With a number of high-profile U.S.-trained horses set to run at Royal Ascot this week, it is easy to forget that such transatlantic raids are a distinctly modern phenomenon.
Transatlantic travel may have become commonplace but, even after the advent of the Breeders’ Cup, for a couple of decades it was still virtually a one-way street with Europeans heading to America and not very often vice versa.
U.S.-bred horses have been an integral part of the European scene since the 19th Century – Epsom Derby victor Iroquois was the first to win a British classic (the 1881 Derby). Before intercontinental flights became routine, the only way for an American horse to run in Europe was via a long-term transfer (or permanent move) to a trainer based on the continent.
As Racing Post historian John Randall explains, such moves date back to the middle years of the 19th Century. “Pioneers among horses who started their careers in the U.S. but were later trained abroad include Prioress and Starke, who won the 1857 Cesarewitch and 1861 Goodwood Cup,” says Randall.
They were followed by a veritable multitude – from Parole to Hill Rise, Battleship to Tingle Creek – but it was not until the 1950s that U.S.-trained horses were able to make brief raids abroad, with the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe the prime objective. Think the Washington DC International in reverse.
What follows here is a list of ten U.S.-trained horses – or horses at least who were running very much under an American flag – to have left an imprint on European racing in the last century.
Trainer: Henry McDaniel, Bert Mitchell; owner Mrs Fannie Hertz
Kentucky Derby hero who won the Coronation Cup (Epsom 1929)
Kentucky Derby victor Reigh Count was the number one performer of his generation as a 3-year-old in 1928. Owned by former taxi driver John Hertz (though officially running in the name of his wife, Fannie), he was sent to England in 1929, his owner saying he was the best horse in the world, and “he is over there to prove it”.
Trainer Bert Mitchell accompanied the colt, who wiped away the stain of three defeats with a last-gasp success in the Coronation Cup at Epsom over the full Derby distance of a mile and a half. As Mitchell was operating under a British licence, this cannot count as the first U.S.-trained winner in Europe, but it was as near as dammit.
Reigh Count also finished second in the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot before he returned to the States, where his offspring included Triple Crown winner Count Fleet.
Trainers: Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons (US), Cecil Boyd-Rochfort (GB); owner Belair Stud
The only U.S. Triple Crown winner ever to race in Britain (1936)
A great horse trained by two great trainers, Omaha was the Triple Crown winner sired by a Triple Crown winner, as his sire was Gallant Fox. He became the highest-profile horse to make the transatlantic transfer, working at Aqueduct under the supervision of Newmarket-based Cecil Boyd-Rochfort at the start of his 4-year-old campaign before shipping to England on the RMS Aquitania to be targeted for the Ascot Gold Cup, at the time still the most coveted prize for older horses in Europe.
Omaha won his first two starts at Kempton before a historic Gold Cup in front of an estimated crowd of 150,000 in which he was narrowly beaten by the 1935 Epsom Oaks winner Quashed after a thrilling finish. Injury ended his career as he was being prepared for the following year’s race.
Trainers: Bobby Fenwick, Mikey Smithwick (US), Fred Winter (GB); owner Mary Stephenson
First US-owned, -bred and -ridden winner of the Grand National (Aintree 1965)
Given that jump racing is sometimes regarded as a sideshow in the U.S., it is perhaps surprising that so many horses who began their career in the States have left a major imprint on British racing. Jay Trump had won a pair of Maryland Hunt Cups (America’s premier timber race) before travelling to England to be prepared for the 1965 Grand National by legendary former jockey Fred Winter.
He was actually Winter’s first winner as a trainer at Sandown in October 1964 and ran well elsewhere before beating Freddie in a memorable battle at Aintree. His rider was U.S. champion steeplechase jockey Tommy Smith, who had bought the horse for family friend Mary Stephenson.
Also third in the Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris, Jay Trump went back to the States and won another Maryland Hunt Cup in 1966. His feat of winning both the Maryland Hunt Cup and the Grand National was emulated by Ben Nevis.
Trainer: Frank Whiteley; owner Powhatan Stable (Raymond Guest)
Preakness winner was sixth in Sea-Bird’s Arc (1965)
American-trained horses jetting in played bit-part roles behind some of the greatest Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winners of them all. Career Boy and Fisherman, representing the legendary Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney behind Ribot in 1956, were the first, but bigger names followed: 1961 Kentucky Derby winner Carry Back was tenth in a substandard Arc in 1962, while Preakness victor Tom Rolfe led the field into the straight under Bill Shoemaker in the 1965 Arc before fading into sixth behind Sea-Bird. It wasn’t the best-ever placing – Career Boy was fourth – but it was probably the most significant.
In their millennium book A Century of Champions, John Randall and Tony Morris rated Sea-Bird as the greatest horse of the 20th Century; his Arc probably contained the most high-powered international field ever assembled on the continent. Tom Rolfe was duly named U.S. champion 3-year-old at the end of the season before a successful career at stud.
Trainer: Jonathan Sheppard; owner William Pape
2nd in Champion Hurdles in both Britain and France (1986-87)
A four-time champion steeplechase horse (1983-86) in the U.S., where the major jump races are closer to what would be designated as hurdles in Europe, Flatterer is one of the greatest horses in American jumps history with a string of big-race wins to his name. However, jump racing is a vastly bigger deal in Europe, where he was second in the French Champion Hurdle (Grande Course de Haies d’Auteuil) in 1986 before returning the following year and giving star hurdler See You Then a massive fright on his way to completing a hat-trick in the world’s foremost race in the discipline, the Champion Hurdle, under rider Jerry Fishback at the celebrated Cheltenham Festival in March.
“The two best races he ran might have been two of the few races he actually lost,” said trainer Jonathan Sheppard. “They were superb efforts. On your own ground, doing your own thing against horses you run against at home, running in top-class races is difficult. To do it away from home, on unfamiliar ground and over unfamiliar fences is something special.”
Trainer: Leo O’Brien; owner Richard Bomze
First U.S.-trained winner of a European classic (Irish 2000 Guineas 1991)
A G3 winner during a busy juvenile campaign, Fourstars Allstar was shipped into Ireland three days before the Irish Guineas, for which he was sent off a 9/1 chance under a youthful Mike Smith. Facing rivals headed by French-trained colts Lycius and Ganges, who had been second and third in the English 2000 Guineas, Fourstars Allstar led into the straight, only to cede the advantage to Star Of Gdansk (later placed in both Epsom and Irish Derbys). Now would have been the time for the U.S. horse to fold after such an arduous trip, but instead he rallied strongly, his light blue blinkers edging past his opponent close home for a game victory by a head. The pair pulled since six lengths clear of the third, and history was made.
As tough as they come, Fourstars Allstar continued racing until he was seven, his biggest subsequent victory coming in the G2 Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga the following season.
Trainer: Bruce Miller; owner Mrs Walter M Jeffords
First horse officially trained in U.S. to win a race in Britain (Cheltenham 1992)
The future champion stunned the home of National Hunt racing with a 20/1 victory under the trainer’s daughter, Blythe Miller, in December 1992 when he contested the Sport of Kings Challenge, a two-mile-five-furlong hurdle specifically framed to encourage U.S. participation. Though there were only four runners, the visitor was given little chance before staying on strongly to win by a head over odds-on favourite Al Mutahm.
The rangy chestnut with a white blaze went on to become a jumps racing legend in the States, winning five Eclipse Awards as champion steeplechaser before his retirement in 1999, by which time he had won 23 races altogether, among them a Breeders’ Cup Chase, three Colonial Cups and two Carolina Cups. He also won another race in Britain, at Sandown in 1995, though he was officially trained by Britain-based Charlie Brooks for that visit. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2005.
Strike The Tiger
Trainer: Wesley Ward; owner Mitch Dutko and Ray Sainz
First U.S.-trained winner at Royal Ascot (Windsor Castle Stakes 2009)
Shang Shang Shang’s victory in last year’s Norfolk Stakes took Wesley Ward’s Royal Ascot tally into double figures, but this was where it all started ten years ago with a 33/1 shot who stunned the racing world with his ground-breaking listed success on the first day of Britain’s most prestigious meeting.
Strike The Tiger had won his only previous race on sloppy dirt at Churchill Downs before the pioneering Ward made his Ascot debut, going where no U.S. trainer had gone before him. It looked a tall order even to be competitive against 21 rivals on a straight turf track, but little did anyone know about the trainer’s prowess with blazingly fast 2-year-olds, and this gelding duly made all in what was to become typical Ward fashion under John Velazquez.
“This just proves that, if you get a horse right on the day, it doesn't matter if they are running in Australia or China,” an exultant Ward told the Racing Post. Moreover, any suggestions this might have been a flash in the pan were soon dismissed when Ward saddled Jealous Again the following day to win the G2 Queen Mary Stakes. The royal meeting was changed forever.
Trainer: Wesley Ward; owner Stonestreet Stables/George Bolton/Peter Leidel
Dual winner at Royal Ascot and European champion 2-year-old filly in 2016
Nobody was in any doubt about Wesley Ward’s abilities by the time Lady Aurelia scorched the turf in the Queen Mary in what the Racing Post described as “one of the most devastating displays seen in modern times at Royal Ascot”. Blisteringly fast, she won by seven lengths under Frankie Dettori, who said: “I’ve never seen or experienced anything like it especially for a 2-year-old.”
Another victory in the G1 Prix Morny meant she’d done enough to be named Europe’s champion juvenile filly at the Carter Awards, then she went back to Royal Ascot for a repeat performance in the following year’s King’s Stand Stakes, which she won by three lengths. A heartbreaking nose defeat in the Nunthorpe Stakes followed – Dettori celebrated prematurely, admitting he thought she’d won by a neck – but still, it was no wonder Ward dubbed the dynamic daughter of Scat Daddy a “once-in-a-lifetime horse”.
Trainer: Mark Casse; owner Bob Masterson
First U.S. horse not trained by Wesley Ward to win at Royal Ascot (Queen Anne Stakes 2016)
Only Mark Casse has been able to emulate Ward among North American-based trainers by winning at Royal Ascot, thanks to the formidable racemare Tepin, who beat a double-figure field of Europe’s top milers in the Queen Anne Stakes. Although she was reigning champion turf female in the States and came in off a six-race winning streak, many were sceptical of her chances across the Atlantic given the hurdles she had to overcome (no Lasix, not allowed regular nasal strip, first time at a straight mile on really soft ground). The ‘Queen of the Turf’ duly held off Godolphin’s Belardo win by a half-length under Julien Leparoux.
Kenny McPeek also deserves credit as a modern-day adventurer, having saddled Hard Buck to finish second to Doyen in the King George in 2004 – five years before Wesley Ward first made his presence known in Britain.
My thanks to John Randall for his invaluable assistance with this article