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.