The Main Track: Royal Ascot Evidence of a U.S. Turf Revival

Racing
Racing at Ascot Racecourse. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Welcome to another edition of America’s Best Racing’s Main Track.      

Each Tuesday in this space we spotlight the most meaningful story of the past week, detailing news that stands out because of its importance or perhaps the emotional response it generates.

Looking ahead, if you believe there’s a story this week that should be featured in next Tuesday’s edition of the Main Track, let us know by tweeting it to @ABRLive using the hashtag #ABRMainTrack.

As for this week, our story centers on how the results of last week’s stakes at Royal Ascot in England were positive for much more than one American trainer.


Once again Kentucky-based trainer Wesley Ward put on an amazing display on one of the world’s most famous stages, winning not one, but two stakes at the grandiose Royal Ascot meet.

One was provided by Lady Aurelia, an American-owned 3-year-old filly who was a European champion a year ago. Mirroring her brilliance at 2, she defeated older horses and males in the Group 1 King’s Stand Stakes.

The second came from a much more unexpected source, a 3-year-old filly named Con Te Partiro, who made her first overseas start. After finishing fourth in the $100,000 Soaring Softly Stakes at Belmont Park last month, Con Te Partiro registered a stunning upset in the Sandringham Handicap last Wednesday.

Lady Aurelia (Eclipse Sportswire)

For Ward they were his eighth and ninth victories at Royal Ascot, dwarfing the totals of any other American trainer at the world renowned meet.

“It’s a lifelong accomplishment that you’ll cherish forever,” Ward said Monday after returning to his barn at Keeneland.

Yet as much as Ward deserves a tip of the top hat for his latest feat at Royal Ascot, last week had far more reaching implications for racing in the United States.

Aside from Ward’s stellar victories, what stood out about this latest Royal Ascot festival was a huge uptick in attention and wagering here in the United States, despite the morning post times for the races.

A substantial boost was provided by NBCSN, which provided 4 ½ hours of live coverage of Royal Ascot races during all five days, giving it 22 ½ hours of air time during a daily 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. (ET) show. All of that television exposure no doubt played a huge role in sizeable gains in the U.S. wagering pools on the overseas races.

“Anecdotally, the viewing (numbers in America) have been phenomenal,” Nick Smith, an Ascot spokesperson, told theguardian.com.

Smith also added that U.S. wagering on Ascot’s races had jumped by 60 percent in comparison to past years.

Beyond all of that, if Ward’s wins, the expanded television coverage and the boom in wagering fuel heightened interest in turf racing here in the United States, it will be much-needed energy for a sport that needs to be in the spotlight for more than five weeks in the spring.

As much as dirt racing reigns supreme on these shores, it can only help the sport if horsemen and tracks place more of an emphasis on turf racing and make it more rewarding to build a stable of turf runners.

“Wesley has nine Ascot winners and he’s carved out a niche there. He knows how what it takes to win those races. (Trainer) Mark Casse also won over there last year with Tepin, and it’s good for the Americans to go over there and show them that our horses can be competitive and that, no, we don’t need drugs to win top races,” said Martin Panza, the senior vice president of racing operations for the New York Racing Association. “It’s great that we’ve shaken the tree over there. They tend to be a little down on American racing over there, but, hey, we can go over there and beat you. So that’s a good thing. Anything that can help build racing and the sport, it has to be viewed as a positive.”

While New York may be home to the Belmont Stakes, Travers and dozens of other major dirt stakes, Panza and NYRA have placed an importance on using turf races to enhance their daily cards and stakes schedules with races that are more competitive with larger fields than identical races on the main track.

European invader Deauville wins the 2016 Belmont Derby. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Last month, NYRA boosted the minimum for purses of maiden and allowance turf races at a mile and a quarter and longer to $90,000, meaning horses can run in a maiden race and two allowance levels for a combined purse of nearly $300,000.

In addition, in 2014 NYRA revamped a pair of mile-and-a-quarter, million-dollar turf races for 3-year-old colts and fillies, the Belmont Derby and Belmont Oaks. Those two races, which have attracted 19 international runners in their first three years, will be the stars of Belmont Park’s package of five graded stakes on its July 8 Stars and Stripes program.

Panza added he’s also toying with the idea of returning the Lawrence Realization, a mile and a half turf stakes for 3-year-olds, to the Belmont Park fall stakes schedule at some point.

Put it all together, and it underscores why it makes sense for horsemen and breeders to focus more interest in turf horses and sires, which will ultimately provide the advantages of larger fields for gamblers and stars with longer careers for fans.

“We’ve been pleased with the number of horses for our turf races at a mile and a quarter and longer, especially lately. The races have been full. We just started this but our next step is can we run more of them? Can we run them, instead of every three weeks, every two weeks? Instead of 10 in a meet, can we run 20 of them? That’s when it really starts to pay dividends. It’s been a positive experience so far and I think it will only get stronger,” Panza said. “These grass horses aren’t going to stud right away and that’s a good thing. If we can keep horses around at 4 and 5 and 6, and make it worth the owners’ while, the fans will also get to know who these horses are. When a 3-year-old dirt star goes to stud at the end of the year, that’s not good for racing. That’s not good for the sport. It’s a problem.”

So when you see what’s happening in New York, listen to talk that the Stronach Group is mulling a Pegasus-type turf race at Laurel and take into consideration the success by an American stable overseas and the increased fan interest in Royal Ascot, it looks like the grass is indeed greener these days.

And in the long run, that should be very good news indeed for racing.

The Also-Eligible List

Here are some of the other stories that made for a lively week in the U.S. Thoroughbred racing industry:

Irap gets best of Girvin in Ohio Derby

Horses saving vets, vets saving horses

Stronach Group considers New England venture

Kentucky Downs to add jockey wager

Churchill Downs to add historical racing at Trackside

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