Aidan O’Brien’s Ascot may not be as royal as other years

Can Aidan O’Brien deliver for punters at the five-day Royal Ascot extravaganza, which starts next Tuesday? asks Pat Keane

Aidan O’Brien’s Ascot may not be as royal as other years

We have written here of late about the manner in which O’Brien has been building his squad, but relatively recent events have diluted one’s confidence that the Ballydoyle maestro’s powerful army may not be quite as strong as it shaped some weeks back.

The O’Brien challenge was blown out of the water in both the Epsom Derby and the French equivalent at Chantilly and Ballydoyle’s four runners in the Irish 2000 Guineas at the Curragh were swept aside by Ken Condon’s shock winner, Romanised.

One of those to have his limitations ruthlessly exposed at Epsom was O’Brien’s Saxon Warrior and, suddenly, his three-year-old colts just seem rather ordinary.

Is an O’Brien Royal Ascot blank a possibility? Absolutely not. A year ago, he trained an impressive six winners at the meeting, but I cannot now see him quite hitting such a target on this occasion.

Mind you, he does offer some tempting wagers, none more so than the two-year-old filly, Fairyland, in Friday’s six-furlong Albany Stakes. Successful on her debut at Naas — the second (Mintd) and the fourth (Moravia) have won since — it is always seriously encouraging when a filly then proceeds to beat the colts.

That is precisely what Fairyland did when stepped into Listed company at the Curragh next time. She slammed some useful rivals and is near the top of this Ascot punting list.

I also want to be with O’Brien’s Australian import, Merchant Navy, in next Saturday’s Diamond Jubilee Stakes, over six furlongs.

Merchant Navy made a stunning Irish debut when scoring at the Curragh on May 26 and all the word out of Ballydoyle is he is capable of stepping well up on the bare form of that race. When winning at the Curragh he had a pair of English runners behind in Tasleet (third) and Brando (fourth) and they are not a million miles shy of being among the best across channel.

The Diamond Jubilee will take a lot of winning, no doubt about that, but I have a feeling Merchant Navy is going to prove more than equal to the task!

I have a gone a little cold on O’Brien’s Sergei Prokofiev in Tuesday’s Coventry Stakes, after thinking at one stage he was a banker.

He’s done nothing wrong, winning by a street at Navan, prior to taking a Listed event by four lengths at Naas.

So, what’s the worry then? Well, we like to be with a horse who has solid form in the book when backing it and that Naas contest is becoming weaker by the minute.

Sergei Prokofiev only had four rivals to beat in the first place and the runner-up, Andre Amar, hasn’t been seen in the meantime.

However, Offline, Dandys Ocean and Izzer, third, fourth and fifth respectively, have reappeared and essentially done nothing to boost Sergei Prokofiev’s profile.

The son of Scat Daddy has a big reputation and may be particularly strong in the market on the day, but this looks a hot renewal of the Coventry and I’m happy enough to watch the race, with a view to being educated going forward.

Likewise, I can picture O’Brien’s Order Of St George falling short in the Ascot Gold Cup on Thursday. We were against him here as well a year ago and duly laid the horse.

Laying at around even-money was always attractive enough and, of course, he was beaten a short head into second by the gallant Big Orange.

We were lucky to get the few quid, however, because this was not Ryan Moore’s finest hour and Order Of St George should have won and would have done in another stride.

The reason we opposed him, of course, was due to the fast surface, because Order Of St George is always vulnerable on such ground.

As well as that, this year’s race looks much more competitive and that adds to the task facing the favourite. On soft ground we would, obviously, swing right behind Order Of St George.

In any case, we certainly won’t be laying him on this occasion, the price is just too big. My idea of the winner is John Gosden’s Stradivarius, who is massively progressive and fast ground is not a problem.

And one, two, or even three, other things. Can that indomitable force called Jessica Harrington saddle her first ever Royal Ascot winner? Numerically, only O’Brien, you suspect, will have more runners from this country.

Surely, Harrington’s best chance will arrive courtesy of Alpha Centauri in the Coronation Stakes on Friday.

The daughter of Mastercraftsman has come right at the perfect time, as evidenced by her battling success in the Irish 1000 Guineas at the Curragh late last month. That was a true-run race and the 5-1 on offer about Alpha Centauri this week was solid each-way value.

Is John Gosden’s Cracksman a good thing in Wednesday’s Prince Of Wales’ Stakes? Fast ground is a worry, but I would still be reluctant to back anything to beat him.

Also, why was US Navy Flag four points shorter in places than Romanised this week in the betting for the St James’ Palace Stakes on Tuesday. Yeah, I know because he’s trained by Aidan O’Brien.

But Romanised beat him by two-and-a-quarter lengths into second in the Irish 2000 Guineas at the Curragh and on what basis should the placings be reversed?

Here are three horses I am convinced will win sooner rather than later, starting with Dermot Weld’s Manzil. He made his debut at the Curragh on May 27, when a promising sixth behind Aidan O’Brien’s Lucius Tiberius.

That was over 10 furlongs and he was then dropped to a mile when third to Understate and California Jumbo at Navan 10 days ago. Manzil needs to go back up in trip and, when he does, we will want to be with him.

At the Curragh last Saturday, Jessica Harrington’s Invincible Karma only gave best late to the well-backed Decrypt, going down by half a length in a six-furlong maiden. He seemed to love the fast ground and displayed real enthusiasm.

Finally there is Aidan O’Brien’s Secret Thoughts, who was second behind Ger Lyons’s previously twice-raced Moravia on her debut at Leopardstown this month. The daughter of War Front could never get in a blow at that all-the-way winner, and was well beaten in the end, but wasn’t knocked about when her chance was gone.

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Saturday, November 27, 2021

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