By Jon Lees
Tyler Gaffalione, the rising star of the American riding ranks, cannot wait to pay his first visit to Royal Ascot – where he has the chance to add to what he describes as “the greatest eight months of my life”.
Gaffalione links up next week with US trainer Wesley Ward, who has trained 10 winners at the famous meeting over the past decade.
The 24-year-old jockey became a US Classic-winning jockey last month when he steered War Of Will to victory in the Preakness Stakes. Thanks to Ward, he now seeks to make his mark on the international stage – with Bound For Nowhere one of his rides, in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes.
War Of Will’s trainer Mark Casse and Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, with whom Gaffalione tied a Gulfstream Park record of seven winners on one card in 2017, are among others to have hailed him as the next superstar of the saddle.
Gaffalione could not repeat his Preakness-winning effort on War Of Will in last weekend’s Belmont Stakes.
“He was a little empty and tired, but it was completely understandable,” said the jockey, who has a new challenge to focus on as he flies to England on Sunday night.
“I am really excited,” he added.
“I’ve been following Royal Ascot for the past few years, and the more I watch racing from there it’s so intriguing. It’s such a beautiful racecourse and world-class event. I am definitely looking forward to it.”
The Ward rides will be shared with John Velazquez, but Gaffalione expects to be involved every day and has been doing his homework on the track.
“I’ve talked to a few riders that have been to Ascot in the past,” he said.
“The main difference is it’s a straightaway. Over here when we run five-eighths we usually go round one track. I’ve got to pay attention to that.
“Really everyone is saying to enjoy it – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – so I am going in there hoping to have a good time and to learn as much as possible.
“The only one I know I am on for sure is Bound For Nowhere. The other ones, Wesley makes those decisions, but I am really looking forward to Bound For Nowhere. He’s been working great here.
“He’s run once already this year over at Keeneland, running a tremendous race. I haven’t worked him but I’ve been working in company with him. He looks like he is 100 per cent ready for this race.
“Wesley knows exactly what he’s doing, preparing for these races. He has a lot of faith in him, so that gives me a lot of confidence going into this race.”
Gaffalione and Ward are both former Eclipse Award winners as North America’s champion apprentice.
Ward won the title back in 1984; Gaffalione, whose father Steve and brother Bobby were both jockeys, added his name to the roll of honour in 2015.
Having made his name in his home state Florida with a succession of riding titles at Gulfstream Park, to date he has ridden 1,095 career winners – including 95 this year.
“I’ve had a great career so far and am so grateful to all the owners and trainers for the opportunities,” added Gaffalione.
“This has probably been the greatest eight months of my life. I am trying to enjoy the moment and looking forward to the future.”
Ward has been one of his mentors.
“Wesley is such a great guy,” he said.
“I’ve known him since I first started race riding when I started going to his barn, working horses for him.
“He always finds horses for me to ride, always gives me opportunities. I’ve learned so much working with him. How he does things is truly remarkable.”
Gaffalione, whose only previous trip outside the US was a brief visit to Qatar in February, will not be a complete stranger in the Ascot changing room.
“I rode with Jamie Spencer at Gulfstream a little, and got to know him,” he said.
“He’s a great guy, and I know Frankie Dettori pretty well. He came down for the Pegasus – (so) I’ve been in contact with him a few times.
“I met Ryan Moore once. I haven’t really talked to him much, but I am a huge fan of his. John [Velazquez] will be there too, so it shouldn’t be too bad!”