Trainer Wesley Ward, a name to be feared in the entry box for juvenile races across the globe, will send out a potent one-two punch in Thursday's 107th running of the $150,000, 5 ½-furlong Astoria for 2-year-old fillies at Belmont Park.
The Ward pair of Athens Queen and Wonder Stone are each exiting an impressive maiden victory at Keeneland, Ward's main base of operations. The former, owned by Reiley McDonald, won by a neck as the 2-1 favorite on April 19, while the latter, a Don Alberto Stable color-bearer, blitzed a field by 3 ¼ lengths a day earlier.
Ward's prolific success with 2-year-old runners has been on display this year more than ever, as the trainer has already sent out 17 juvenile winners.
“I've definitely found a little niche with these races,” said Ward. “I've been doing this since I was 10-years-old, and I've just found that with the yearlings I break and train I can be a little better prepared than my competitors. There's been a lot of trial and error along the way and fine tuning the process. It's been much more about learning what not to do.”
Although neither of his entrants broke her maiden in New York, Ward continues to be a big champion of the NYRA juvenile program, which is now offering record purses.
“Martin Panza has done an excellent job,” he said of NYRA's Senior Vice President of Racing Operations. “It's a big incentive for trainers to come here when they can run for $100,000 in a maiden race. Even if you finish second you're getting $20,000. The horse still gets a good experience and it really helps owners pay the bills.”
Athens Queen will be ridden by Albin Jimenez from post 8, while Wonder Stone will break from the rail with Hall of Famer John Velazquez aboard.
The Ward duo won't be facing a field of pushovers, due primarily to the presence of California invader Tijori. The Simon Callaghan trainee waltzed home a 3 ¼-length winner in her debut at Santa Anita Park, earning an imposing Beyer Speed Figure of 82. Owned by Kaleem Shah, Tijori will have Flavien Prat in the irons from post 7.
Trainer Mark Casse and owner Gary Barber will team up with the promising filly in Eyeinthesky. The daughter of Sky Mesa made an eye-catching move from off the pace to break her maiden first out at Churchill Downs by 3 ½ lengths. She will break from post 3 with Florent Geroux aboard.
Rounding out the field are Gallanor, a maiden winner at Laurel Park on April 29; Lady Apple, who finished second in her debut at Keeneland; Six Pack Gal, who is making her way east after a debut score at Santa Anita; and Gorgeouswitha G, who enters via a first out score at Prairie Meadows.
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