Ward of the World - By Dan Liebman

It’s a shame Vincent O’Brien didn’t hang on a couple more weeks. The legendary Irish trainer, who died June 1 at age 91, would have loved the just-concluded Royal Ascot meeting, in particular the success enjoyed by American conditioner Wesley Ward.

It was O’Brien, more than 40 years earlier, who showed American-bred horses could win major races in Europe when he trained Sir Ivor to take the 1968 Epsom Derby, one of six wins for O’Brien in that classic race.

Ward has now taken an American-trained horse and won a race at the prestigious Royal Ascot meeting. In fact, he did it twice—and nearly three times—with six starters he shipped over for the five-day meet.

Two years after winning the Derby with Raymond Guest’s Sir Ivor, O’Brien saddled American-bred Nijinsky II to sweep the English Triple Crown for owner Charles Engelhard. No horse has won the Two Thousand Guineas, Derby, and St. Leger Stakes since.

Nijinsky II was a son of Northern Dancer, and O’Brien was quick to realize the progeny of that stallion adapted well to turf racing in Europe. Bolstered by that knowledge, and with his obvious horsemanship skills, O’Brien teamed with Robert Sangster starting in the early 1970s to purchase yearlings in the United States with the idea of making top racehorses and top stallion prospects.

“He changed the course of our sales,” James E. “Ted” Bassett III, who was president of Keeneland at the time, said June 18 from his cottage at Keeneland. Ironically, John Magnier was being interviewed on the television playing in Bassett’s office while he spoke. Magnier, O’Brien’s son-in-law, now runs the Coolmore breeding and racing enterprise that became a powerhouse while operated by Sangster and O’Brien.

“Vincent O’Brien had the courage and the conviction to purchase horses here and take them to Europe, where they enjoyed immeasurable success,” Bassett said.

A few months before Sir Ivor would win the Epsom Derby, Wesley Ward was born in tiny Selah, Wash. He was raised around the racetrack because his father, Dennis, is a trainer in the northwestern most state in the continental United States.

Wesley Ward became a jockey, and at the tender age of 16, was the Eclipse Award-winning apprentice, riding 335 winners.

After only five years, Ward gave up the battle that leads many to abandon the riding profession: making weight. He assisted his father for a few years before going out on his own, and won his first stakes in 1994 when Unfinished Symph took the grade III Will Rogers Handicap (and subsequently three more graded stakes).

One thing Ward is known for is his ability to put speed into young horses, something he thought would be an advantage in Europe, where there is much less emphasis on that style of running.

So, with the approval of his owners, Ward prepared five juveniles and one older horse for the journey to England, including working the group between races at River Downs near Cincinnati, Ohio, May 24.

On June 16, the first day of the meeting, Ward shocked the punters when the 2-year-old gelding Strike the Tiger, whom he co-bred and co-owns, won the Windsor Castle Stakes at odds of 33-1. The same day he sent out the 4-year-old gelding Cannonball to finish sixth in the King’s Stand Stakes (Eng-I).

Ward warned that Jealous Again was his best shot at Ascot, and June 17 the juvenile filly won the Queen Mary Stakes (Eng-II) by five lengths. Not that it was a perfect week for Ward: Yogaroo ran ninth in the June 18 Norfolk Stakes (Eng-II); Aegean finished ninth in the June 19 Albany Stakes (Eng-III); and Honor in Peace was 16th in the June 20 Chesham.

Cannonball did come back four days after the King’s Stand to run second in the Golden Jubilee Stakes (Eng-I).

So, though he is still seeking his first grade/group I win, Ward has now done something no other U.S. trainer has accomplished.

Perhaps, as was the case with O’Brien, Ward’s courage and conviction will convince others to be so daring.

8 Comments

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mz

I was really interested in seeing what Mr. Ward's babies (and Cannonball) were going to do since I agree that international racing shouldn't only be one way (others coming here).  I was really looking forward last year to Curlin going over for the Arc de Triomphe and it was a big disappointment when it appeared he didn't like the turf.  I would love to see some North Americans try for that race at least once every once in a while.  (Wasn't the last time Tom Rolfe in 1965?)(Although not the Arc, I was there in the late 80's when Steve Stavro sent over Zadracarta, a Cdn champ mare, to run in the Prix de l'Abbaye and she finished 2nd by a nose - great display - I bet on her to win, tho)

Congratulations to Mr. Ward and all his connections on their initiative ans success.

And thanks to him for giving me the fun of checking out every day what his babies (and Cannonball) had done.

(Seems the arguments about west coast/east coast on only one continent are pretty petty!)

23 Jun 2009 4:14 PM
Power

Would I be right in saying Fourstarsallstar was the last horse to go over to Europe and win a Group 1, winning the Irish 1000 guineas. Either way well done to Mr Ward and it would be even better to see more US trainers try and go to Ascot next year, I'm sure Mr Ward will be back!!

23 Jun 2009 4:50 PM
Ranagulzion

Dan I'm sure you'll appreciate the correction: Nijinsky II, like his sire the great Northern Dancer was actually bred in Canada (albeit in North America but the distinction is especially significant because of how much Mine That Bird exposed the belittling of Canadian Racing accomplishments in the USA).  

23 Jun 2009 8:46 PM
sceptre

That Wesley, he's one of a kind, marches to his own drummer. I have a lot of respect for him; he has the courage to stick to his own, at times, non-conformist convictions. Notice that he breeds many to his relatively non-commercial stallion, with results that very often succeed. This breath of fresh air openly touted his brilliant and talented runner "Lifestyle" before the Breeders' Cup Sprint a few years ago. The horse closed in the wagering at 50-1, and would have likely been the winner had not he encounteed horrendous racing luck. I'm not an advocate of early 2 yr. old racing, but there's no doubt that Wesley has no peer when it comes to these runners. How does he continuously accomplish this? I've been in racing for nearly 50 years, but have never seen anything like it. This praise is long overdue.    

23 Jun 2009 10:37 PM
Blue Dawn

Sceptre,

Well written!  I really like your comment.

For another good Americans in Europe commentary you all may enjoy, may I submit this link:

www.examiner.com/x-12303-Horse-Racing-Examiner

24 Jun 2009 6:18 PM
da3hoss

it will be sad if European runners become early speed oriented.

26 Jun 2009 7:36 AM
No_Class

Ranagulzion - agreed!

26 Jun 2009 3:43 PM
John T.

Nijinsky was a great Canadian bred champion not only was he by perhaps the greatest sire of all time Northern Dancer but his dam Flaming Page had won the 1962 Canadian Oaks.Wesley Ward has proved himself a good trainer of 2 year olds and it was first class judgement on his part to have two of them ready to win at such a prestigeous meeting as Royal Ascot.

29 Jun 2009 9:19 PM

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