Wesley Ward straightened his yellow silk tie. Pulled his gray waistcoat down. Adjusted his black top hat. This was big for anybody. For a guy who’s most comfortable in jeans, and slippers, shirt tail flowing – the quintessential racetracker – this was huge.
“Wesley, your Majesty the Queen…”
It was moments after Ward’s No Nay Never won the Norfolk Stakes at Royal Ascot June 20. Ward had pulled off another international coup, traveling across the sea with the 2-year-old son of Scat Daddy and landing a big race on the biggest stage. With Joel Rosario aboard, No Nay Never broke slowly, gradually worked his way to the fore and drew off for a searing, course-record win in the 2-year-old stakes, securing the third Royal Ascot victory for Ward in the past five editions. The trainer was ecstatic, then nervous.
“I’m walking up there, thinking, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to talk to this lady?’ ” Ward said.
She made it easy.
“I sat with the Queen for 20 minutes right after the win, she wanted to meet me so they brought me up there, she was asking me all about my horses, how they go to the front, we were talking about racing, breeding,” Ward said. “She’s such a wonderful lady. It was like sitting next to your grandmother who goes to the races every day of her life, she’s the most down-to-earth person you want to meet, she’s such a sweetheart.”
A good horse makes a good equalizer
Per Ward’s program, No Nay Never won at first asking at Keeneland in April, scorching eight rivals in an April 26 maiden, prompting arrangements for Royal Ascot. Actually, they had been in the works for a while.
“To be honest with you, I was thinking Royal Ascot from the first time I breezed him,” Ward said. “I knew how he moved galloping over the grass, I knew I was golden. It was just getting a win at Keeneland and getting him to Royal Ascot sound and getting the surface. The surface has to be quick and fast, otherwise you have no chance.”
Ward implements a distinct plan of attack with each crop of 2-year-olds. He buys relatively cheap horses – obscure pedigrees are welcomed – puts mileage into them in the fall, preps them at Palm Beach Downs, moves them to Palm Meadows early and aims at Keeneland. This year, he won five of the six juvenile races at the Lexington oval.
Over the years, it’s worked as Ward has become the most prolific early 2-year-old trainer in the sport. He does it for a reason.
“You can pick up some decent purses with some nominal pedigrees and low-priced yearlings. When you do that, sometimes you can run a big race and sell them, sometimes you can’t,” Ward said. “But I always felt like once you do that, once you do win, there’s really nowhere to go, you have to sit and wait for the big shots to win, then you’re overmatched in the stakes races at Saratoga and Del Mar.”
About five years ago, Ward began to think about options in Europe for his 2-year-olds, bridging the gap between Keeneland and Saratoga. It’s hard to find an allowance race between April and August. Waiting with Ward’s 2-year-olds? Talk about all dressed up with nowhere to go.
“I said, ‘You know if they have these 2-year-old races in Europe, as precocious as the 2-year-olds I have are, you might be able to hit a fast track and get lucky,’ ” Ward said.
Ward has gotten lucky at Royal Ascot three times and has pilfered France’s 2-year-old races as well.
In 2009, he shipped Strike The Tiger to upset the Windsor Castle Stakes Royal Ascot. The next day, Ward won the Group II Queen Mary with Jealous Again. It’s been a goal ever since.
Owned by Mrs. Paul Shanahan and Ice Wine Stable, No Nay Never possesses a better pedigree than most of Ward’s 2-year-olds and he’s shown more talent than any of them. Ward has been agog since his first breeze at Palm Meadows in February.
“It wouldn’t have taken a genius to see it, in a common gallop, he went down there and he would have man-handled everything I have. He was breathing different air,” Ward said. “I never, ever let him run and he was doing it with his ears. Every breeze was just awesome. In two jumps out of the gate, he was waiting on the other horses, effortlessly, easily, with the boy sitting against him. I knew I had something special.”
Special enough for Royal Ascot.
Ward grew up in Selah, Wash., a trainer’s son, playing and learning in the dirt of racetracks across the country. Ward earned the Eclipse Award as leading apprentice jockey in 1984 before weight got the better of desire and he turned to training. He’s not for everybody, but he’s pulled off three wins at Royal Ascot where other American trainers have sputtered. Ward says you have to see Royal Ascot to believe it.
“If anyone is to go there to run and stay for the week of racing, there is no racing better in the world for those five days. Everybody knows the horses, the jockeys. It’s like the World Series of racing,” Ward said. “For a guy like myself that wakes up every day of his life, since he was a little boy and the only thing I think about is horse racing, the majority of the people over there are the same way. It’s like going back to the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s in this country. People are still into the racing over there.”
Even the Queen.
– Read Sports Illustrated article about Ward’s Eclipse Award.
– Watch No Nay Never win at Royal Ascot.
– Watch press conference after Royal Ascot win.
– Watch the Queen watch her Royal Ascot victory.