Some say pleasure deferred is pleasure enhanced but that is very much not the case when it comes to Royal Ascot. Come 4.30pm today, three of the week’s eight Group 1s will already have been contested as the biggest week in the Flat racing calendar kicks off with an almighty bang.
But the good news for racing fans is that after the St James’s Palace Stakes hero returns to the winner’s enclosure there’ll still be 26 races to go. As a consequence, there’s an endless supply of compelling stories to savour through the week. Here’s a sample.
The lady can be a champ
Laurens lit up last season and the Karl Burke-trained filly can claim her sixth Group 1 success by winning today’s opening contest, the Queen Anne Stakes.
A Group 1 winner as a two-year-old, Laurens added four top level successes to her CV in her Classic campaign and ran a fine race on her first start this season when finding only Mustashry too good in the Lockinge Stakes at Newbury.
Michael Stoute’s colt was a worthy winner on that occasion and will again be a tough nut to crack if in the same form this afternoon. However, that was a career-best effort by some way and he has to prove it was no fluke.
In contrast, Laurens has proven herself a consistently high achiever and her trainer has been bullish about his expectation Laurens will turn the tables this time. If that confidence proves well placed, she should claim a first Group 1 success over the boys as the older milers look a pretty moderate bunch.
Seconds out, round two
Confidently billing any top-level contest, let alone one at Royal Ascot, a two-horse race is a strategy paved with danger but nobody will be surprised — or disappointed — if last year’s first and second, Blue Point and Battaash, fight out the finish of the King’s Stand Stakes today.
Battaash is a conundrum. When everything goes to plan the Charlie Hills-trained gelding is all-but unbeatable but he’s also a highly-string individual who can be his own worst enemy and that obviously makes him a risky punting investment at a short price.
There’s no doubt he has more raw talent than Blue Point but that didn’t stop Charlie Appleby’s charge from reeling him in late on in this race last year and the Ascot specialist looks sure to run his race.
A fascinating rematch lies in store. And on the subject of rematches…
Third time lucky?
To say things haven’t gone to plan for Too Darn Hot this season would be an understatement of epic proportions. Injury forced last season’s champion juvenile to miss the Newmarket 2000 Guineas and Epsom Derby aspirations were shelved when he seemingly failed to stay 10 furlongs when second to Telecaster on his belated return to action in the Dante Stakes at York.
Just nine days later he was pitched into battle again, belatedly getting a crack at a Classic when sent to the Curragh for the Irish 2000 Guineas. Heavily backed shortly before the off, Too Darn Hot was no match for fellow British raider Phoenix Of Spain, going down by three lengths to a rival he had beaten convincingly as a two-year-old, a rival who arrived at the Curragh having himself endured a less than straightforward spring that also saw him miss the Newmarket equivalent.
It’s hard to see an obvious reason why the diminutive Too Darn Hot should turn the tables on the imposing grey in today’s St James’s Palace Stakes but trainer John Gosden is “the happiest I’ve been all year” with the
Dabawi colt and it’s worth remembering he turned Roaring Lion into the European Horse of the Year for 2018 after a similarly underwhelming start to his three-year-old campaign.
On that basis, it may yet pay to keep the faith with Too Darn Hot.
Khan do attitude
“He’s got a massive engine, he works like a machine at home, if he doesn’t work respectably in this I’ll be getting down on my hands and knees and asking Michael O’Leary can I put him away and keep him for Royal Ascot.”
— Gordon Elliott, March 6.
It’s not often a Cheltenham Festival preview night provides a nugget for Royal Ascot but Betfair’s offering did as Gordon Elliott offered his thoughts on Mengli Khan.
As events transpired, he did run respectably at Cheltenham, finishing an honourable third to Defi Du Seuil in the JLT Novices’ Chase before occupying the same position in an Aintree Grade One a month later.
However, his jumps campaign ended with a whimper as he finished fourth of five, 35 lengths behind Voix Du Reve in the Ryanair Gold Cup at Fairyhouse. He’s quirky, he’s not entirely reliable but he’s talented and, if he’s on a going day, he’ll take all the beating in the Ascot Stakes today.
The crème de la crème
It says everything about this year’s Prince Of Wales’s Stakes that the absence of last year’s Derby winner Masar has only marginally diluted the quality of what shapes as the race of the week.
Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe runner-up Sea Of Class, Aidan O’Brien’s Magical, the admirable Crystal Ocean, and French raider Waldgeist adds up to quite the cast. Waldgeist is a high-class horse but he is winless in five starts outside France and will need a career best to make it sixth time lucky.
Crystal Ocean looks sure to run his race but every time he has been pitched into Group 1 company he has found one too good and it would be a surprise if that doesn’t prove the case again.
Magical is a high-class filly who is yet to taste defeat in three starts this season but all three races were penalty kicks and she faces a significantly stiffer task tomorrow.
She does have a fitness edge on Sea Of Class but that may not be enough if the William Haggas-trained filly brings her A-game. Sea Of Class is dropping in trip but she possesses a devastating turn of foot and it’ll take a mighty effort to lower her colours.
The Prince Of Wales’s Stakes may be the most compelling race of the week but Thursday’s Gold Cup isn’t half bad either.
Stradivarius, so tenacious in victory last year, is back to defend his crown and faces a host of new challengers in Melbourne Cup hero Cross Counter, 2018 Derby runner-up Dee Ex Bee, and last year’s St Leger victor Kew Gardens. That trio look sure to put it up to Stradivarius but the reigning champion has guts as well as class and he won’t relinquish his crown without a monstrous fight.
Sovereigns to prove value
Aidan O’Brien is bidding for a fifth straight leading trainer award at Royal Ascot this week and it would be a brave person who would bet against a man destined to become the most successful handler in the history of this meeting before too long.
As ever, he looks to have a seriously powerful hand and his Friday team looks particularly formidable with Derby third Japan a big player in the King Edward VII Stakes and Hermosa looking banker material in the Coronation Stakes. In between those races, O’Brien also has leading claims in the Commonwealth Cup, a race that will see Ten Sovereigns bid to resume a winning thread.
Unbeaten in three starts over six furlongs as a two-year-old, it always seemed likely a mile would be beyond Ten Sovereigns and that seemed to be the case when the No Nay Never colt faded into fifth behind stablemate Magna Grecia in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket.
He hasn’t been seen since but the expectation is that he’ll find this six-furlong challenge far more to his liking. It promises to be quite the sight. It promises to be quite the week. Savour it.