November 30, 2023

Selections for Wednesday’s features at Royal Ascot

Cracksman returns to the scene of his Champion heroics (Photo courtesy of Ascot via Twitter)

With five Group races on tap at Royal Ascot Wednesday – most ultra-competitive on paper and two almost maddeningly so – Day 2 promises to be a wild ride for would-be prognosticators.

Hence opinions end up feeling like acts of faith, even more so than usual. For additional views, see the betting guide and the TwinSpires blog, where my colleagues Vance Hanson and John Mucciolo are always worth following.

1ST Race, the Queen Mary (G2)

If you’re trying to look beyond the Wesley Ward favorite, there’s at least a handful of juvenile fillies capable of stepping up in this 22-runner scramble.

Partly influenced by the precedent of Different League upsetting last summer’s Albany (G3) for the same connections, I find #6 FOREVER IN DREAMS (15-1) an irresistibly intriguing contender. The Matthieu Palussiere trainee brings a similar profile as the winner of both starts in France, with the perhaps significant difference that Forever in Dreams has only raced around a turn. By Dream Ahead and out of a half-sister to sprint star Marchand d’Or, the gray looked powerful in her Bordeaux debut when surging to the front, drifting, yet finding another gear when challenged by the favorite. Since that favorite was a Martin Schwartz/Jean-Claude Rouget blueblood named Turf War, my hunch is the form might turn out to be solid. Forever in Dreams then upended colts in a Saint-Cloud conditions race, including better-fancied stablemate Trois Mats, who came back to win a similar evenr. Now she tries a straightaway on firmer turf than she’s ever seen, but Forever in Dreams strikes me as a very appealing individual.

#17 SHADES OF BLUE (5-1) rates as the most logical non-Ward choice. (Considering that I talked myself into ranking a pair of Tuesday winners in the second spot yesterday, Blue Point and Without Parole, maybe she’ll make it three). Trained by Clive Cox, whose Heartache denied Ward’s Happy Like a Fool in last year’s Queen Mary, Shades of Blue burst between foes to win a hot maiden over this very course and distance. Runner-up Queen of Bermuda has since won twice and looms a main player in Saturday’s Windsor Castle, while third-placer #2 COME ON LEICESTER (12-1) rolled at Windsor in her follow-up. Shades of Blue is bred to be a two-year-old as a daughter of Kodiac from the immediate family of Gutaifan, and with loads of speed on tap, she’ll be closing late.

The Ward speedball, #1 CHELSEA CLOISTERS (2-1), blew them away from pillar to post in her Keeneland debut. Indications are that the First Samurai filly is Ward’s best regarded juvenile hopeful of the Royal meeting, and it would be no surprise if she becomes his fourth winner of this race. Still, in such a large field of promising prospects, I feel compelled to look for back-up in case she’s not the next Acapulco or Lady Aurelia.

#11 KURIOUS (15-1) touts herself as a first-up winner for Henry Candy, ironically beating owner Hot to Trot’s preferred debutante at Sandown, Heartache’s half-sister Heartwarming. But by going forward early and shrugging off a couple of challenges, Kurious ran herself right into Royal Ascot. She’s part of a wave building for freshman sire Kuroshio, a speedy Australian-bred son of Exceed and Excel, and as a half-sister to five-furlong mavens Tangerine Trees and Alpha Delphini, this is likely her optimal trip. I might have ranked her higher but for a scruple about her being drawn near Chelsea Cloisters and possibly trying to chase her early. #21 SO PERFECT (6-1) is trying to give Aidan O’Brien his first Queen Mary, and the Scat Daddy filly advertised herself with a strong finish to score on debut. Ignore her last run when fourth to #16 SERVALAN (12-1) in the six-furlong Naas Fillies’ Sprint. In the rematch back over five, So Perfect is eligible to turn the tables.

2ND Race, the Queen’s Vase (G2)

In a race where the form horses have some kind of question mark and the up-and-comers don’t readily distinguish themselves, I’ve tepidly come down on the side of #8 NELSON (5-1) in hopes of a rebound to prior form. What particularly leaps off the page is his near-miss second in last September’s Royal Lodge (G2) to Roaring Lion, leaving the tough Mildenberger (favored in Friday’s King Edward VII [G2]) back in third. That separates Nelson from his two stablemates here. Nelson returned to wire the Ballysax (G3), but failed to run up to that level when a disappointing sixth in the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial (G3). The 1 3/4-mile distance is an unknown, especially for a horse on a retrieval mission, but the son of Frankel and Moonstone has abundant stamina in his family. If his three-quarter brother U S Army Ranger, the 2016 Epsom Derby (G1) runner-up, ultimately proved a bitter flop, he was third in last year’s Queen Alexandra over almost 2 3/4 miles.

Trainer Mark Johnston has a terrific record in this race, albeit in its former guise as a two-miler, and #7 LYNWOOD GOLD (20-1) has a sneaky upset chance as the better of his duo. The Mastercraftsman colt was only third when trying the vicinity of this trip in a Doncaster handicap, but he was spotting considerable weight to the top two and not enjoying the soft ground. Lynwood Gold is two-for-two on good-to-firm, and he does have a potentially useful formline through his fifth in the Cocked Hat S. at Goodwood two back. He led and remained in the firing line until getting outkicked late in that contest.

#5 KEW GARDENS (5-2) is a well-fancied O’Brien thanks to the presence of Ryan Moore in the saddle, but he’d be more attractive if not wheeling back from a ninth in the Derby at Epsom. Sacrificed as part of the hot pace, the Galileo colt is better than that if he can bring his A-game on the stretch-out. Kew Gardens shaped like a thoroughgoing stayer when setting a juvenile track record in the 1 1/4-mile Zetland at Newmarket, and he was rounding into form in a couple of classic trials leading up to Epsom. But you’ve got to go back to Mahler (2007) to find a Derby participant winning the Queen’s Vase – also for O’Brien.

#9 SOUTHERN FRANCE (5-2) is an outstanding prospect for O’Brien in the staying ranks. Yet the Galileo colt still looks like just that – a big, raw prospect more for the future than the present. Aidan and his son Donnacha (who rode Southern France in his Yeats S. victory) have expressed a similar view. For that reason he may be more a place chance, with this run intended to further his education. Also worthy of mention are John Gosden’s two contenders. Recent Ascot maiden-breaker #11 STREAM OF STARS (4-1) hopes to emulate last year’s winner, Stradivarius, another Gosden-trained son of Sea the Stars. Perhaps lightning can strike twice, but Stradivarius brought considerably more experience, and in the past decade only Estimate (2012) stepped up from a maiden score to win. Stablemate #1 ALMOGHARED (15-1), a Dansili half to champion filly Taghrooda, is a tempting pedigree play if he can overcome the same stat.

3RD Race, the Duke of Cambridge (G2)

O’Brien’s #1 HYDRANGEA (9-5) may not have reached her peak form in just this second start of 2018, and last year’s Matron (G1) and British Champions Fillies & Mares (G1) heroine has the additional burden of carrying 131 pounds. Still, her rivals are much of a muchness, and her significant class edge ought to carry her a long way. After all, Hydrangea was barely ready for her reappearance in the Lanwades Stud (G2) and still ran a commendable second. Modest improvement off that would be enough.

#11 WILAMINA (7-1) may be best of the rest after two fine performances in traditional lead-ups to this race. No match for Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1) vixen Wuheida when a respectful second in the Dahlia (G2), the Martyn Meade mare scored a new career high in the Princess Elizabeth (G3) on Derby Day at Epsom.

#7 TOMYRIS (6-1) likewise enters off a signature win in the Chartwell Fillies’ S. (G3) at Lingfield. Trainer Roger Varian may be employing the pattern that worked well for the daughter of Invincible Spirit last season: she started out with a seven-furlong maiden win, followed by a victory in the one-mile Michael Seely Memorial.

#3 ALJAZZI (4-1) is an obvious alternative as the runner-up, at odds of 40-1, in this very race last year. The Marco Botti trainee warmed up with a third versus males in the Sandown Mile (G2), and a repeat of that would put her right in the hunt. The temptation, however, is to try to get someone else underneath to avert the all-chalk exacta. Bigger-priced options can get involved too, especially #10 URBAN FOX (15-1), who’s apparently reached a new level since switching to William Haggas. Dubai Carnival celebrity #2 PROMISING RUN (15-1) would factor at her best, but after stablemate Benbatl’s lifeless display in Tuesday’s Queen Anne (G1), it might be a reach.

4TH Race, the Prince of Wales’s (G1), a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1)

If intrepid Royal Ascot Pick 4 players have successfully navigated the treacherous waters of the first three legs without capsizing, hopefully safe harbor is at hand in the day’s – make that the meeting’s – most lopsided favorite.

#2 CRACKSMAN (1-2) won’t get the soft ground that helped him run up the score in the Champion S. (G1) over this track and trip last October, but he doesn’t need to romp by seven in order to hold sway over this field. The star son of Frankel suffered his only two losses in the 2017 Epsom Derby and Irish Derby (G1), when the still-developing colt had not yet strengthened into his frame. And he’s been unbeatable ever since.

Granted, the aura of invincibility faded last time out with a last-gasp score in the Coronation Cup (G1), but you can turn that on its head and praise Cracksman for pulling the proverbial chestnuts out of the fire as champions do. Whether it was his old unease around Epsom, or Gosden’s belief that he was dazed senseless hitting his head on the starting gate, we didn’t see the real Cracksman, yet he still found a way to win from a poor position. Had he run hard for the duration, there could be a concern about a tough slog leaving its mark. But he only knuckled down late, suggesting that he’ll arrive at Royal Ascot in tip-top condition.

#1 CLIFFS OF MOHER (12-1), a tough beat runner-up in the Derby when Cracksman was third, is belatedly back in that sort of form for O’Brien. The Galileo colt is best at this 1 1/4-mile distance, and his closing second in the Tattersalls Gold Cup (G1) will set him up well. Indeed, pacemaking stablemate Lancaster Bomber was given far too much rope at the Curragh; with a less passive ride, Cliffs of Moher might well have been in better position to catch him.

It would be fitting for #6 POET’S WORD (4-1), second to Cracksman in the Champion and also a near-miss runner-up in the Irish Champion (G1), to round out the exacta again. The Sir Michael Stoute charge comes off his first notable victory at this trip in the Brigadier Gerard (G3), where he had to run down the controlling speed. The race shape didn’t help deep closer #3 DESERT ENCOUNTER (50-1), who rallied for third.

#4 EMINENT (10-1), a bold front-running third in the Irish Champion, has been on the Group 1 fringes so far in his career. The well-bred son of Frankel was sixth in last year’s 2000 Guineas (G1), and a close fourth in the Derby, and he continues to hold out hope of a top-level breakthrough. Although a too-bad-to-be-true last as the odds-on favorite in his Huxley (G2) reappearance, Meade reported an elevated heart rate, and Eminent has been fine since. He’s entitled to do himself justice second off the bench.

Godolphin’s multiple Group 1 winner #5 HAWKBILL (10-1) also shouldn’t be judged harshly off his flop behind Cracksman in the Coronation. The bigger question is shortening up to this distance. The Charlie Appleby trainee has become a 1 1/2-mile specialist with maturity, and it’s questionable if he could win this Royal Ascot feature unless conditions were boggy. Hawkbill needed soft going to take the 2016 Eclipse (G1), and historically he’s been vulnerable on firm courses.

[5TH Race is the Royal Hunt Cup, a heritage handicap. Good luck!]

6TH Race, the Jersey (G3)

Classic runners historically thrive in this seven-furlong class drop, so I’ll privilege contenders with that profile. #9 EXPERT EYE (7-1) has been a bust since his sensational Vintage (G2) victory last summer, but his one glimmer of life was a fiercely-pulling second in the Greenham (G3). The form was boosted when third-placer Hey Gaman just missed in the French 2000 Guineas (G1). Expert Eye failed to build on that trial effort in Newmarket’s 2000 Guineas, winding up 10th in his first attempt at a mile, and now his all-star connections (Juddmonte and Stoute) are going back to the drawing board. The combination of class relief and reverting in trip may finally get the talented but mercurial colt back in business.

#1 JAMES GARFIELD (10-1), the Greenham winner, must shoulder top weight of 132 pounds. If the smart youngster, an alum of the key Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1), can make that concession, he’s a top contender. The George Scott pupil fits the criterion as the seventh-placer in the Guineas, and he’s run again in the interim. Shortening up all the way to six furlongs for the Sandy Lane (G2), he closed for fourth to Friday’s Commonwealth Cup (G1) threats Sands of Mali and Invincible Army.

#21 COULD IT BE LOVE (8-1) tried to wire the French and Irish 1000 Guineas (G1), faring better in the latter when beating all bar Alpha Centauri (who runs in Friday’s Coronation [G1]) at the Curragh. The O’Brien filly gets in with 124 pounds, and the cutback to seven will help. As a War Front half to Uncle Mo, a classic placing already enhanced her broodmare value, but a Group score at Royal Ascot would be a welcome addition to the page.

#10 HEADWAY (10-1) also qualifies in light of his 12th in the 2000 Guineas. Moreover, the Haggas runner missed by a nostril in last summer’s Coventry (G2) over this course, and deployed an astonishing turn of foot to get up in the seven-furlong Spring Cup two back at Lingfield.

Of those looking to buck the trend in favor of classic participants, Gosden’s #8 EMARAATY (5-1) is vying for favoritism off a superior weight-carrying effort in defeat, just mugged by #15 SOCIETY POWER (10-1) when giving him 10 pounds. The royally bred son of Dubawi and Zee Zee Top was also tried in last fall’s Dewhurst (G1), underperforming in eighth, but the resume line itself signals high regard. Stablemate #14 PURSER (12-1), famously fourth to Gronkowski in the Burradon, has since won two straight including the King Charles II. Finally, Ward’s #11 HEMP HEMP HURRAY (15-1) may be spotted here, rather than the Commonwealth Cup, as the softer option in hopes of giving Ken Ramsey a long-desired winner at Royal Ascot.

Happy Day 2!