The big five: Ascot A-listers or Royal rejects?

Normally with an accumulator of short priced favourites, at least one of them manages to get beat. The heartbreak of Annie Power’s fall at the last in the Mares Hurdle at the 2015 Cheltenham Festival still lives fresh in the memory of most, so will  the bookmakers be laughing all the way to the bank once again at this year’s Royal meeting or will all the hotpots oblige and give us punters something to cheer about?

Ribchester – Queen Anne

This race has been won by some superstars in recent years, Goldikova, Solow and Frankel to name a few, and Ribchester looks to have all the credentials necessary to join the illustrious roll of honour.

His emphatic return to action in the Lockinge saw him dispose of a decent field with the minimum of fuss and it appeared to be a performance of real authority. Some argue that he needs a bit of cut in the ground to be seen at his best, but I’m of the opinion that he is ground versatile, as he showed last summer when beaten a whisker in the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood on good to firm ground.

He won at the Royal meeting last year when running away with the Jersey Stakes and was subsequently beaten half a length by wonder-filly Minding in the QEII on Champions Day, so the course is evidently to his liking.

His principal danger according to the market is Lightening Spear, who has been a real flagbearer for David Simcock since he joined his yard after Olly Steven’s retirement in 2015. He ran an absolute cracker to finish third in this race last year after a long lay-off and will encounter his ideal conditions on Tuesday. Sheikh Fahad, his owner, made a statement of intent this week by supplementing recent purchase Dutch Uncle for this race as a probable pacemaker for Lightening Spear. It could well be that a stronger gallop than what was experienced at Newbury last time out will see David Simcock’s charge close the gap on Ribchester, but I don’t think it will be enough to reverse the placings.

American Patriot and Miss Temple City are bidding to keep the crown in the US after Tepin’s win last year, with the former holding the best chance of doing so, and Aidan O’Brien’s decision to supplement Deauville has certainly raised some eyebrows. But perhaps the main threat comes in the shape of William Haggas’s Mutakayyef.

He has been off the track since slightly disappointing in the Dubai Turf at Meydan in March, but that shouldn’t be too much of an issue as he goes well fresh. He loves quick ground and has some top class form over further than this, most notably when finishing a close up third behind Postponed in last year’s Juddmonte. I expect him to be staying on late in the day and give the selection something to think about.

Richard Fahey is not usually one to give too much away but the excitement surrounding Ribchester is infectious and clear for everyone to see. The four-year-old son of Ifraaj ticks all the right boxes and I think he would have to seriously underperform to be beaten.

VERDICT – A-LISTER

Churchill – St James Palace Stakes

Some great battles have been fought out in this contest over the last decade, and we look set to have another one on our hands this time around.

Churchill has looked imperious since his debut third at the Curragh, winning all of his seven subsequent starts including both the English and Irish 2000 Guineas. The dual Classic-winner is not one to take a field apart and score by wide margins, and seems to just do the bare minimum required to win. But win he does and the potential that we have not got the bottom of him yet is perhaps the main reason why so many in the industry have him earmarked as their festival banker. But I am not so confident.

When Churchill won the English 2000 Guineas my immediate thought was that he would remain unbeaten over a mile for the rest of the season. But having watched the race back several times, I find myself waxing lyrical about the chances of Barney Roy.

Richard Hannon’s son of Excelebration pulled hard early on, took a bad step upon entering the dip and had to thread a slightly troubled passage at Newmarket, yet still managed to claim second, a length behind Churchill. The race was also a tactical masterclass from Ballydoyle – Churchill’s speed was utilised to full effect once the moderate early gallop set by stablemate Lancaster Bomber started to quicken.

I wouldn’t be confident enough to say that Barney Roy will reverse the placings with Churchill, but I certainly don’t think the latter is a nailed on banker. The Hannon team will have learnt a lot from the Guineas and resisted the temptation to run him in the Irish equivalent in order to keep him fresh for this assignment. With Ascot expected to be considerably more to his liking than Newmarket, Barney Roy may be the one to give the bookmakers early cause for celebration.

Verdict – NEITHER

Order Of St George – Gold Cup

Aidan O’Brien, the master of Ballydoyle, has dominated this contest over the last decade, winning 7 of the last 11 renewals, and all eyes will be on Order of St George this time around as he bids to repeat last year’s emphatic success.

He looked in trouble turning for home that day and had a lot of ground to make up on the leaders, but once he saw daylight under Ryan Moore, the five-year-old son of Galileo found plenty for pressure and laid any stamina doubts to rest by stretching away to win by a comfortable three lengths.

He then proved he is no one trick pony by finishing an excellent third behind stablemates Found and Highland Reel in the Arc, before a below par effort saw him finish fourth in the Champions Long Distance Cup at Ascot. Unlike many others who believe he has his quirks, I am willing to forgive that run as it came only 13 days after a hard race in the Arc. He is proven over this trip, loves quick ground which he looks set to encounter here and has had a nice preparation for this race.

This year’s renewal does look a more competitive affair, however, even with the defection of top French stayer Vazirabad, and I fancy Sheikhzayedroad to give the selection plenty to think about. David Simcock’s charge hung under pressure when finishing third behind Order of St George in this race twelve months ago, but he is set to encounter his ideal conditions this time around and is a stayer of real class.

The same can be said of Big Orange, one of my favourite horses in training, and Ralph Beckett’s classy mare Simple Verse, who are both sure to run to big races. Endless Time and Harbour Law could well outrun their odds as well.

Admittedly I had Order Of St George down as a reject before a closer look at the form changed my mind. His win last year was impressive and there could still be more to come from this horse. I doubt any of the others in this field have the class to finish third in an Arc and he is fancied to come out on top of what looks a vintage renewal of the Ascot Gold Cup.

Verdict – A-LISTER

Caravaggio – Commonwealth Cup

Few people would argue that the introduction of the Commonwealth Cup to the Royal Meeting has been one of racing’s best initiatives in recent times. Its inaugural running was won by star sprinter Muhaarar, whilst last year’s renewal went the way of the girls in the shape of speedy filly Quiet Reflection.

This year’s line-up looks the best yet, with 2016 Coventry winner Caravaggio propping up the market. Before he had even made it to the racecourse I heard whispers coming from Ballydoyle that they were excited about a Scat Daddy two-year-old in their ranks. Unfortunately I wasn’t the only one to catch wind of these rumours as he went off long odds on for his debut at Dundalk. Since then he has remained unbeaten, with a truly emphatic victory at last year’s royal meeting the pinnacle.

He won two races that day as he had to come right across the track to join runner up Mehmas on the far side after he had swept by all the horses down the centre of the track – a truly remarkable performance. He proved that he had trained on from two to three with a facile success at Naas on his comeback run and he has the potential to be an absolute monster.

Having said that, Harry Angel and Blue Point are sure to give him his toughest assignment yet. They locked horns in the Group Three Pavilion stakes over course and distance earlier in the season with the latter coming out on top. However, Harry Angel’s trainer Clive Cox made it known that his son of Dark Angel would need that outing, and Blue Point’s owners Godolphin liked the performance so much that they swooped to purchase the runner up, albeit after he dismantled a quality field in the Sandy Lane at Haydock next time out.

That was a performance of real class and he looks the most likely of the field to lower the colours of Caravaggio, but I have well and truly succumbed to the hype surrounding Aidan O’Brien’s three-year-old. He is reported to have recorded sections on the gallops the likes of which have never been seen at Ballydoyle and he is arguably the most exciting horse in training. He’s currently my favourite and he’ll be carrying my money just like he did in last year’s Coventry.

Verdict – A-LISTER

Winter – Coronation Stakes

The English 1000 Guineas, Irish 1000 Guineas and Coronation Stakes treble is a feat that hasn’t been achieved since Attraction in 2004, but that’s exactly what Winter is attempting to do on Friday.

Always held in high regard by David Watchman, she took the English 1000 Guineas in fine style before making light work of her rivals in the Irish equivalent. She is ground versatile and doesn’t appear to have any obvious chinks in her armour, which may explain why, at odds of 4/7, she is currently the shortest price of the quintet in question.

It’s almost impossible to make a case for any of the rivals she beat at Newmarket reversing the form, but it is possible that William Haggas’s Sea Of Grace may not be finished improving, and she could close the gap. The decision to supplement French 1000 Guineas heroine Precieuse makes a lot of sense, and connections could be rewarded if she can replicate that performance on English soil. She improved markedly for the step up in trip last time and could pose the main threat to Winter completing her hat-trick. Dabyah hasn’t been seen since winning the Fred Darling earlier in the season and she could be the one to fill the places.

Winter looks to have a tremendous chance of emulating her dam and becoming a Royal Ascot winner. Providing her Guineas exertions haven’t caught up with her, this should be a straightforward victory for team Ballydoyle and it’s quite possible that she could go the rest of the season unbeaten over this trip.

Verdict – A-LISTER

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