Trainer Wesley Ward had a topsy-turvy week at Royal Ascot in England.
On Wednesday he sent out the Scat Daddy filly Acapulco – a $750,000 purchase from the McKathan Brothers consignment at the OBS March sale – to an impressive victory in the Group 2 Queen Mary Stakes. It was Ward's fifth Royal Ascot win since 2009, when Strike the Tiger (Windsor Castle Stakes) and Jealous Again (G2 Queen Mary) gave him a double at the prestigious June meeting.
The adventurous American had to wait until 2013 to pick up his third Royal Ascot victory when No Nay Never won the G2 Norfolk, and he added a fourth in 2014 when Hootenanny took the Windsor Castle. All of these wins came with 2-year-olds.
Forty-eight hours after Acapulco's victory, Ward – who traveled to England with 16-year-old son Riley, 13-year-old daughter Denae, and 10-year-old son Jack – was distressed to find his daughter suffering from an affliction that left one side of her face completely paralyzed. It was a traumatic experience that had father and daughter spending the night at nearby Frimley Park Hospital, where Denae was diagnosed with Bell's palsy. The condition, usually temporary, is a paralysis of a facial nerve caused by any number of incidents.
Denae insisted on going racing the next day and was in the winner's enclosure to meet Queen Elizabeth II after Wes Welker and Sol Kumin's 5-year-old gelding Undrafted, with Frankie Dettori aboard, upset the G1 Diamond Jubilee Stakes. That win was the sixth for Ward at Royal Ascot, and one he and his children will never forget.
Ward talked about his Royal Ascot experiences and what it takes to win at what many believe to be the world's premier race meeting.
What got you thinking about Royal Ascot originally?
When I was training out in California, I didn't even know about it. I didn't know what Royal Ascot was. I found a little niche when I started training out there, because at every level, from $10,000 claimers to Grade 1 races, it was so deep in quality of horses and trainers, it was really tough for me to win. The caliber of horses I had didn't fit in. I found a niche in the springtime with the babies. If I could find inexpensive, precocious 2-year-olds – $5,000 or $10,000 weanlings or yearlings – I could pick up a maiden special pot when the maiden races started, I'd have them ready to roll. Afterwards I'd either sell them privately or run in claiming races.
When I moved East, I came to Keeneland and thought their 2-year-olds were stronger. I found out I could win at Keeneland, too, so I started thinking any time you can get an advantage, you've got to take it. After I learned about Royal Ascot, I looked at the weather in England and thought we'd be further advanced with our 2-year-olds than they were.
I didn't know anything about ground then, and I got really lucky with the firm conditions. I know a lot more about it now. Got really lucky that first year in 2009.
What kind of a horse is most likely to succeed at Royal Ascot?
If you really break it down and look at horses I've won with, they're not just flash-in-the-pan, fast horses. No Nay Never became a really good stakes horse, a monster. Sunset Glow, who finished second at Royal Ascot, came back and won the Del Mar Debutante. They have to be really, really good horses. You can't just go over and take a shot. They are precocious but good quality as well.
In what ways have you changed how to get the horses ready for this type of challenge, in training and shipping?
I'm trying to get there as seamlessly as possible. The trip over, you want to make sure you don't have any problems. You want to get on the plane, go from A to B, and not have to ship to Amsterdam or van 10 hours from one place to another. You can't go into Ascot until the Sunday before. In years prior, I could ship right into Ascot. Now they've cut that back. The people at Coolmore helped me find a beautiful yard, Manton (made famous as the training center for the stable of the late Robert Sangster), in a place called Marlborough. Three Arc de Triomphe winners trained there. This is a beautiful, tranquil place. I wanted to get my horses to settle, eat up, be happy. The horses seem to thrive over there. It's a cooler climate. They come home carrying more weight than they did when they arrived.
How difficult is the quarantine and shipping?
We do a five-hour quarantine at Arlington and at Keeneland. They go right to the plane, ship over, they're in their own barn there. There's a few days of quarantine when they come back. It's seamless. Shipping to England is much easier than shipping to Dubai. They're knocked out when they go there. The record of my horses coming back from Ascot is phenomenal. Many of them win their first start.
With Undrafted, did you train him any differently than you would have for an American race?
No. He stayed at Keeneland and trained on the dirt. He's the kind of horse that when he leaves his stall, he melts. Acapulco stayed at Keeneland as well. Some of the babies were at Arlington because they were gracious enough to let me breeze on the grass there. Acapulco worked once on the grass at Keeneland. All her other works were on dirt.
What about the medication situation? Obviously there are different, stricter rules over there.
You want to bring a horse over there that is 100 percent sound and with no issues: no shins, no sickness, no bleeders. The kind that don't require any medication. They're not on any medication when they go there.
Your wins have all been in sprint races. Do you think American-trained horses can compete in middle and longer distance races at Royal Ascot?
I would love to have seen Wise Dan go there in his prime. There is no way he would have lost. They wouldn't have beat him. Of the tracks I've raced on over there, Ascot is the fairest. It's not that undulating. It's a slight up and gradual down and slight up again. It's very, very fair. For the most part, races of a mile and under are run on the straight course.The best horse is going to win.
What was the most personally satisfying aspect of this year's Royal Ascot?
Winning the first race with Acapulco was very satisfying. Winning for Coolmore, which has been such a big supporter, and with a horse they just paid so much money for.
Then the night before Undrafted's race, we had a horrendous night in the hospital with my daughter. You're looking at the right side of her face being completely paralyzed and you think that her grandmother died in her 50s from multiple sclerosis. Derrick Smith sent over wonderful doctors, neurologists Dr. John Harley and Dr. Richard Nicholas, who diagnosed her with Bell's palsy. They set our mind at ease. Denae wanted to go to the races, so to get the win and for her to meet the Queen, it was amazing.
Was the Diamond Jubilee the first time you got to meet Queen Elizabeth?
I spent some time with the Queen two years ago when I was invited up to her box. We had a nice 30-minute talk. That was just prior to No Nay Never winning, then she won her race (Estimate in the Gold Cup). She's asking me all these questions about my horses and how I train them to go to the lead, because her trainer's train her horses to come from behind. I said if you go to the lead, they've got to catch you to win. She said, “That's what I tell my trainers all the time! Why do you want to come from all the way back?”
How is Denae doing now?
She's getting a lot of press. She's actually liking getting all the attention, reading about herself all the time on the Internet. Doctors say the paralysis should subside in 30 days.
What's the next challenge on the horizon for Wesley Ward?
I love Ascot. It's a wonderful place and it's awesome to win there. I focus in on that every year. I know the conditions of the races and am getting better at which horses to place. If I had the type of horse that could win the Breeders' Cup Mile, that would be my main goal. I center on Ascot in the spring and Breeders' Cup in the fall.
I would like to see more American horses over there. I hope more owners and trainers try it. I'd love to see that happen, but you've got to bring your best.
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