In recent years the sight of an impassioned Wesley Ward celebrating in the winner’s enclosure had become almost as synonymous with Royal Ascot as the top hats and tails worn by racegoers.
Yet, over the first two days of 2018’s meeting, the charismatic Ward has been faintly conspicuous by his absence on the winning board at the Berkshire course.
His stable-star, Lady Aurielia, who won the G2 Queen Mary Stakes in 2016 and the G1 King's Stand Stakes a year later, never travelled in this year’s renewal of the King's Stand and finished seventh under world #14 jockey Joel Rosario. He then saddled three runners on Wednesday: the fancied Chelsea Cloisters disappointed in the Queen Mary, Master Merion finished in midfield in the 30-horse Royal Hunt Cup, while Hemp Hemp Hurray failed to place in the final race of the day, the G3 Jersey Stakes.
Nevertheless, success at Royal Ascot for this pioneering American handler is normally never far away as he chases his tenth Royal Ascot winner since 2009, when Strike The Tiger claimed the listed Windsor Castle Stakes. He is, of course, the most successful trainer based outside Europe in the meeting’s history.
On Thursday, Ward saddles the 2-year old filly Shang Shang Shang in the G2 Norfolk Stakes, which is a 'Win and You're In' qualifier for the new $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint at Churchill Downs in November.
The 50-year old former jockey - who has a developed a supreme reputation for producing lighting-quick 2-year olds for Royal Ascot - remains confident that Shang Shang Shang could still be the best of his ten-strong raiding party across the five-day meeting.
She registered a useful debut win against her own sex at Keeneland and will now take on the boys in the Ascot contest. What’s more Ward told At The Races that he always likes “taking on the colts with a filly as I think it can be an advantage”. Shang Shang Shang receives a three-pound filly allowance.
“She’s had some really nice breezes on the grass and the [offspring of] Shanghai Bobby that I’ve trained have liked the grass,” said Ward.
“When we breezed her on the soft turf she worked good, but not great. I’ll groan if it comes up soft. If it comes up hard and firm and fast she’s going to run a big race.”
Ward won the race in 2013, with No Nay Never.
This year’s victor will receive the added bonus of an automatic berth into $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint (a new Breeders’ Cup World Championships race for 2018), have its $30,000 in entry fees paid, a $10,000 Nominator award, as well as its travel allowance paid ($40,000 International/$10,000 domestic).
Although Shang Shang Shang is almost certain to go off as favourite, leading opposition is expected to come in the form of British sprint king Clive Cox’s Konchek, an impressive winner of the Havana Gold Maiden Stakes at Newmarket.
Tim Easterby’s Vintage Brut won the listed National Stakes at Sandown last time out and was acquired by King Power Racing, which is fronted by Leicester City owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, for £280,000 at the Kensington Goffs Sale on the eve of the Royal meeting.
“He’s very fast, like a rocket. I’m sure he’s going to run very well,” said Easterby.
Elsewhere Richard Spencer, who won last year’s Coventry Stakes with Rajasinghe, saddles Rumble Inthejungle. The trainer said he was confident that the colt had “taken a big step forward from his debut and I think he’ll run a big race”.