FeaturedGary West

British racing: Yankees are coming! Yankees are coming!

By Gary West, for TurfTalk360.com

La Coronel edges stablemate Dream Dancing in Churchill Downs' Edgewood.
John Oxley’s La Coronel wins Churchill Downs’ Edgewood Stakes on the Kentucky Oaks undercard. Next up is Royal Ascot’s Coronation Stakes. Coady Photography photos

In 1962, a former bookmaker from Cleveland caused a brouhaha when he traveled to Paris with a diminutive racehorse and, somewhat shockingly, the boldly stated goal of winning the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Asked why they were there, Jack Price said he just figured his horse liked France. That was the only possible conclusion, he joked, since Carry Back had run better in the Monmouth Handicap on Bastille Day than in the Suburban on the Fourth of July. Price said he had nothing to lose and it was all great for international racing, and the French press were on him like powdered sugar on a beignet.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the American press reported events with all the skepticism that might have been due an excursion to the moon. Sports Illustrated devoted a series of articles to the French adventures of Price and his Kentucky Derby winner. One of the stories appeared under a diagnostic headline that insisted “Jack Price Must Be Crazy.”

And so he appeared, especially to those unaware of racing’s history. Such things weren’t done in those days, not in the 1960s. Why would an American send to Europe a perfectly good stakes horse that could just as easily race at Belmont Park or Santa Anita or Churchill Downs, and quite possibly for more money? Factor in the cost of travel along with the change to a right-handed, undulating course and a person would have to be, yes, crazy to try such a thing.

But if not crazy, then perhaps brazenly, courageously, supremely and admirably sporting. It’s boringly easy to run a 3-5 favorite against overmatched rivals in a race that almost certainly will lead to collective smiles and flowing champagne. But to travel halfway around the world into unfamiliar circumstances and then to meet unknown challenges head-on — now, that’s sporting. And that’s exactly what more and more American horsemen seem willing — no, eager — to do.

Even in America, owners and trainers have marked the five days, June 20 through June 24, of The Royal Meeting at Ascot on their calendars. No fewer than six trainers based in the United States have Ascot plans for no fewer than eight horses. Another is a possibility for Epsom Downs. And so far nobody has questioned anybody’s sanity. Far from crazy, these transatlantic ambitions reverberate with history.

Abel Tasman edges Daddys Lil Darling in Kentucky Oaks.
Daddys Lil Darling finishes a good second to Abel Tasman in the Longines Kentucky Oaks May 5 at Churchill Downs. Coady Photography

“If it were all about the money,” said trainer Mark Casse, who plans to take La Coronel, winner of Churchill Downs’ recent Edgewood Stakes, to Ascot, “you wouldn’t go.” But, of course, racing never has been all about the money, at least not for the sporting.

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Carry Back, who was the most famous racehorse in America and perhaps the world at the time, finished 10th in the ’62 Arc. Four years later, the champion Tom Rolfe launched a transatlantic invasion, but with similar results. He was a distant sixth at Longchamp. Still, despite those high-profile disappointments, there remained an allure, and in 1983 Aaron Jones sent his Lemhi Gold, America’s reigning champion older horse, to Europe for a campaign intended to culminate in the Arc.

From the beginning, it didn’t go well. In his European debut, in the Prix Dollar, Lemhi Gold faded to last. Five weeks later, at Saint-Cloud, he hinted at grand possibilities by finishing fourth behind Diamond Shoal, who would go on to earn championship honors. But then Lemhi Gold proved the hint false by finishing a distant eighth in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot. He never raced again.

El Senor and Fire The Groom crossed the Atlantic in 1991, but for little reward. Owned and trained by William Wright, El Senor ran ninth at Longchamp, and Fire The Groom, the Beverly D winner trained by Bill Shoemaker, finished fourth.

But such results represent a small sample and belie a long history. Since the 19th century, American horses have been traveling to Europe and racing there successfully. Parole, for example, who was regarded as the best American juvenile in 1875, traveled to England and won the 1879 Newmarket Stakes. In 1880, one of the nation’s foremost horsemen, James R. Keene, loaded 13 horses onto a transatlantic steamer bound for England. Among them was a horse named for his son. Foxhall would win four major stakes in Europe, including the Grand Prix de Paris, then France’s most significant race, and the Ascot Gold Cup. A proposed match race between Foxhall and the 1881 winner of the Epsom Derby, Iroquois, never materialized, however. It would have provided the English with a strange if humbling spectacle, for at that moment, the country’s two best horses were both American. Iroquois was bred in Pennsylvania. Americans were so successful in England that after Foxhall Keene’s Cap and Bells II won the 1901 Epsom Oaks, a London newspaper complained, “Another of Britain’s great racing trophies has been captured by an American.”

In 1908, after New York passed the Hart-Agnew Law, which banned betting on horses in the state, Harry Payne Whitney sent a young colt by Broomstick to England. The colt won seven of his 23 races there, including the Trial Stakes and the Victoria Cup. When Whitney brought his horse home, the Jockey Club added a Roman numeral to his name to distinguish him from the mare Whisk Broom. And so Whisk Broom II won the 1913 Metropolitan Handicap in his American debut and went on to become the first horse to sweep what became known as New York’s Handicap Triple Crown (Metropolitan, Suburban and Brooklyn Handicaps). And, perhaps most famously, the third Triple Crown winner, Omaha, traveled to England for his 1936 campaign. He raced only four times, but raced with distinction, winning the Victor Wild Stakes and the Queen’s Plate and finishing second by a nose in the Ascot Gold Cup and second by a neck under 134 pounds in the Princess of Wales Stakes.

Yes, American horses have a long history of European success. In fact, Lammtarra and Mill Reef, the only two horses ever to sweep the Epsom Derby, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes and the Arc, were both bred in America, Lammtarra in Kentucky and Mill Reef in Virginia.

And so Jack Price was actually more traditional than crazy in his European aspirations, although he probably would have been loath to admit it; and Carry Back’s performance was probably more encouraging than not, for he finished fewer than six lengths behind the Arc winner, Soltikoff, in a 24-horse field.

The American trainers preparing for an Ascot sojourn are continuing a long tradition, but it’s a tradition that had to be reinvigorated.In 2009, Wesley Ward took a couple of speedsters to Ascot, a 2-year-old named Strike The Tiger and an older horse named Cannonball. In the second race on opening day, the King’s Stand Stakes, Cannonball finished sixth, beaten by more than five lengths. A two-time stakes winner, he never before had finished so far back in a turf sprint. It left Ward questioning the wisdom of making the journey.

“I could feel the magnitude of being there,” Ward recalled, “all the history. And when we got beat, I wondered if I had made the right decision.”

Later that same day, Ward saddled Strike The Tiger, a 30-1 long shot, in the Windsor Castle Stakes. Although the trainer’s attire, like the setting, was formal, and even though he wore a top hat in the paddock for the first time in his life, Ward couldn’t abandon the habit of a lifetime. And so, standing there in the saddling area, he looked over the competition with a critical eye. Suddenly something unexpected struck him.

“Hey, Johnny, we’ve got the best-looking horse in here,” the trainer said to jockey John Velazquez, as Ward recalled events. And by that, Ward meant only that Strike The Tiger, who had won his debut at Churchill by nearly four lengths while racing 4 1/2 furlongs, looked quickest of the congregated youngsters. “We can win this thing.”

And they did. The next day they added to their success, winning the Group 2 Queen Mary Stakes with Jealous Again.

Lady Aurelia earned a return trip to Royal Ascot after winning Keeneland's Giants Causey.
Lady Aurelia won Keeneland’s Giant’s Causeway in her last start and will head back to Royal Ascot for trainer Wesley Ward and owner Stonestreet Stables. 

Ward has returned to Ascot every years since then, winning the Group 1 Diamond Jubilee with Undrafted, the Queen Mary with Acapulco, the Group 2 Norfolk Stakes with No Nay Never and the Windsor Castle with Hootenanny, who, of course, went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Santa Anita in 2014. Last year, with Lady Aurelia, Ward won the Queen Mary for the third time.

“At the end of the day,” Ward said, explaining his decision to race at Ascot, “five-eighths of a mile at Belmont Park, and five-eighths of a mile at Churchill, and five-eighths of a mile at Ascot are all five-eighths of a mile. It’s still horse racing.”

But that said, Ward conceded that Ascot is unique. Older than America, Ascot seethes tradition and history, not to mention royalty. Founded in 1711 by Queen Anne, Ascot regularly attracts the royal family to the races.

Over the years, Ward said, he’s learned that Ascot success depends on three things: planning, preparing and having a fast horse. Ascot has to be the objective, not an afterthought or an alternative.

“Everyone who loves racing should experience Ascot,” Ward said. “When it closes at the end of June, I’m looking forward to getting back the following year.”

He’ll return this year with Lady Aurelia, who recently added a victory in Keeneland’s Giant’s Causeway Stakes to her resume, and Bound For Nowhere, an unbeaten 3-year-old. A winner of four of five in her career, Lady Aurelia is aimed at the Group 1 King’s Stand Stakes on opening day of Royal Ascot. Bound For Nowhere will make his stakes debut in the Group 1 Commonwealth Cup on June 17.

See Lady Aurelia’s breeze May 23 at Keeneland

That same day, Casse will saddle La Coronel in the Group 1 Coronation Stakes. Last year, in his first Ascot excursion, Casse won the Group 1 Queen Ann Stakes with the champion Tepin.

“I don’t think horse racing could find a better place or a better atmosphere than Ascot,” Casse said. “The people there love racing and horses; they’re such fans.”

Going to Ascot for the first time can be, Casse conceded, intimidating. But Tepin’s composure and talent mollified any potential anxiety he might have felt. From that experience, aside from a profound regard for Royal Ascot and for English racing generally, Casse came away with an intense appreciation for the quality of the competitors. Anybody going to Ascot, Casse said, better “take a really good horse.”

American Patriot, recent winner of the Grade 1 Maker’s 46 Mile at Keeneland, could be among the starters in this year’s Queen Ann Stakes, according to her trainer, Todd Pletcher. Miss Temple City, who has finished fourth at Ascot each of the last two years, is booked for a return, according to her trainer, Graham Motion. Other Ascot possibilities include Long On Value for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, as well as Stormy Liberal and Richard’s Boy for trainer Peter Miller. And the Kenny McPeek-trained Daddys Lil Darling, the runner-up in the Kentucky Oaks, flew out this week to run in the Group 1 Investec Oaks on June 2 at Epsom Downs.

Read about Daddys Lil Darling’s Epsom adventure

Epsom Downs Racecourse
No confusion about where you are! England’s famed Epsom Downs Racecourse, where Daddys Lil Darling will run in the June 2 Investec Oaks. Photo courtesy Kenny McPeek

So what’s going on with this sudden desire to jump on a plane and go racing in England, with this rejuvenation of American racing’s historic, but briefly neglected, connection with Europe? Perhaps it was inevitable. More horses and possibly better horses race on the turf in America than ever before: In 2004, only 8.8 percent of all races were run on turf, and last year that grew to 16.3 percent. America’s exceptional turf horses had to find their way to Europe eventually.

But could something else be at work, too? Could this possibly augur a new era in modern racing, the ascendency of sportsmanship over profit? Nobody’s traveling to Ascot for a chance to race for higher purses; nobody’s going just for the potential promise of profit. And yet, so far anyway, nobody has suggested anybody’s crazy.

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