The first automatic qualifier for the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint (G2) was determined on Friday when The Lir Jet battled to a gritty victory in the Norfolk (G2) at Royal Ascot, securing a “Win and You’re In” berth to the Nov. 6 championship event at Keeneland.
A dozen lightly-raced juveniles faced the starter for the Norfolk, a 5-furlong dash conducted over good to soft ground. Bettors were keen to back Eye of Heaven off a strong debut win at Newmarket, establishing the Mark Johnston trainee as the 7-4 favorite, but when the gates opened Eye of Heaven was quickly outpaced by Wesley Ward’s American invader Golden Pal, who blazed to a commanding early advantage.
Eye of Heaven waved the white flag at the quarter pole, but The Lir Jet — always prominent while tracking on the far side — was unaffected by the rapid early tempo and gamely set off in pursuit of the pacesetter. Golden Pal had something left in the tank himself and briefly spurted clear inside the quarter pole, but The Lir Jet was relentless in his chase and thrust his neck in front before the finish line to steal the show under jockey Oisin Murphy.
Golden Pal ran a resilient race in his own right, pulling 3 1/4 lengths clear of the late-charging Imperial Force, while Eye of Heaven retreated to finish ninth. The final time was 1:01.55.
“During the race, I was a bit worried when the leader went so far clear,” remarked winning trainer Michael Bell. “Oisin obviously thought he had it in control, but The Lir Jet battled… He has learnt how to race today and I think you will see an even better performance next time, hopefully.”
Owned by Qatar Racing, The Lir Jet was previously victorious in a maiden dash at Yarmouth, where he won by 2 3/4 lengths and broke the course record for 5 furlongs, 42 yards. The Lir Jet’s early maturity isn’t surprising since his sire, Prince of Lir, likewise won the Norfolk in 2016.
“I think he is all speed; he is by a sprinter out of a Green Desert mare,” noted Bell. “I think he will definitely get six (furlongs), but I wouldn’t be thinking he will get further than that.”
Bell indicated The Lir Jet would likely target a Group 1 race next time out, with the Prix Morny (G1) and the Nunthorpe (G1) among the possibilities.
Later in the afternoon, Wesley Ward experienced another tough beat with Kimari in the Commonwealth Cup (G1), a 6-furlong sprint for sophomores. A three-time U.S. stakes winner and runner-up in the 2019 Queen Mary (G2) at Royal Ascot, Kimari did her best to rally into contention after breaking slowly from the starting gate. But the daughter of Munnings was destined for a runner-up effort as the front-running Golden Horde held sway through the final furlong to score by 1 1/2 lengths in his 2020 debut.
Conditioned by Clive Cox for AlMohamediya Racing, Golden Horde flashed across the finish line in 1:14.56, reiterating the testing nature of the good to soft course. Adam Kirby was in the saddle, bringing back memories of the 2013 Royal Ascot meeting, when Kirby and Cox teamed up to win the 6-furlong Diamond Jubilee (G1) with Golden Horde’s sire, Lethal Force.
“Golden Horde was Group 1-placed twice last year and was great in (winning) the Richmond Stakes. We always believed this year he would be able to take a step up physically,” Cox said. “He was a big horse last year, but he has really grown into that frame this year… We always trained him last year with the knowledge that with the right sort of behavior he would be a better horse this year as well. It is just fantastic when it goes right and when dreams are realized.”
Saturday at Ascot
The Royal Ascot meet concludes on Saturday with five more stakes races, including the Diamond Jubilee (G1), which serves as a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Nov. 7 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1). American racing fans will have a vested interest in two of the supporting events: the 1-mile Coronation (G1) for sophomore fillies, which has attracted 2019 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1) champion Sharing, and the 5-furlong Queen Mary (G2), in which Ward will saddle the 2-year-olds fillies Campanelle and Royal Approval.