You can see it happening in front of you, brick by brick, as Aidan O’Brien gradually puts his Royal Ascot team in place.

Royal Ascot is the greatest show in town when it comes to Flat racing, Cheltenham without obstacles if you like.

But whereas Cheltenham is now something of an Irish benefit, or at least a Willie Mullins-Gordon Elliott benefit, given how weak the British challenge has become, Ascot offers an altogether stiffer test, even for the bluebloods representing Ballydoyle.

Ascot kicks away on June 19 and, if you have been paying attention over the last few weeks, you will get a very good idea as to how the O’Brien mind works.

There are, for instance, three O’Brien-trained horses who stick out like the proverbial sore thumb that almost certainly have had just one early season goal in mind — Royal Ascot.

Chief among them has to be the four-year-old Rhododendron, who this week was a best priced 5-1 for the one-mile Queen Anne Stakes.

It has been well documented she burst particularly badly at Chantilly last June, so badly that it was a bit of a surprise she wasn’t retired. Given almost three months to recover, she was a Group 1 winner before season’s end, landing the Prix de L’Opera, back at Chantilly, on October 1.

But it is what O’Brien has done with the daughter of Galileo so far this season that makes you think he looked at the Queen Anne and then decided to work back from that.

I mean on April 29, he sent her for an extended 10-furlongs Group 1 at Longchamp, taking on the mighty John Gosden-trained Cracksman.

That hot-pot duly bolted in, with Rhododendron beaten five and a half lengths into fourth place. But the filly performed way better than the bare form and had all the hallmarks of an O’Brien horse that was sure to improve massively.

Fast forward to Newbury last Saturday and another Group 1, the Lockinge Stakes, with Rhododendron getting the full Ryan Moore treatment to beat Lightning Spear by a short head. Roll on Royal Ascot had to be the cry.

Then there is Sioux Nation, who will surely head for the Commonwealth Cup at Ascot and also seems to have had his early campaign based on working back from that target.

He won the Group 2 Norfolk Stakes at the meeting last year, before enjoying Group 1 success in the Phoenix Stakes at the Curragh.

Sioux Nation made his seasonal debut Navan last month when only fourth, beaten over seven lengths, behind The Broghie Man, Speak In Colours, and Fleet Review.

He crossed swords with that trio again at Naas last Sunday and, on just 2lbs better terms and granted a far faster surface, beat them all out of the gate.

The third O’Brien candidate that has to have had Ascot mapped out for him from a fair way back is the juvenile, Sergei Prokofiev.

He made his debut at Dundalk on April 11, but the 4-9 shot managed to get beaten, going down by a short head to Skitter Scatter.

But then Sergei Prokofiev won by seven and a half lengths at Navan next time and hardly broke sweat to score by four lengths in Listed company at Naas last Sunday.

He will now head to the Coventry Stakes relatively experienced, with three outings under his belt, and that is a big plus.

One other horse of O’Brien’s worth keeping in mind, on the basis he may be rapidly on the upgrade, is Rostropovich.

He was a decent two-year-old, no more, and, like Rhododendron, went to Longchamp last month for his first run of the season.

This was for a mile race on heavy ground and Rostropovich ran respectably to finish fourth behind French horse Wootton.

But then he went to Chester for a 10-furlongs plus Listed event, the first-time racing beyond a mile, on good ground and bounded clear in the straight to score by just under four lengths.

Rostropovich still has plenty to prove but, you suspect, will be rather competitive in tomorrow week’s French Derby at Longchamp.

It will be interesting to see how Ger Lyons’ three-year-old filly, Blue Uluru, progresses through the season.

I don’t take a lot of notice of handicappers, but intend to make an exception when it come to this daughter of the former top Australian sprinter Choisir.

In a five furlongs handicap at Navan last Saturday, Blue Uluru was the only three-year-old in the field, taking on 10 older rivals.

Younger horses generally face a tough task in this type of contest, at this time of the year, but Blue Uluru was having none of it.

Partnered by Gary Carroll, she travelled powerfully throughout and quickened up in style in the closing stages to score going away by a length and a half.

I thought Blue Uluru had a fair bit more under the bonnet than the bare margin of victory and was pleasantly surprised this week to note she has been raised only 7lbs.

A couple of weeks ago we said here the 4-1 Happily, for tomorrow’s Irish 1,000 Guineas at the Curragh, was some price, if you knew for sure that was going to be her next race.

Well, we know now that is obviously the case, although the 4-1 has long disappeared.

Third in the Newmarket 1000 Guineas, she shaped as if the spin would do her a power of good.

A top two-year-old, she has one outstanding run to her name that marks Happily as different gravy to tomorrow’s opposition.

That came at Chantilly last October when she took on the colts in the Group 1 Grand Criterium, beating Olmedo and Masar.

At Longchamp earlier this month, Olmedo landed the French 2,000 Guineas, while Masar was an excellent third behind Saxon Warrior in the English 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket.

If there is a nagging doubt regarding Happily it is how she might cope with a really fast surface, having already shown herself to be very effective on soft ground.

In any case the hope is she will live up to our expectations and the obvious port of call after that will be the Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot.

Mark Johnston’s Elarqam is the obvious choice in today’s 2,000 Guineas.

His creditable fourth to Saxon Warrior in the Newmarket equivalent speaks for itself and he should be far better suited by the Curragh track.


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