Although Royal Ascot’s grand finale features just the two Group races, a pair of listed events for juveniles brings the stakes total up to four on Saturday, and the heritage sprint handicap is harboring a budding star.
With one prohibitive favorite, and another who could be single-worthy, even this most riskaverse observer can hazard to suggest a Pick 4. (The four legs are not sequential, so please scroll to the footnote if you want the executive summary.)
1ST Race, the Chesham
#10 NATALIE’S JOY (9-5) was already the one to beat after flirting with Bachir’s 19-year-old juvenile course record in her Goodwood debut. Now that stablemate Main Edition upstaged the Aidan O’Brien hotpots in Friday’s Albany (G3), the Mark Johnston trainee arguably looks all the stronger in this spot. Natalie’s Joy steps up to seven furlongs, but judging by how she conquered that six-furlong maiden, the added ground should be no concern. The rangy daughter of Lope de Vega lengthened stride like one who wants further, not scampering like a sprinter, and demolished them while being gathered up in the final yards. Her sire provides sufficient stamina, and she apparently has the speed of granddam Blue Duster, Britain’s champion juvenile filly of 1995. Natalie’s Joy faces males here, but fillies have won two of the last seven runnings, and the five-pound weight allowance adds to her appeal.
#6 ON A SESSION (10-1) not only represents the same connections as last year’s Albany upsetter Different League, but he won the same two French provincial races she did on the way to Royal Ascot glory. The first runner, and winner, for Frankel’s full brother Noble Mission, On a Session spurted clear in a couple of strides in his maiden romp, then went last to first rather cozily next out. Trained by Matthieu Pelussiere for Theresa Marnane, this very smart prospect should put up another strong effort. The only caveat is the much firmer ground, but his dam, multiple Louisiana-bred stakes winner Destiny Calls, handled quick conditions just fine. She also didn’t have the typical Pelican State pedigree, being by With Approval and out of a Miswaki mare descended from a full sister to Storm Bird.
#5 NATE THE GREAT (15-1), by Frankel’s old sparring partner Nathaniel, made a taking debut for up-and-coming young trainer Archie Watson. Picking up smartly to win going six furlongs at Carlisle, he has every right to improve over another panel. His second dam, Whazzat, won this race in 2004 and produced current Group 2 victor James Garfield.
#9 BEYOND REASON (5-1), an encouraging second to #11 NEW WINDS (15-1) in their mutual debut at Newmarket, sharpened up for that experience and blew her rivals away over Kempton’s Polytrack. The first winner in Western Europe for her blueblood freshman sire Australia, the Godolphin filly may reverse form with New Winds in the rematch. New Winds was more workmanlike in her recent victory at Haydock, possibly anchored by her 132-pound impost. But the step up in trip will suit the daughter of New Approach and 2007 French Oaks (G1) winner West Wind from the family of Thunder Snow. Whether that’s enough to overturn her better-fancied stablemate Natalie’s Joy, however, is another question.
#7 SAN DONATO (8-1) is worth a look as runner-up to one of the most impressive juveniles who missed Royal Ascot, Legends of War, in his lone start. But the Roger Varian pupil has to improve off that four-length loss to break his maiden here. Finally, I have to mention the O’Brien hopeful #3 CARDINI (7-1), a buzz horse from the first crop of Magician. The buzz is arising entirely from his home reputation because he hasn’t shown much on the track. Coolmore would like nothing better than for Magician, newly returned to Ireland from Ashford, to make a Royal Ascot splash. So I wouldn’t be shocked if the light bulb suddenly goes on for Cardini in this third try, but he’s hard to endorse enthusiastically.
2ND Race, the Hardwicke (G2)
#3 CRYSTAL OCEAN (1-2) meets only four opponents, but two good ones, in a small renewal of the 1 1/2-mile affair. Trainer Sir Michael Stoute has owned this race, with no fewer than 10 winners in a 30-year span, and Crystal Ocean fits his methodical pattern of peaking as an older horse – like stablemate Poet’s Word, who floored Cracksman in Wednesday’s Prince of Wales’s (G1). The Sir Evelyn de Rothschild homebred shaped with promise as a sophomore, concluding his season with a second in an epically deep St Leger (G1). That running of the ancient classic has produced Thursday’s Gold Cup (G1) hero Stradivarius and last November’s Melbourne Cup (G1) winner Rekindling, among other notable alumni, and Crystal Ocean has added his name to the list. Determined to prevail first up in the Gordon Richards (G3) at Sandown, the Sea the Stars colt made it two-for-two this season with a tour de force in the Aston Park (G3) at Newbury. Although small fields can be tricky, Crystal Ocean simply stacks up as the best in the race, as long as Ryan Moore keeps him in the clear from post 4. Note that Coolmore has graciously let Moore go, and not claim him for Team Ballydoyle.
#1 BARSANTI (5-1) missed by an agonizing half-length to Coolmore’s #4 IDAHO (5-1) in the 2017 Hardwicke. With a better trip, Barsanti might have been the defending champion himself, and he’s progressed again as a six-year-old for Varian. The Champs Elysees gelding returned to capture the course-and-distance Buckhounds S., a prep that’s turned out to be productive. Runner-up Mirage Dancer was a next-out winner of the Tapster (and fifth as the favorite after a problematic trip in Tuesday’s Wolferton); third-placer Salouen is the one who nearly upended Cracksman in the Coronation Cup (G1); and fourth-placer God Given came back to score in the Pinnacle (G3). The ultra-dependable Barsanti hasn’t finished off the board since his debut, and if the favorite is vulnerable, he’s the likeliest alternative.
Idaho deserves a pass for floundering in the Coronation Cup last out. On his day, the O’Brien charge performs up to a high level, as in his convincing victory in the Ormonde (G3) at Chester two back. But he also has a tendency to find some too good for him, and that’s the hesitation in his title defense.
As a longtime advocate for #2 CLIFFS OF MOHER (10-1), I’ve been disappointed by the rides he’s gotten in his last pair. Too passive tactics let stablemate Lancaster Bomber get away in the Tattersalls Gold Cup (G1), and he again was given too much to do off the pace in Wednesday’s Prince of Wales’s. Does wheeling back here two days later suggest he had no proper race last time so we might as well try? If so, I’d love to see what he can do for new rider Seamie Heffernan. But I fear that he might be drafted into service as Idaho’s pacemaker. Who knows what’s in the mind of the Coolmore brain trust, especially since they did not claim Moore to ride Idaho. #6 RED VERDON (30-1) has regained his old sparkle for Ed Dunlop, finishing second to Defoe in the Jockey Club (G2) and to Magic Circle in the Chester Cup, but he’s a place chance at best.
3RD Race, the Windsor Castle
After a less-than-inspiring Norfolk (G2) on Thursday, I’d argue that this nominally lesser five-furlong dash has come up better, not only numerically (28 runners!), but with some strength in depth too.
Value hunters will have a field day in a race like this. I’d expect #15 MUTAWAFFER (7-1) to go off higher on our side of the pond, and Sheikh Hamdan’s runner can end trainer Charlie Hills’ frustrating cold spell. Although he’s gone 1-for-41 over the past two weeks (according to Racing Post), Hills has had a few seconds this week, most notably Battaash in Tuesday’s King’s Stand for the same owner. An educational but fast-finishing fourth in his debut over this track and trip, Mutawaffer looked like the proverbial sharp two-year-old by Kodiac when wiring them at Goodwood. French shipper #7 JUNIUS BRUTUS (12-1) has romped by a combined total of 10 1/2 lengths for Palussiere. Just sold for £300,000 at the Goffs London Sale Monday evening, he’ll try to repay King Power’s investment (so far their purchases have yielded little dividends at Royal Ascot).
North American bettors will get the antepost favorites lumped together as part of the mutuel field, Wesley Ward’s #27 MOONLIGHT ROMANCE and William Haggas’ #28 QUEEN OF BERMUDA. Moonlight Romance’s form was boosted when Shang Shang Shang, who outsprinted her on the dirt at Keeneland, came back to win the Norfolk. But Moonlight Romance looked like a different proposition when switched to the turf at Belmont, cantering all over them, in hand, clocking :56.85 for five furlongs. I’m awfully tempted to think that her placement here is to get that elusive Royal Ascot win for Ken Ramsey, in the belief this would come up easier than the Norfolk. Queen of Bermuda also has a form tie-in to the Royal meeting, with her debut conqueror, Shades of Blue, coming up just short in third in the Queen Mary (G2), and she’s since moved forward to win handsomely – twice. Both fillies receive a five-pound weight break from the boys. O’Brien’s hopeful, #23 VAN BEETHOVEN (7-1), has two form boosts, having split Albany third Fairyland and Norfolk third Land Force in the Marble Hill.
Likeable types #19 SABRE (7-1) and #20 SOLDIER’S CALL (20-1) have seen their form let down in the Norfolk. Sabre, runner-up in the National, rated as a great chance until the National winner and third both failed to land a blow in the Norfolk. Similarly, Soldier’s Call had been an excellent second to course record-setter Glory Fighter, who likewise flopped Thursday. Perhaps they can stand up for the formline themselves, but they’d have been easier to support if the Norfolk had panned out.
4TH Race, the Diamond Jubilee (G1), “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1)
#1 BOUND FOR NOWHERE (8-1) has grown on me to the extent that I’m overcoming my usual reticence and siding with a Wesley Ward runner. The variables that normally apply, and make me cautious, do not exist in his case: he has form over the course as well as a current form boost. Bound for Nowhere was thrown into the deep end in last summer’s Commonwealth Cup (G1), in only his third career start, and punched above his weight to finish fourth to Caravaggio, #4 HARRY ANGEL (5-2), and Tuesday’s King’s Stand hero Blue Point. Although he flopped next time in the Prix Maurice de Gheest (G1) at Deauville, the son of The Factor has come back with more experience under his belt. The key for me is his performance last time out in the Shakertown (G2) at Keeneland, where he left Bucchero well back in second. Bucchero exceeded (my) expectations Tuesday when a gallant fifth in the King’s Stand. Keeneland’s soft course may have influenced the margin, but the result is a tantalizing hint that Bound for Nowhere’s current form stacks up at this level too. And with the fanfare surrounding the Ward juveniles all week, he may be the value play in here. Ward has won this race before, with Undrafted (see below), who also downed an Australian celebrity in 2015. Might history repeat?
#9 REDKIRK WARRIOR (5-1) has won three Group 1s on the renowned Australian sprint scene, where he was last seen edging #7 MERCHANT NAVY (3-1) in the March 10 Newmarket H. (G1) down Flemington’s six-furlong straight. Although the margin was narrow, Redkirk Warrior was spotting the sophomore 12 pounds, and the race unfolded in a way that made him do more hard sledding. In their rematch here, Redkirk Warrior meets Merchant Navy at levels, and gets a set-up more conducive to producing his best. Two starts back in his title defense in the Black Caviar Lightning (G1), he flew late to snap high-flying Redzel’s winning streak and reign as a repeat winner. Indications are that Redkirk Warrior has been training beautifully for Team Hayes/Dabernig, raising hopes that the British-bred gelding will add to his incredible tale. He spent his early days with Haggas, won over 1 1/4 miles at Ascot, got sold off to Hong Kong as a Derby prospect, ran well before foot issues forced retirement, and made an improbable comeback as an Australian-based sprinter. The one rub is that he’s a seven-year-old, and since 1946, the only Diamond Jubilee winner of that age is Cape of Good Hope (2005 when the meeting was at York). But he has Frankie Dettori.
Merchant Navy has since been transferred to O’Brien, the plan being to build him up for this crowning touch on his resume before retiring to stud at Coolmore Australia. Five-for-eight Down Under, the beautifully bred son of Fastnet Rock rallied in time to earn his signature win in last November’s Coolmore Stud S. (G1). That came versus fellow sophomores, but he proved capable of hanging tough with his elders over the same course and distance in the Newmarket. More significant, Merchant Navy has already transferred his game to the Northern Hemisphere by capturing his tune-up at the Curragh, the May 26 Greenlands (G2), under top weight of 129 pounds. The rub is that he’s still physically a three-year-old, and a late Southern Hemisphere foal at that, but treated as a Northern Hemisphere four-year-old at the weights. It’s very plausible that Merchant Navy has progressed since Redkirk Warrior gave him 12 pounds in the Newmarket, and you’d expect him to move forward second out for O’Brien. But that historical pattern hasn’t been so iron-clad of late, and that’s just enough to make me less confident than I was previously.
The aforementioned Harry Angel is all the rage in the antepost market, and last year’s European champion three-year-old sprinter brings a strong profile. Victorious over older foes in the 2017 July Cup (G1) and Haydock Sprint Cup (G1), the Clive Cox trainee resumed with a clear-cut victory in the Duke of York (G2) despite lumping 139 pounds. But as with the Australians, there’s a rub: he’s 0-for-4 at Ascot. Harry Angel has placed second three times, including a near-miss on debut and fine efforts behind Blue Point and Caravaggio. His last appearance here was a fourth in the British Champions Sprint (G1) to #6 LIBRISA BREEZE (12-1), not a true bill given how the race developed. If he’s a must-use as the best of the home team, Harry Angel doesn’t look unimpeachable either.
Defending champion #12 THE TIN MAN (7-1) has obvious claims, especially coming off a prep score in the Leisure S. at Windsor. The suspicion is this is a deeper renewal, although he’s well capable of making us regret that notion.
5TH Race, the Wokingham
I rarely get involved in the complexities of the heritage handicaps, but want to name-drop #7 DREAMFIELD (4-1) since he was initially eligible for the Diamond Jubilee. Trainer John Gosden has also given him an entry in the July Cup, so the Godolphin runner smacks of the proverbial Group horse in a handicap. Note that Ward has his Diamond Jubilee veteran #8 UNDRAFTED (15-1) in the line-up. (As you can tell from this succinct blurb, I did not study the rest!)
6TH Race, the Queen Alexandra
The grand finale at nearly 2 3/4 miles, the Queen Alexandra is one of those conditions races where National Hunt form meshes with the Flat, so again I almost never wade into it. But with the Pick 4 in mind, here we go. Trainer Willie Mullins has said that 2017 runner-up #11 THOMAS HOBSON (7-5) is thriving better physically than he was a year ago. #8 PALLASATOR (7-1) is a character, to put it mildly, but he has loads of back class on the Flat and his springtime hurdling for Gordon Elliott may have rejuvenated him. #12 COUNT OCTAVE (5-1) has the Frankel sire angle, plus he’s been in the best staying races. Just missing to Stradivarius in last summer’s Queen’s Vase (G2) over this course, he’s also competed in the aforementioned key St Leger, the Jockey Club, and the Yorkshire Cup.
The Pick 4
First leg, the Chesham (Race 1): Although Natalie’s Joy can be singled if you’re confident, I’m conservative enough to go four-deep and include On a Session, Nate the Great, and Beyond Reason.
Second leg, the Hardwicke (Race 2): Crystal Ocean is the most obvious single play unless you want Cracksman-style insurance, in which case Barsanti can play the Poet’s Word role.
Third leg, the Diamond Jubilee (Race 4): With the top four all logical and none overly persuasive in himself, I’d include Bound for Nowhere, Redkirk Warrior, Merchant Navy, and Harry Angel.
Fourth leg, the Queen Alexandra (Race 6): Unless you have a big bankroll for extra stabs, Thomas Hobson, Pallasator, and Count Octave hopefully will do.
So to sum it up in proper format:
The $1 ticket: 5,6,9,10 with 1,3 with 1,4,7,9 with 8, 11, 12 = $96
Or if you prefer to single Crystal Ocean: 5,6,9,10 with 3 with 1,4,7,9 with 8, 11, 12 = $48
Good luck and hope you had a great Royal Ascot!