April 23, 2024

2022 Royal Ascot: Top 10 takeaways

Nature Strip was a star of Royal Ascot (Photo by Megan Ridgwell/Ascot Racecourse)

Another sensational Royal Ascot is in the books. With sunny skies making for good-to-firm going, the tricky soft-ground variable was eliminated, and the results were generally logical.

Here are my top 10 takeaways from the June 14-18 meeting:

1. Nature Strip does Australia proud

The week brought a few standout performances, but the one likely to live on in the collective memory was Australian sprinter extraordinaire Nature Strip crushing them in the King’s Stand (G1). The Chris Waller veteran confirmed his stature as the world’s best speedster, powering away by 4 1/2 lengths. Now he’s etched his name alongside Choisir (2003), Takeover Target (2006), Miss Andretti (2007), and Scenic Blast (2009) as Australian-based winners of this race.

The mano-a-mano with Wesley Ward’s Golden Pal never really materialized after his bad miscue at the break. Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. was caught off guard by the pandemonium – Khaadem sitting in the gate and Mondaamej refusing to load. While it’s a shame that Golden Pal was taken right out of his game, rushed up, and retreated, the American would have needed a career best to cope with Nature Strip. And that’s just to hang with him, never mind beat him, down the straightaway.

The depth of the Australian sprint scene was underscored in the six-furlong Platinum Jubilee (G1). Although Waller’s favored Home Affairs disappointed, ultimately pulling up sore behind, compatriot Artorius flew late in a near-miss third. Godolphin trainer Charlie Appleby had the exacta with Naval Crown edging Creative Force, but the blanket finish reiterates there’s no standout among the older European sprinters. Enter the top-class sophomore Perfect Power, whose convincing win in the Commonwealth Cup (G1) suggests that he’s poised to take his elders by storm.

2. State of Rest unlocks new achievement

Australia had other reasons to celebrate through the week, chief among them State of Rest’s masterful wire job in the Prince of Wales’s (G1). Based in his native Ireland with Joseph O’Brien, State of Rest nevertheless counts as an honorary Aussie, of sorts, through his connections, as a son of Starspangledbanner, and as the reigning Cox Plate (G1) hero.

State of Rest had also earned his globetrotting stripes in the Saratoga Derby (G1), and added France’s Prix Ganay (G1), but a Group 1 laurel at Royal Ascot puts him in a different league. Granted, it was a tactical race that didn’t suit hot favorite Bay Bridge or Japan’s Shahryar. Yet that just shows the all-around versatility of State of Rest, who didn’t look like the pacesetter on paper. Wunderkind O’Brien hatched the plot, and jockey Shane Crosse executed it to perfection.

Pace was also the decisive factor in one of the wins for Australian-turned-Newmarket trainer Jane Chapple-Hyam. Her three-year-old Claymore capitalized on a canny front-running ride by Adam Kirby in the Hampton Court (G3), toppling The Queen’s Reach for the Moon. A lack of meaningful pace likely didn’t matter so much in the Duke of Cambridge (G2), where Chapple-Hyam’s Saffron Beach was much the best, despite top weight.

3. Inspiral versus Baaeed and Coroebus in mile summit?

As emphatic as Inspiral was in her unbeaten juvenile campaign, there had to be a scruple about whether the champion were fully primed for her Coronation (G1) comeback. Indeed, co-trainer John Gosden was artfully managing expectations. But Inspiral returned better than ever, dominating the English and French 1000 Guineas (G1) form, and saving an otherwise brutal week for Frankie Dettori.

The only missing element was Irish 1000 Guineas (G1) romper Homeless Songs, who was ruled out once Dermot Weld was worried about the ground being too firm. Her form has been standing up well, albeit over further. Hopefully we’ll get a clash at some point, on the level playing field of a good course.

The most mouth-watering clash of all, though, would be with older superstar Baaeed. The unbeaten mile champ started the Royal meeting off on a formful note in the Queen Anne (G1), once again dismissing Godolphin’s high-class Real World. But both shaped as if they want to go further. Real World’s trainer Saeed bin Suroor is considering a return to 1 1/4 miles for the July 2 Eclipse (G1).

While Baaeed has raced exclusively at a mile, the Shadwell homebred is a full brother to stamina-laden Hukum, last seen running away with the Coronation Cup (G1). Trainer William Haggas reiterated his intent to stretch Baaeed out, likely in the Juddmonte International (G1) at York in August. That would leave time for Baaeed to make one more mile tilt in the July 27 Sussex (G1) at Glorious Goodwood, and possibly bring about the hoped-for summit with his leading three-year-old challengers.

The Sussex is the expected spot for Godolphin’s Coroebus, the 2000 Guineas (G1) hero who scraped home in the St James’s Palace (G1). Coroebus did well to win in a scenario that became stacked against him, as he found himself strung up on the inside, trapped in a modestly-run race. Thus his desperate head margin isn’t a true bill. The fast-finishing Maljoom was the eye-catcher in a near-miss fourth, but I’d argue that he might not have gotten that close to Coroebus off a stronger tempo.

4. American shippers out of luck

Spendarella, runner-up to Inspiral in the Coronation, delivered the best result for Team USA. Pizza Bianca brought the stronger formline into the Coronation, but never factored from off the pace in eighth. Spendarella was well placed throughout by William Buick. Stalking and challenging until the overwhelming force of Inspiral arrived, Spendarella dug in gamely to hold off Discoveries and Tenebrism (who might like a straight mile). She became the second Graham Motion filly to place in this race, following Sharing (2020).

Ward’s best runner turned out to be Campanelle, who again proved her mettle with a dead-heat third in the Platinum Jubilee. She’s been rock-solid for three successive years here, winning the 2020 Queen Mary (G2) and last summer’s Commonwealth Cup (via disqualification). Ward’s Queen Mary hope this time, Love Reigns, put up a creditable fight in fourth.

Golden Pal’s flame-out, though, summed up Ward’s Royal Ascot venture. Given Golden Pal’s proclivities for a turn, I’d be tempted to send him down to Randwick and try to take on Nature Strip in the Everest. Nature Strip was unplaced twice in the Everest before just prevailing last October, so it’s not been quite his race. Golden Pal doesn’t have much to gain by winning the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1) again, but it would be a massive image boost for him – as a future Coolmore shuttle stallion – to gain revenge in Nature Strip’s own backyard. That is, unless they don’t want to risk Nature Strip braining him again.

5. Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In,” not so much

Nature Strip’s intent to defend his Everest title means that his Breeders’ Cup ticket from the “Win and You’re In” King’s Stand will go unused. The same probably goes for the winners of the other Challenge events at Royal Ascot. The Prince of Wales’s offered a free ticket to the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), but State of Rest is expected to bid for a Cox Plate repeat instead. Baaeed didn’t appear the type for a two-turn Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1), even if a step up in trip weren’t in the cards, so his perk from the Queen Anne is likely moot.

The Norfolk (G2) was a “Win and You’re In” for the Juvenile Turf Sprint (G2), but trainer Richard Fahey doesn’t sound inclined to send The Ridler for a five-furlong scramble around a turn. Fahey’s 2021 Norfolk hero, the aforementioned Perfect Power, didn’t take advantage of his Breeders’ Cup opportunity either, and the horseman is already speaking of The Ridler’s six-furlong profile.

Breeders’ Cup implications are still likely, through other avenues. Chapple-Hyam has been mentioning Saffron Beach as a potential contender, and Queen Anne third Order of Australia figures to have the Mile as his objective as the 2020 winner, also at Keeneland.

6. Aside from Dramatised, a juvenile jumble

The Ridler’s 44-1 upset of the Norfolk (to the shock of everyone except my colleague Vance Hanson, who made him his top selection) is emblematic of the messy picture among the two-year-old colts.

That’s both figurative and literal, as the Norfolk finish sparked ferocious reaction. The Ridler hampered a few rivals when lurching off a straight line under right-handed urging, and jockey Paul Hanagan was not urgent to switch the stick. The stewards allowed him to keep the victory, and observers around the world united in outrage that he wasn’t disqualified. Crispy Cat was arguably the most aggrieved, getting shut off in the midst of his good-looking advance before coming again for third. The Ridler’s infraction was clear, although he was himself pulling away again too once straightened.

Coventry (G2) winner Bradsell proved that there was more substance to his York debut romp than met my eye, yet Royal Scotsman’s solid third reminded everyone that the favorite was missing – Noble Style. Also, the colt who split Noble Style and Royal Scotsman in their mutual premiere, Walbank, was runner-up in the Norfolk. If not for an ill-timed fever, Godolphin’s Noble Style might have been one of the juvenile stars of the week.

Ballydoyle’s two-year-olds were hit-or-miss. Meditate remained perfect in the Albany (G3), although it’s hard to avoid the what-ifs about highly-regarded stablemate Statuette, who’s set for this weekend at the Curragh. Little Big Bear accomplished his mission in the Windsor Castle, yet his very placement hints that he’s not among Ballydoyle’s fancies. Those who were, all failed to one degree or another. Blackbeard and Age of Kings were fourth and seventh, respectively, in the Coventry; in hindsight, perhaps Aidan O’Brien should have waited until the Railway (G2) with Age of Kings as first discussed. The Antarctic sank in the Norfolk, while Alfred Munnings was the most spectacular flop in the Chesham.

The logical Chesham alternatives all went down with him, leaving debuting Holloway Boy to shock. Given an entry just to get his owner into Royal Ascot on Saturday, Holloway Boy furnished more evidence for trainer Karl Burke’s strength in depth in the juvenile division.

Burke’s star pupil, Dramatised, vindicated his pointedly bullish comments ahead of the Queen Mary. The Showcasing filly followed up on her devastating first-out win at Newmarket, stamping herself as a performer of the highest order.

7. O’Brien, Moore edge closer to top of active trainer/jockey lists

O’Brien didn’t need all the juveniles to hit the mark to reign as champion trainer for the 11th time. His five wins during the meeting increased his career total to 81, just one behind Sir Michael Stoute’s tally as the top active trainer at Royal Ascot.

Ryan Moore rode all five, plus two heritage handicap winners for other trainers (Thesis in the Britannia and Rohaan in the Wokingham), to take the jockeys’ title for the ninth time. Now with 73 career wins, Moore is just four behind Dettori among current riders.

The most satisfying win for the O’Brien/Moore tandem was Kyprios in the Gold Cup (G1). As three-time champ Stradivarius lost his early box-seat position with Dettori – to Gosden’s real-time consternation – and suffered the inevitable traffic consequences, Kyprios was in the right spot. The race shape put a premium on finishing speed rather than stamina, helping both Kyprios and superb runner-up Mojo Star in their first attempt at 2 1/2 miles. The four-year-olds kept Stradivarius hemmed in and got first run. The eight-year-old celebrity bravely kicked on once clear, but it was too late. If Kyprios comes back here for the British Champions Long Distance Cup (G2) in October, he’ll face a different sort of test, a two-mile slog on presumably softer going, against Trueshan, who missed the Gold Cup due to the ground.

Moore’s finest ride of the meeting was aboard Broome in the Hardwicke (G2), securing position, doling out his early speed, and leaving Godolphin’s odds-on Hurricane Lane toiling in a rusty third. But Moore was also integral in getting front-running Changingoftheguard across the line in the King Edward VII (G2) photo-finish. Although they came up short with Cleveland in the Copper Horse, the Camelot colt is yet another promising staying type for the yard.

8. Proverbial Group horses in handicaps

The Haggas-trained Candleford bolted up by six lengths in the Duke of Edinburgh, making him a serious prospect for better 1 1/2-mile targets. The son of Kingman had not been seen since taking a Kempton handicap Nov. 10 over Coltrane, who provided a clue for Candleford’s ability when winning the 2 1/2-mile Ascot Stakes on the first day.

The 1 1/4-mile Golden Gates has been a valuable addition to the calendar, producing winners the caliber of Highland Chief (2020) and Foxes Tales (2021) in its first two years. Missed the Cut should maintain the trend, judging by his authoritative 4 1/4-length decision for up-and-coming trainer George Boughey. The Quality Road sophomore is now 3-for-4.

9. No Jubilee winner for The Queen

Fans and turf writers alike would have loved the storyline of Queen Elizabeth II’s celebrating a winner at Royal Ascot, amid her Platinum Jubilee. Alas, Her Majesty went 0-for-9 with a couple of particularly tough beats.

When the 96-year-old monarch was absent on the first two days, I was confident that she was saving her energy to be on the scene Thursday. Her Reach for the Moon was odds-on in the Hampton Court, and she had two chances in ultra-competitive handicaps. But after Reach for the Moon couldn’t peg back Claymore, and Saga missed by an agonizing head in the Britannia, it was just as well she was watching from home. Then I imagined that she would steel herself to make the final day, for the sprint renamed in honor of her Platinum Jubilee, but once again the carriage procession went on without The Queen.

Given ER’s profound sense of duty, not to mention how much she loves her racing, it’s concerning that she could not grace Royal Ascot 2022.  

10. Dubawi lifts Godolphin

Leading owner Godolphin had five winners, four by flagship Darley sire Dubawi and one by Kingman (Noble Truth in the Jersey [G3]). Especially remarkable was the range of distances for Dubawi’s winning progeny – from the Platinum Jubilee exacta of Naval Crown and Creative Force, to Coroebus at a mile, Dubai Future in the 1 1/4-mile Wolferton, and Secret State in the 1 1/2-mile King George V.

Moreover, Dubawi had a fifth winner for other connections in Eldar Eldarov, hero of the 1 3/4-mile Queen’s Vase (G2), with another son, Hafit, a close third. His influence is extending to the next generation too. The Dubawi stallion New Bay is responsible for Saffron Beach and Claymore.