After coming up just short in his title defense last summer, 2016 Gold Cup (G1) winner Order of St George bids to regain his crown in Thursday’s Royal Ascot feature. Aidan O’Brien’s staying star will be tested by two serious rivals in Stradivarius and Vazirabad, making for an epic renewal of the 2 1/2-mile prize.
Order of St George stirred up hopes of becoming the heir apparent to four-time Gold Cup legend Yeats when bolting up here two years ago. But the dream ended when lion-hearted front runner Big Orange staved him off in 2017. Order of St George has gone on to win five of his ensuing six, his lone loss in that span a commendable fourth in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1). The son of Galileo has flaunted his class in both preps this season, romping in the April 22 Vintage Crop (G3) and turning a facile three-peat in the May 25 Saval Beg.
Stradivarius was similarly impressive in his reappearance in the May 18 Yorkshire Cup (G2), rolling by three lengths over Desert Skyline. Next-out Belmont Gold Cup (G2) winner Call to Mind was third, and back in fourth was Willie Mullins’ dual-purpose performer Max Dynamite, twice Melbourne Cup (G1)-placed.
The John Gosden pupil first burst onto the staying scene with a victory in the 1 3/4-mile Queen’s Vase (G2) at last year’s Royal meeting. Stradivarius handled an extra quarter-mile next time in the Goodwood Cup (G1), dethroning two-time defending champion Big Orange. Although Stradivarius was receiving a 13-pound weight concession as a sophomore, he deserves credit as the first of his tender age to take the Goodwood Cup since Lucky Moon in 1990. Stradivarius rounded off the year with a pair of thirds in the St Leger (G1) at Doncaster and British Champions Long Distance Cup (G2) over this track, where he was beaten a length by Order of St George. That was a half-mile shorter than the Gold Cup, and the Sea the Stars colt is venturing into terra incognita at this distance. If he has the stamina, he’s got the class.
French celebrity Vazirabad, a proven stayer with a wicked turn of foot, brings his game to Ascot for the first time. Trained by Alain de Royer-Dupre, the Aga Khan homebred enters off consecutive three-peats in the March 31 Dubai Gold Cup (G2) (in course-record time at Meydan) and the May 27 Prix Vicomtesse Vigier (G2). Vazirabad has won both of France’s premier marathons, the Prix Royal-Oak (G1) (twice) and the Prix du Cadran (G1) at about 2 9/16 miles, so the stylish late runner has no stamina concerns. He’s also the soul of dependability with a record of 15 wins and five seconds from 22 starts, his only unplaced efforts coming at shorter trips.
Torcedor rebounded from a Dubai clunker to wire Ascot’s Sagaro (G3) on May 2, but must cope with an additional half-mile here. Although he’s out of a full sister to Yeats, Torcedor has yet to prove himself at the trip. The Jessica Harrington trainee was a well-beaten fifth in last year’s Gold Cup, and he’s played second fiddle to Order of St George in their past two meetings in the Irish St Leger (G1) and the aforementioned Long Distance Cup.
Desert Skyline, on the other hand, may improve on the stretch-out. His signature win came in the longest race of his career so far, the 2 1/4-mile Doncaster Cup (G2) over older horses last September. A staying-on third to Torcedor in the Sagaro and runner-up to Stradivarius at York, the David Elsworth gelding may be poised for a big effort.
Pending Tuesday’s final declarations, other contenders in the mix include Idaho, who could go for a repeat in Saturday’s Hardwicke (G2) instead of this distance experiment for O’Brien; globetrotting veteran Sheikhzayedroad, the 2016 Gold Cup third who was runner-up to Vazirabad in the Dubai Gold Cup two back; Godolphin’s progressive Gold Star, last seen fifth in that Meydan feature; Further Flight S. winner Mount Moriah, who’ll try to turn the tables after a third in the Irish St Leger and fourth in the Long Distance Cup; and Scotland, unplaced in his two Gold Cup attempts before a two-year hiatus from the game.
Thursday’s undercard is in flux with several cross-entries in various alternative spots, so the following is a necessarily abbreviated (and rough) guide to the prospective match-ups.
The Norfolk (G2), a “Win and You’re In” for the newly minted Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint, could lure antepost favorite Sergei Prokofiev away from his initial target of Tuesday’s Coventry (G2). Yet another talented Scat Daddy from the O’Brien yard, Sergei Prokofiev is two-for-three over the Norfolk’s five-furlong trip, and he followed up a Navan romp with a four-length conquest of the Rochestown.
Also among the O’Brien possibles is The Irish Rover, from the first crop of 2013 Norfolk hero No Nay Never. After totally flubbing the start in a near-miss fourth here May 2, he put it all together in the valuable Olympic Glory conditions race at Newbury.
Wesley Ward, who trained No Nay Never, sends out the filly Shang Shang Shang fresh off her Keeneland debut score. Tim Easterby’s Vintage Brut made it two-for-two in the National S., but may not get a rematch with runner-up Sabre likely preferring Saturday’s Windsor Castle. National third Konchek has a further option in the Coventry.
Godolphin trainer Charlie Appleby has the early market leader in the Hampton Court (G3) in Key Victory. Successful in the Newmarket S. two starts back at this 1 1/4-mile distance, the homebred was most recently eighth in the Prix du Jockey-Club (French Derby) (G1). His antepost status suggests that this is his target, not his other engagement in Tuesday’s St James’s Palace (G1).
Similarly, the early betting points to Hunting Horn as O’Brien’s leading protagonist, although stablemate Athena would be fascinating if choosing to try the boys. Hunting Horn, third in both the Chester Vase (G3) and Sandown Classic Trial (G3), was sixth in the French Derby.
Appleby has the form pick in the 1 1/2-mile Ribblesdale (G2), with Wild Illusion coming off a second in the Oaks (G1) at Epsom. Last fall’s Prix Marcel Boussac (G1) heroine was also a creditable fourth in the 1000 Guineas (G1) before stepping up in trip.
But Wild Illusion is vying for favoritism with class-climbing blueblood Sun Maiden. A Frankel half-sister to Midday, whose daughter Mori (also by Frankel) was just nipped in last year’s Ribblesdale, the Juddmonte homebred trounced her Salisbury novice rivals last out. Trainer Sir Michael Stoute has given Sun Maiden an Irish Oaks (G1) entry too.
The aforementioned Athena, by Camelot and out of Urban Sea’s daughter Cherry Hinton, is a half-sister to 2014 Ribblesdale and Irish Oaks winner Bracelet. Disregard her subpar runs on rain-softened going, for Athena fits well as runner-up to Sea of Class in the Fillies’ Trial on good-to-firm at Newbury. Stablemate Magic Wand, who broke her maiden in the Cheshire Oaks, was fourth at Epsom but eligible to improve back on better ground. The same applies to Clive Cox’s Lingfield Oaks Trial winner, Perfect Clarity, only seventh at Epsom.
We’ll post a handicapping feature following the final declarations for Thursday’s card.