long to make a big impression.
In saddling Strike The Tiger to win the Windsor Castle Stakes on the opening afternoon, Ward became the first American-based trainer in history to enjoy a Royal Ascot winner – a day he will not forget in a hurry.
“It’s hard to believe it’s 10 years ago. The hairs are a little greyer now, but the time just flies by,” said Ward.
“Going over that first year we were hopeful we had good chances, but we were going into the unknown – it was like going into the twilight zone.
“I’d heard about Royal Ascot, but I’d never been and really knew very little about it. It was so far removed from anything we’d done before.
“I just remember looking at the two-year-old races and thinking, ‘two-year-old races in early June – this could really suit us’. I have my horses ready to go early and I thought, ‘let’s give it a go’.”
Strike The Tiger was a relatively unconsidered 33-1 shot for his Ascot assignment – but after adopting the pace-setting role that would become synonymous with Ward’s powerfully-built juveniles over the next few years, he held on by half a length under John Velazquez.
“I didn’t see most of the race. I couldn’t find a place to stand, and when you don’t know Ascot it’s pretty easy to get lost,” Ward added.
“I just remember looking up and seeing him come home in front – and obviously the excitement was there, to train a winner at Royal Ascot.”
It did not take Ward long to double his tally, with Jealous Again blitzing her rivals in the Queen Mary Stakes the very next day.
After enjoying two winners in as many days on his first visit to the Royal meeting, Ward could have been forgiven for thinking he had it cracked – but he did not strike Ascot gold again until 2013, and insists he has never taken his success for granted.
“To come back the following day and have another winner showed it wasn’t a fluke, which was great – but I’ve been involved in this game for long enough to know nothing is easy,” he said.
“I think we’ve learned over the years you first of all need to bring a very sound two-year-old, which is tough to do for starters, and you need that precociousness and obviously ability.
“Every year we just try to omit the mistakes we’ve made in the past, and you learn something new every day.
“You can’t ever think you know it all. Just when you think you have it figured out, horses have a habit of popping you right on the nose!”
Ward has 10 Royal Ascot winners to his credit, with the magnificent filly Lady Aurelia registering back-to-back wins, in the 2016 Queen Mary and the 2017 King’s Stand.
However, the likeable trainer has no hesitation in nominating the 2015 Diamond Jubilee success of Undrafted as the clear highlight – a horse named after and part-owned by NFL star Wes Welker.
Welker was undrafted during the 2004 NFL Draft, but went on to become one of the most productive receivers in the game.
Ward said: “Undrafted’s win was the top, for sure. For him to win a Group One on a big stage under Frankie Dettori, and for the Queen to present me with the trophy with all my family there – it was a day I will cherish for the rest of my life, as will my family.
“The horse is nine now, he’s still racing and has earned over $1.5million. Wes (Welker) is such a great guy who leaves it to me, and it’s almost like I own him myself – apart from he gets all the prize-money, unfortunately!”
While happy to reflect on his success, Ward is fully focussed on this year’s challenge – with a formidable team having already touched down in Britain in readiness for battle.
Lady Pauline was the first to arrive, only to meet first with a shock defeat on her British debut at Ascot last month and then suffer a minor gallops injury which means she will not line up as planned in the Queen Mary.
Instead, hopes will be carried by fellow juveniles Nayibeth, Karak, Chili Petin, Foolish Humor, Maven, Kimari and Anna’s Fast – while older horse Bound For Nowhere, third in last year’s Commonwealth Cup, completes the squad.
Ward said: “I’m very excited about the team. I don’t think I have a Lady Aurelia in there, but as a group they’re very solid.
“They’re all very good two-year-olds who are sound and fit – and when the gates open they’ll be ready to go with no issues.
“They trade places during the morning workouts in terms of which is the best, but I think they’re all very talented.
“If the first one wins, I’ll be going into the rest of the meeting very confident – as long as we get some sunshine.”