Kevin Blake

    Leading racing writer Kevin Blake reflects on a memorable Royal Ascot.
  • Monday 26 June 2017
  • Blog

Royal Ascot reflections

Royal Ascot rarely fails to deliver a sensational week of action and this year’s meeting was no different. From start to finish it delivered top-class, competitive and enthralling racing that showcased all that British Flat racing has to offer. It is difficult to know where to start in reflecting on it all, but here it goes.

LADY AURELIA had delivered a level of “wow factor” when winning last year’s Queen Mary that has perhaps only been surpassed by Frankel’s 2000 Guineas in recent years and considering she was facing much stronger opposition in the King’s Stand last week, her performance in it was arguably just as impressive.

As was the case last year, the daughter of Scat Daddy showed excellent speed in the first half of the race, but when the business end of the contest approached, she seemed to find another gear and powered away from her opposition inside the final furlong.

She is anything but the hulking physical specimen that we envision when it comes to Wesley Ward’s American raiders, but she is quite clearly an exceptional equine athlete. While she has shown a high level of form over trips beyond the minimum distance, five furlongs appeals as being her optimum trip. With her already proven on soft and good-to-firm ground, her opposition will face an exceptionally tough task to lower her colours in the Nunthorpe.

Another three-year-old sprinter that lit up Royal Ascot this year was CARAVAGGIO. The Commonwealth Cup has only been run three times, but it has already developed into one of the highlights of the meeting. Last week’s race had the looks of a barnburner on paper and it duly delivered on that promise in spectacular style.

Harry Angel and Blue Point produced fine efforts in defeat, but they couldn’t hold off the late challenge of Caravaggio under Ryan Moore. It perhaps wasn’t as smooth a winning performance as one might have expected from Caravaggio, indeed it hinted that a slightly longer trip will be no hindrance to him, but it was still a superb performance. The importance of Caravaggio as a stallion prospect for Coolmore cannot be underestimated. Not only will he give them another chance to carry on the line of the deceased Scat Daddy, his pedigree makes him a suitable cross for the array of top-class broodmares from the Sadler’s Wells line that are owned by Coolmore.

Connections of Harry Angel may wonder what might have been had they not been harried by the winner’s stable mate Intelligence Cross in the first half of the race. The son of Dark Angel lost little in defeat and he would be a very interesting opponent for Lady Aurelia in the Nunthorpe.

After struggling throughout his career to get full credit for his achievements, it appears that HIGHLAND REEL has finally arrived. His teak-tough success in the Coronation Cup at Epsom earlier this month sowed the seeds and his performance in the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes last week represented his blossoming in the affections of the masses. Dropping back to a mile-and-a-quarter and denied an uncontested lead, he looked set to be outpaced in the closing stages when Decorated Knight and Ulysses came to challenge him, but once again Highland Reel showed just how tough he is by digging deep and seeing them off close home. The son of Galileo really is a star performer, indeed he is the highest-earning racehorse ever trained in Ballydoyle, and his emergence as a fan favourite is no more than his talent, toughness and longevity warrants.

One whose existing fan club swelled to all-new proportions last week was the Michael Bell-trained BIG ORANGE. The son of Duke Of Marmalade was given a very well-judged ride by James Doyle, leading or disputing the lead throughout and just having enough in reserve to see off Order Of St George by a short-head. While the runner-up didn’t give Ryan Moore all that much assistance by edging right late on as he has in the past, Moore is likely to rue not having his mount a bit closer to the pace in a race that was not run at a frenetic gallop. In terms of postscripts, given the very narrow margin of victory, it was a slight surprise that there wasn’t more said about the fact that Doyle picked up a two-day ban for his whip use while Moore stayed within the rules.

Not everyone was convinced by RIBCHESTER’s victory in a tactical Lockinge last month, but there is far less scope for nit-picking his performance in the Queen Anne. While he had the run of the race to an extent at Newbury, this didn’t go nearly as smoothly for him. He didn’t get much cover from his low draw, was slightly hampered by his retreating pacemaker and was left in front earlier than ideal whilst giving his main rivals a lovely tow into the race, but he still ran out the authoritative winner. The manner in which he settled despite his relative lack of cover suggests that Richard Fahey’s ongoing efforts at getting him to relax in his work and races are very much working and he is much more complete performer as a result. While the older milers would not seem to be a vintage bunch, he appeals as having more to give if and when it is required and the prospect of him taking on the leading three-year-old milers later in the season is exciting.

Prior to last week, the future opponent many had in mind for Ribchester was Churchill, but that prospect is now up in the air after the St James’s Palace Stakes. While the Richard Hannon-trained BARNEY ROY produced a more professional and balanced performance to take the spoils in authoritative fashion, the clearly below-form run of Churchill coupled with the fact that Barney Roy could only increase his margin of superiority over Lancaster Bomber from the 2000 Guineas by ½-length is likely to hinder him in getting full credit for this victory.

Much of the post-race focus was on Churchill and he just seemed flat on the day. Perhaps the race was just coming a bit soon for him after his impressive victory on softer-than-ideal ground in the Irish 2,000 Guineas. A third meeting between Barney Roy and a freshened-up Churchill is what their rivalry demands and the Sussex Stakes would be a tremendous staging ground for such a rematch.

Another three-year-old that could end up in the mix amongst the better milers around is the Andre Fabre-trained LE BRIVIDO. The son of Siyouni seemed to do well to win the Jersey Stakes given he was the only one that came up the middle of the track to get anywhere near involved in the finish. While he doesn’t seem short of pace, a return to a mile is likely to be in order for him, with the Prix Jacques le Marois likely to be his next destination.

Mind, while the relative merits of the three-year-old miler colts is a subject of debate, there is no argument necessary when it comes to the miler fillies, as the Aidan O’Brien-trained WINTER is out on her own. The daughter of Galileo seems to be getting better with every start and produced an admirably professional performance in winning the Coronation Stakes in great style. The prospect of her taking on the best three-year-old colts is one that would greatly excite and given the way Minding was campaigned at the backend of last season, we could well get a chance to see it. With the benefit of a fillies’ allowance, I suspect she would very much be up to the challenge.

The final Group 1 of the week was the Diamond Jubilee Stakes and it saw the James Fanshawe-trained THE TIN MAN reiterate that he is a serious sprinter. The five-year-old hasn’t been beaten on his favoured good or firmer ground since September 2015 and the return to this sounder surface seemed to be the key to his victory. This was his second Group 1 win and he should continue to be a big factor in all the Group 1 sprints he contests on his favoured ground.

Two-year-olds show that the future is bright

The two-year-old action is always one of the features of Royal Ascot and this year was no different.

The Coventry Stakes is usually the feature of the week in this division, but this year’s renewal hasn’t generated the usual amount of chat with a bunch finish and the winner representing lesser-known connections, but it may well prove to be a mistake to underestimate the winner RAJASINGHE going forward.

Trained by Richard Spencer who was only granted his license to train last year, the son of Choisir deserves more credit than he has received, as he shaped better than the narrow margin of his victory suggests. Having been slightly slow to start and receiving a hefty bump soon after, he was quickly three lengths behind the leaders. His rider chose to bustle him up to regain a prominent position, a move that is sure to have cost his mount fuel in what was a well-run race. Considering this, he did well to stick on as he did to take the spoils against opposition that had smoother passages through the race. He was a deserving winner and shouldn’t be underestimated going forward.

The Aidan O’Brien-trained SIOUX NATION contributed to a wonderful week for the much-missed Scat Daddy by winning the Norfolk Stakes. The return to five furlongs and a firmer surface seemed to be the key to his much-improved performance and while there was plenty of focus on the run of Santry who came out on top of the near-side ground, Sioux Nation deserves just as much credit.

The Jessica Harrington-trained Alpha Centauri was billed as one of the potential juvenile stars of the meeting in the Albany Stakes and while she produced a fine effort, she failed to get the better of the Matthieu Palussiere-trained DIFFERENT LEAGUE.

Palussiere will be remembered by many Irish racing fans for his time as a dual-purpose trainer in Ireland from 2005 to 2013, but he has taken his career to another level since returning to France in 2013. He has enjoyed a particularly fruitful partnership with well-known Irish breeze-up consignor Con Marnane of Bansha House Stables and it was that connection that provided him with Different League, an €8,000 foal purchase that failed to sell as a yearling.

The daughter of Dabirsim was unbeaten in two starts, but was still an unknown quantity coming into the Albany. Given a no-nonsense ride from the front, she resolutely held off the challenge of Alpha Centauri in the closing stages. The pair came well clear of the remainder and the winner looks to be an obvious candidate for the likes of the Cheveley Park Stakes.

While connections of Alpha Centauri may wonder what might have happened had their filly had more room to make her challenge, she lost little in defeat and remains a fine prospect going forward. She will reportedly go straight to the Moyglare Sud Stakes without a run in between.

The final two-year-old race of the meeting was the Chesham Stakes and it was the Aidan O’Brien-trained SEPTEMBER that stamped herself as a high-class prospect in victory. She is a big eye-catcher on pedigree being by the Japanese sire sensation Deep Impact and out of the remarkably tough racemare Peeping Fawn and she had created a very good impression when making a winning debut at Leopardstown just 16 days earlier, but this represented a big step up in performance. Well covered up in the mid-division of what was a strongly-run race, she got the splits she needed and picked up nicely to head the game front-runner Nyaleti and draw away close home. She doesn’t have the best action one would ever see, but she clearly had no issue with this firmer ground. She could well end up clashing with Alpha Centauri in the Moyglare Stud Stakes and that would be a race to savour.

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