ANALYSING THE LEADING TWO-YEAR-OLD TRAINERS AT ROYAL ASCOT
There is so much to look forward to every year at Royal Ascot. Everyone will have races that they are particularly looking forward to, but one division that always gets this analyst notably engaged are the six races for the two-year-olds.
These horses that we are only just starting to get to know always pose such fascinating puzzles when brought together at the Royal meeting. Perhaps the most interesting element of it is that the domestic British form is put to the test by raiding parties from Ireland, usually spearheaded by Aidan O’Brien, and from America courtesy of Wesley Ward’s crack team of juveniles.
With that in mind, it is worth examining the records of those two trainers with a view to finding some clues that might guide us on their prospects for the week ahead.
WARD A POTENT FORCE OVER FIVE FURLONGS
Even since Wesley Ward and his band of speedy two-year-olds burst onto the scene at Royal Ascot in 2009, their presence has been a fascinating feature of the meeting every year since.
His tally of seven two-year-old winners in that time is genuinely remarkable given the logistics of the travel they endure and the contrasting conditions they face at Royal Ascot compared to their home tracks.
That he has saddled at least one juvenile winner in five of the last six years at the meeting really is a particularly notable feat that cannot be matched by any other trainer in that time, domestic based or otherwise.
So, while we know that Ward is very, very good at what he does, there is scope to statistically distil his achievements to identify a specific area that he is particularly effective in. Ward’s overall strike rate in two-year-old races at Royal Ascot is seven winners from 41 runners (17%).
However, when one isolates this to only races over five furlongs, it transforms to an even rosier seven winners from 26 runners (27%).
Who could forget Wesley Ward's 5f juvenile superstar Lady Aurelia winning at Royal Ascot in 2016
Of the 15 two-year-old runners that Ward has saddled over six furlongs or further at Royal Ascot, only Sunset Glow (2nd in the Albany in 2014) and Create A Dream (4th in the Albany in 2016) ran any sort of race.
Now, it should be said that only one of those 15 runners went off at shorter than 6/1 and the expected wins of the group were only 1.25, but it is a stat with a solid foundation of reason under it given the strength of Ward’s juveniles is their speed and professionalism rather than staying power.
This becomes particularly relevant this year as that Ward is set to saddle Nayibeth in the Albany Stakes over six furlongs on Friday and she is likely to go off favourite. Nayibeth is a fine example of the increasing quality of pedigree that Ward has to go to war with these days compared to what he had for his first forays to Royal Ascot, with her being a $230,000 yearling that is a half-sister to the Grade 2-winning Soldat.
These deeper pedigrees are sure to help him in his quest to break through the six-furlong glass ceiling at Royal Ascot, but it will have to remain a concern for any of his that he runs beyond the minimum trip.
When it comes to his runners over five furlongs, it promises to be business as usual this week.
O’BRIEN POISED TO STRIKE
Considering Aidan O’Brien has supplied 17 of the 23 Irish-trained winning two-year-olds Royal Ascot since 1997, his record is clearly one worth focusing on.
For a trainer that has been at the top of his sport for so long, a notable feature of the Ballydoyle methodology is that it never seems to remain still, as in the last two decades there have been a number of contrasting phases in how they have produced their two-year-olds.
At various points in the last 20 years, two-year-olds coming out of Ballydoyle could be expected to be sharp and ready to rumble on debut. In the last 10 years, this reached its peak in 2013 with O’Brien registering a remarkable 35% strike rate with his debuting two-year-olds. However, his strike rate with newcomers has been significantly lower in each full year since then, varying between a high of 12% in 2015 to a low of 9% in 2016.
That said, the analysis gets even more interesting when one breaks it down into a more Royal Ascot-relevant sample by only considering two-year-olds that made their debut before the end of May each year.
When one looks at it through that lens, the performance of O’Brien’s debuting two-year-old has been metronomic in the last decade. Indeed, with the exception of an outlying 2017 when he didn’t saddle any winning newcomer up to the end of May, his pre-June strike rate with newcomers was between 20% and 25% in eight of those 10 years.
Within that context, it is interesting to note that O’Brien’s two-year-olds have been operating ahead of the curve thus far this season. Up to the end of May, his newcomers have hit a decade-high strike rate of 26% and his tally of six winning newcomers in that period is also his highest in a decade.
Whether it is by coincidence or design, the Ballydoyle two-year-olds seem to be going into Royal Ascot in notably forward shape.
Given that the last four years have seen O’Brien saddle seven of his 16 lifetime winners in two-year-old races at the meeting, the prospect of his team being even sharper going to Berkshire this year is a potentially ominous one for his rivals.