NEWMARKET, England // Mike Smith, the American Hall of Fame jockey, is set to fulfil a long-held dream to ride at Royal Ascot by partnering the Wesley Ward-trained Gentlemans Code in the Windsor Castle Stakes today.
Ward acted as the pathfinder in 2009 when he became the first US trainer to saddle a winner at Royal Ascot when Strike The Tiger captured the Windsor Castle. That he followed up the next day with Jealous Again in similarly striking fashion highlights the threat to the home defence that the American raiders pose.
Ward spearheads America's record entry to the five-day Royal Meeting, and after yesterday's final declaration stage Smith is itching to partner one of Ward's slated eight runners.
"I'm fulfilling a dream. It has been my goal to ride at Royal Ascot for a very long time," Smith said. "I've been riding for 30 years and have never done anything like it before."
Smith flew to England last month to partner the juvenile to an easy victory over two rivals at the unheralded track of Folkestone. While in England he rode work for Luca Cumani in Newmarket and in comparison to the track work he is used to in the US where they train on a racecourse, Smith could barely take in what the headquarters of British racing had to offer.
"Working on the track over in America, it is the same every day. When I went to Newmarket, I rode out on all of the different gallops there. It was so amazing. There is so much history associated with the place, you can feel it everywhere."
Ward's runners have been housed in the Chantilly stables of Xavier Nakkachdji, the Frenchman who sent four horses to race at this year's Dubai Carnival.
Nakkachdji has likened the experience of having Ward's runners to "a laboratory for Ascot", and with Ward having saddled four winners in France already his horses arrived on Saturday night acclimatised and battle ready for Ascot, where they cantered yesterday morning.
Joining Ward and Smith at the Royal jamboree will be Todd Pletcher, who was awarded his fifth outstanding trainer Eclipse Award last year. Bridgetown and More Than Real arrived a week ago and are being aimed respectively at the King's Stand Stakes on Tuesday and the Coronation Stakes on Friday.
Last year Pletcher tested the water by shipping a filly called Starfish Bay to run at Glorious Goodwood. Used to the flat left-handed tracks of the US, Starfish Bay could not handle the twists and turns of Goodwood despite having Frankie Dettori on board.
"I think we learnt a lot from that trip," said Ginny DePasquale, Pletcher's assistant trainer. "I think for the American horses to run over here they need more preparation for the hills and everything. It is why we arrived a little bit early."
Pletcher's two horses will be ridden by John Velazquez, the Puerto Rican rider who won the Dubai World Cup aboard Roses In May in 2005.
Velazquez is no stranger to the undulations of Ascot, having finished second on his first ride there in 2000 when he partnered Godolphin's Teggiano in the Ribblesdale Stakes.
Nine years later Velazquez was aboard when Strike The Tiger and Jealous Again hit the bullseye.
The 40-year-old will be itching to make amends after getting no sort of ride late on Saturday night in the Belmont Stakes when his mount, Animal Kingdom, clipped heels with Mucho Man in the opening stages in the final leg of America's Triple Crown series before recovering to finish a creditable sixth.
"There are no words to describe how good this poor horse ran," Velazquez said after the race. "I was hoping he could run good enough to get a piece of it without killing him. It was just really awful. And yes, I'm still mad."
Velazquez has won more than 4,000 races and will need to bring his A-game across the Atlantic because More Than Real showed her inexperience when winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies' Turf in November, and she has not seen a racecourse since.
Of the seven Group 1 and four Group 2 races open to non-juveniles at the Royal Meeting only six horses have won without a prep run that season in the past decade so it seems that Bridgetown is likely to be the more realistic challenger.
"I think the King's Stand is such a prestigious race that victory here will make Americans more aware," DePasquale said. "Wesley did so well in 2009 with his winners and that really opened the door for more Americans to come here to see what a beautiful place this is."