Wesley Ward: ‘Royal Ascot is what I live for’
By Bob Kieckhefer, special to TurfTalk360.com
The Royal Ascot meeting isn’t wasting any time getting out of the gate this year.
Shortly after the procession of Royal carriages deposits Her Majesty and party in the Royal Enclosure on Tuesday, some equine royalty will take the course for the first of eight Group 1 events spread through five days of international competition surrounded by British pomp.
“Mr. Casse’s success with Tepin last year got us thinking that it is possible to come here and win” — Riley Mott, son of trainer Bill Mott, with his first Royal Ascot starter in Long On Value, who runs in the Diamond Jubilee
The “international” quality of this year’s Royal meeting has been under some scrutiny this year as the only long-distance raiders are Americans. Trainer Bill Mott sends out his first-ever Royal Ascot starter and Todd Pletcher will compete for the second time, joining veteran U.S. conditioners Wesley Ward and Graham Motion.
All the quibbling will be forgotten as top hats and flowered bonnets turn to the start of the first race — the 1-mile Queen Anne Stakes (G1), featuring the fearsome Godolphin standard-bearer Ribchester, Qatar Racing’s Lightning Spear and some other proven milers against Americans Miss Temple City and American Patriot.
From there, the hits just keep on coming with new names to be added to winners’ rosters already replete with a “Who’s Who” of Thoroughbred history. All the while, the chaos of British politics is forgotten for a few moments, giving way to order and tradition dating back centuries.
Here’s a quick day-to-day look at the festivities. Final fields are not set until closer to race days, so some changes are likely. NBC Sports Network will have daily coverage, sponsored by Lane’s End Farm of Versailles, Ky., with fashion highlights featured on the Today Show on NBC.
Three Group 1 events get Royal Ascot 2017 off to a flying start.
The Queen Anne is a straight mile and Ribchester, a 4-year-old Iffraaj colt, is a solid favorite with the British bookmakers. He’s had two runs this year, finishing third in the Dubai Turf (G1) at Meydan on World Cup night, then capturing the Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes (G1) at Newbury on May 10. In the latter, he was 3 3/4 lengths ahead of runner-up Lightning Spear, and that 6-year-old son of Pivotal is the early second favorite — an indication of the esteem in which Ribchester is held.
The American contingent is not well-fancied in this despite some impressive credentials and despite Tepin’s victory in last year’s edition.
Miss Temple City beat males in Keeneland’s two Grade 1 mile turf stakes last year while avoiding Tepin. Trainer Graham Motion brings her back to Ascot for a third straight year. She was fourth in the Coronation Stakes (G1) two years ago and fourth again in the Duke of Cambridge Stakes (G2) last year. This year’s campaign has been compromised by the weather as Motion scratched Miss Temple City from two previous starts when the turf came up soggy. As a result, she comes to this race purely off works.
Miss Temple City is by Temple City, a son of Dynaformer. Temple City stands at Spendthrift Farm.
Pletcher tackles the top hat-and-tails crowd with American Patriot, a 4-year-old WinStar Farm homebred son of Claiborne Farm’s super-stallion War Front. American Patriot comes to Ascot off a dramatic off-the-pace victory in the Makers 46 Mile (G1) at Keeneland — a race won a year earlier by Miss Temple City.
“That was an absolutely amazing win,” Pletcher assistant Ginny DePasquale said of the Makers 46. “We did not think we were going to win until the last few strides when he made up a lot of ground. Todd and the owner came up with the Royal Ascot plan after American Patriot ran the way he did, coming from off the pace, European style.”
Pletcher brought two horses to Royal Ascot six years ago, finishing 11th in the Coronation Stakes (G1) with More Than Real and 12th in the King’s Stand (G1) with Bridgetown. “We hope to do a little better than we did with our runners before,” Pletcher said upon entering American Patriot. “But it was still a great experience.”
The King’s Stand Stakes, just two races after the Queen Anne, is one of two Group 1 sprints at the meeting, both legs of the Global Sprint Challenge. This 5-furlong dash features a star in Ward’s Royal Ascot contingent — Stonestreet Stables’ Lady Aurelia.
Lady Aurelia won last year’s Queen Mary Stakes (G2) in just her second career start, then went on to victory in the Darley Prix Morny (G1) at Deauville two months later. As she did last year, Lady Aurelia prepped with a win at Keeneland before shipping across the pond.
Lady Aurelia is a daughter of Scat Daddy, who died at Ashford Stud in 2015 after siring some impactful progeny including Royal Ascot winners Acapuco and No Nay Never.
“Royal Ascot is what I live for,” Ward said during Thursday’s media preview morning. He already has seven Royal Ascot winners dating back to 2009, despite starting from scratch on the concept.
“When I first came over for Royal Ascot, it was a bit of an unknown – not knowing the races that well,” he said. “I now have a better education about each individual race and what type of horse that I can bring over to fit them.”
Still, the King’s Stand is a tough assignment with some hard-knocking competitors from an in-form and dangerous Marsha, a Group 1 winner in France last fall, to 8-year-old Goldream and 11-year-old Medicean Man, who finished 1-2 in the 2015 King’s Stand.
The St James’s Palace Stakes for 3-year-olds at 1 mile is the final top-level event of the day and the one that has the locals salivating. Churchill, a Galileo colt representing the Coolmore connections from Ireland, faces off with Barney Roy, a Godolphin runner by Excelebration (thus, a grandson of the omnipresent Galileo).
Churchill has won seven straight races and, despite a loss in his career opener, is seen as something of a second coming of Frankel, who won this race in 2011 amid his undefeated career. Barney Roy has two wins and a second from three starts with the second behind Churchill in the Qipco 2000 Guineas in his last outing.
To further season the stew, Godolphin has entered Thunder Snow, the Helmet colt whose victory in the UAE Derby (G1) was eclipsed (pun intended) by his antics at the start of the Kentucky Derby which resulted in a DNF. Since then, Thunder Snow returned to the races in the Tattersalls Irish 2000 Guineas, wherein he behaved and finished second — behind Churchill.
Tuesday also has a pair of 2-year-old races, the Coventry Stakes (G2) at 6 furlongs and the listed Windsor Castle Stakes at 5 panels. Ward has the well-regarded Arawak in the Coventry off a first-out win in an off-the-turf event at Belmont Park. Arawak is by Uncle Mo, a rising star at Ashford Stud who already has produced a Group 2 winner in Australia. Ward also entered two — Nootka Sound and Elizabeth Darcy — in the Windsor Castle and they are among the antepost favorites.
The Prince of Wales’s Stakes at 1 1/2 miles is the feature of Day Two and quite a feature it is with Highland Reel, Jack Hobbs and Ulysses having primary claims.
Highland Reel, a 5-year-old son of Galileo, is the defending champion in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf. He misfired on the yielding turf at Meydan in his season opener but returned to form on good ground at Epsom earlier this month, winning the Coronation Cup (G1). He faces tougher here.
Jack Hobbs, who totes the Godolphin blue, won that race in Dubai where Highland Reel faded badly. He has not run since that March 29 event, but trainer John Gosden is likely to have the 5-year-old son of Halling ready to roll.
Ulysses, a Flaxman Stable homebred son of Galileo out of the Kingmambo mare Light Shift, was fourth in the Breeders’ Cup last fall at Santa Anita but came back to win his season debut in a Group 3 event at Sandown.
There’s plenty of value throughout the field. My Dream Boat, who upset the 2016 Prince of Wales’s, is generally available at about the same odds as last year’s 16-1.
The Queen Mary Stakes (G2), a 5-furlongs event for 2-year-old fillies, features another pair of Ward youngsters. Happy Like a Fool, a daughter of the WinStar Farm stallion Distorted Humor, won at first asking at Keeneland. Fairyland, by Scat Daddy, ditto. So strong is Ward’s reputation for bringing likely juveniles to the Royal meeting that the two could be the favorites in a largely untested field.
The Duke of Cambridge Stakes (G2) finds 4-year-olds and up going 1 mile. Miss Temple City was cross-entered in this event, which would have been an easier assignment by far than the Queen Anne.
The Jersey Stakes (G3) kicks off the day with another Godolphin runner, Dream Castle, a son of Frankel, as the likely favorite going 7 furlongs.
There’s only one Group 1 event on “hump day” at the Royal meeting but punters don’t get a break as the two Group 2 events are pips.
The Norfolk Stakes (G2) for 2-year-old fillies has yet another of Ward’s promising young ones in McErin. She won her career debut at Keeneland — familiar theme, wot? — but then finished third in the Kentucky Juvenile at Churchill Downs, beaten just a neck and a nose. Despite, that, she and the Aidan O’Brien-trained Declarationofpeace are the antepost favorites here. McErin is by Trappe Shot, a son of Tapit standing at Claiborne Farm.
The Ribblesdale Stakes (G2) is a 1-mile event for 3-year-old fillies. With an extra week separating this year’s Oaks from the Royal meeting, we find Alluringly, the Fastnet Rock filly who was third at Epsom, back for another try and the antepost favorite going just two-thirds the Oaks distance. Rhododendron, who finished second as the favorite in the Oaks, is running in Sunday’s French Oaks rather than make an Ascot appearance. Also prominent here are Mori, a Juddmonte Farms homebred filly by Frankel who steps up in class for trainer Sir Michael Stoute after two wins, and Coronet, a Denford Stud homebred daughter of Dubawi who was fifth in the Oaks.
The Gold Cup (G1) is the one the locals want most on Thursday. The Queen’s successes at Royal Ascot date back to 1953 when Choir Boy won the Royal Hunt Cup. But no success pleased Her Majesty more than Estimate’s victory in the Gold Cup in 2013, backing up that one’s win a year earlier in the Queen’s Vase. Last year’s winner, Order Of St George, is odds-on with some bookmakers to produce a repeat victory this time around. The 5-year-old son of Galileo, from the Gone West mare Another Storm, is trained by Aidan O’Brien for the Coolmore connections.
The day also includes the Hampton Court Stakes (G3) for 3-year-olds, with some refugees from the Derby trail, the Britannia Handicap and the King George V Handicap.
The Coronation Stakes (G1) for 3-year-old fillies finds the Mark Casse-trained La Coronel in amongst some pretty tough customers. Winter, a Galileo filly who swept the English and Irish 2000 Guineas in her last two starts, is the general odds-on favorite to make it three wins in a row. Precieuse, winner of the French 1000 Guineas (G1), was supplemented to this race, too. La Coronel has already won the Appalachian Stakes (G1) at Keeneland and the Edgewood (G3) at Keeneland this year. But she finds a new depth here. La Coronel is by Colonel John, the former WinStar Farm stallion who currently stands in South Korea.
The Commonwealth Cup (G1) for 3-year-old sprinters is headed by an Aidan O’Brien team featuring the unbeaten Caravaggio, another by the late Scat Daddy. Harry Angel, a prospective star for Godolphin, also is in here as is another Ward trainee, Bound For Nowhere. The latter has won both his starts, on the Turfway Park all-weather and the Keeneland turf. He’s by The Factor, a denizen of Lane’s End who has produced some excellent runners in his first two crops including Noted and Quoted and Illinois Derby (G3) winner Multiplier.
Day four also includes the Group 2 Queen’s Vase at 1 3/4 miles, the Group 2 King Edward VII at 1 1/2 miles and the Group 3 Albany Stakes for 2-year-olds at 6 furlongs. Fairyland and Princess Peggy were entered to represent Ward’s stable in the latter.
The Diamond Jubilee Stakes (G1) at 6 furlongs winds up the Group 1 festivities for this year’s Royal meeting. Bill Mott, whose international experience runs back to Cigar’s victory in the inaugural Dubai World Cup, will send out his first Royal Ascot runner, Long On Value, who was second in the Al Quoz Sprint on World Cup night this year.
“The fact that he was able to compete so well in Dubai opened up the door to come here, said Riley Mott, the trainer’s son and assistant. “Mr. Ward has been a fixture at Royal Ascot for several years. For other people it was always a bit of a myth to come over here and compete. I think Mr. Casse’s success with Tepin last year got us thinking that it is possible to come here and win,” the younger Mott added.
Supporting that is the Group 2 Hardwicke Stakes at 1 1/4 miles.