June 15, 2021

Royal Ascot scene-setter: All-star Prince of Wales’s, Gold Cup title defense among highlights

Stradivarius with Frankie Dettori up wins the 2018 Gold Cup at Royal Ascot (c) Frank Sorge/Horsephotos.com

The perennial show-stopper on the summer racing scene, Royal Ascot promises five stellar days of action.

The fields are coming into clearer focus, and so are the compelling story lines. Here’s an early look at how the eight Group 1 events are shaping up.

TUESDAY

The meet-opening Queen Anne (G1), a Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) “Win and You’re In,” will clarify the older division, as defending champion Accidental Agent is expected to find it harder to repeat his 33-1 heroics from last year. Mustashry ran out a convincing winner of the key prep, the May 18 Lockinge (G1) at Newbury, over Laurens and Accidental Agent. While Mustashry can consolidate his newfound status for the Royal meeting’s leading trainer, Sir Michael Stoute, those who chased him home at Newbury are not without chances to reverse the form.

Lockinge fifth Le Brivido ranks as the early favorite, the market forecasting substantial improvement for Aidan O’Brien, who collected his fourth straight (and ninth overall) champion trainer’s title at Royal Ascot last summer. Adding intrigue is past Royal Ascot star Barney Roy, hero of the 2017 St James’s Palace (G1), back in form after proving subfertile at stud. Olmedo and Romanised have something to prove yet can’t be discounted as 2018 classic winners.

The five-furlong King’s Stand (G1) offers the beaten favorite from 2018, Battaash, an opportunity to gain revenge on the victorious Blue Point. Brilliant at his best, Battaash returned from a second operation to correct a breathing issue and dominated the May 25 Temple (G2). Such stalking tactics would serve him better than trying to wire them, his undoing here last year. Not to be overlooked are the top-class mare Mabs Cross, third in the 2018 running, and American shipper Imprimis with Frankie Dettori. Coming from further afield are New Zealand’s two-time Telegraph H. (G1) winner Enzo’s Lad and Australian filly Houtzen. O’Brien has several sophomores in the mix, with Sergei Prokofiev the best fancied among them in the antepost betting.

The St James’s Palace for three-year-old milers serves up a rematch of the top two from the Irish 2000 Guineas (G1) – front-running upsetter Phoenix of Spain and joint-favorite Too Darn Hot. The market has warmed to Phoenix of Spain here. But Too Darn Hot had his measure during a perfect juvenile campaign, and could be a different proposition with a more straightforward build-up for John Gosden. Stablemate King of Comedy steps up in class, while Shaman represents French classic form as the runner-up to Persian King in the Poule d’Essai des Poulains (G1). O’Brien had to rule out his top hope, Magna Grecia, prompting him to supplement Circus Maximus. Not far off Phoenix of Spain at two, Circus Maximus figures to benefit on the cutback from a Derby (G1) sixth.

WEDNESDAY

The Prince of Wales’s (G1) is well worth its status as the meet’s richest race, for the £750,000 affair is a blockbuster, and whoever takes this “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) will be richly deserving of the ticket. The two fillies who ran Enable close last season – Sea of Class in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) and Magical in the Breeders’ Cup Turf –  square off in the 1 1/4-mile feature, and the better turn of foot at the trip will be decisive. The O’Brien-trained Magical has the race-fitness edge with three wins already over males this term, most recently in the Tattersalls Gold Cup (G1), while Sea of Class makes her seasonal reappearance for William Haggas.

The leading males are no slouches either. Crystal Ocean is in the form of his life, so Stoute rightly gives him a crack here instead of going for a title defense in Saturday’s Hardwicke (G2). Zabeel Prince, fresh off his first Group 1 coup in the Prix d’Ispahan (G1) for Roger Varian, is likewise on the upswing, and Andre Fabre’s veteran Waldgeist looked like a new animal shortening up in the Prix Ganay (G1). Godolphin’s Masar, sidelined since his 2018 Derby victory, could resurface here or await the Hardwicke. International interest comes courtesy of Japanese mare Deirdre, who if not at the level of compatriot Almond Eye is of Group 1 caliber on her day.

THURSDAY

Stradivarius brings a six-race winning streak into his Gold Cup (G1) title defense, and Bjorn Nielsen has expressed his keen interest in seeing his homebred join the pantheon of great stayers. Kept at perfect pitch by Gosden throughout 2018, when pocketing the £1 million stayers’ bonus, Stradivarius scored a repeat in his Yorkshire Cup (G2) prep. His workmanlike decision over O’Brien’s Southern France raised the question of how hard Ballydoyle’s number one, Kew Gardens, might press him.

Mark Johnston’s faith in Dee Ex Bee has been rewarded with emphatic scores in the Sagaro (G3) and Henry II (G3), while Godolphin’s Melbourne Cup (G1) hero Cross Counter warmed up by annexing the Dubai Gold Cup (G2) on World Cup night. France’s Called to the Bar is another with claims off his Prix Vicomtesse Vigier (G2) tune-up. The step up to 2 1/2 miles is the great unknown for those challengers, but not for Thomas Hobson, winner of the course-and-distance Ascot Stakes in 2017.

The Norfolk (G2), a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint, won’t be finalized until Tuesday, but you know Wesley Ward will be involved.

FRIDAY

With leading opponent Calyx sidelined, Ten Sovereigns is a hot favorite to rebound in the Commonwealth Cup (G1) for sophomore sprinters. The O’Brien pupil earned the right to try the 2000 Guineas (G1), despite concerns about lasting the mile, and he ran a commendable fifth in the circumstances. Back down to his six-furlong wheelhouse, he’s the one to beat. Jash, a close second to Ten Sovereigns in last fall’s Middle Park (G1), captured the King Charles II in his comeback. Hello Youmzain boosted his profile when upsetting Calyx in the Sandy Lane (G2), and Khaadem takes a class hike from the Carnarvon. Advertise might be something of a forgotten horse after his 15th in the Guineas, but his juvenile form puts him bang in the mix if trainer Martyn Meade opts for the cutback.

O’Brien is favored to rack up a Group 1 double on the card, with Hermosa backed to add the Coronation S. (G1) to her 1000 Guineas (G1) and Irish 1000 Guineas (G1) conquests. Her nearest market rival is Juddmonte blueblood Jubiloso, two-for-two so far. Out of a half-sister to Frankel, the Stoute trainee brings obvious upside into her first real class test. Godolphin’s unbeaten Castle Lady, who scraped home in the Poule d’Essai des Pouliches (G1), and Main Edition, last year’s Albany (G3) winner who just regained the winning thread in the German 1000 Guineas (G2), sport classic form. So does Pretty Pollyanna, runner-up to Hermosa off the bench at the Curragh.

SATURDAY

The respective second through fourth from last year’s Diamond Jubilee (G1) – France’s City Light, Ward’s Bound for Nowhere, and 2017 winner The Tin Man – are all back again in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1) “Win and You’re In.

But reflecting the changing state of the six-furlong sprinters, two others head the antepost market. Invincible Army, better than ever at four, has taken both of his preps including the Duke of York (G2). Fabre’s well-regarded Inns of Court, hitherto an underachiever, has found new life confined to shorter trips. After beating City Light in their mutual comeback, the Godolphin runner skipped clear in the Prix du Gros-Chene (G2). Sands of Mali has yet to return to his peak this season, but warrants healthy respect as last year’s Commonwealth Cup near-misser who landed the British Champions’ Sprint (G1) here in October.

Gosden’s Emblazoned, third in the Commonwealth Cup, and Stoute’s progressive Dream of Dreams are others to watch. Singapore’s Lim’s Cruiser was just deprived of a three-peat in the Lion City Cup at Kranji, while Kiwi shipper Enzo’s Lad is expected to wheel back from the King’s Stand on Tuesday.

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Ground conditions are a key factor to help sift through the competitors, and after a rainy spell, the course was labeled soft on June 13. The forecast is supposed to improve, presaging better conditions throughout the Royal meeting. At this writing, chances are it could be “good” Tuesday, but possibly on the slower side and not getting quicker until later in the week. Stay tuned to the weather and ground updates!

For a Royal Ascot overview with frequently asked questions, be sure to see my colleague Vance Hanson’s blog over on TwinSpires.com.