ROYAL ASCOT REFLECTIONS
The horse racing industry had quite a few hoops to jump through to get the 2020 Royal Ascot meeting on. Some questioned whether the five-day event should have held its original spot in the calendar, after the Covid-19 pandemic enforced significant changes to the British fixture list, but for the most part, the week seemed a success, considering all the obstacles faced.
All at the BHA, Ascot and those that helped keep the show on the road should be proud – from camera operators to stable staff, so many people played a part; as they always do, to be fair. With strict health and safety protocols in place this year however, an even bigger team effort was needed, and the success of the week clearly meant many people pulled together. Bravo.
A successful week is also helped when the real stars of the show turn up in form, too, both Battaash and Stradivarius putting on performances deserving of a huge crowd; this especially the case of the latter in winning his third Gold Cup in-a-row; the John Gosden-trained and Frankie Dettori-ridden horse putting on one of the best staying performances I’ve ever witnessed, from the comfort of my make-shift living room, sadly.
Not being on course was understandable, but disappointing, as you simply can’t beat being there. It was still a great week though, and below, are some of the main takeaways for me.
DERBY CLUES WERE ON OFFER
With how Royal Ascot fell last week in the racing calendar, it meant the meeting served as a type of Derby trial for some horses. The winners of three races stood out in that regard, from the Group 2 King Edward VII Stakes (12f), the Group 3 Hampton Court Stakes (10f) and one of week’s new races for one season only, the Class 2 Golden Gates Handicap (10f).
It was William Muir’s Pyledriver that caused an 18/1 shock in the King Edward, but it’s hard to make a case of the result being a fluke. The son of Harbour Watch travelled all over his rivals coming into the straight, such to a degree some good horses couldn’t lead him long enough. This, despite giving the Ballydoyle runner-up Arthur's Kingdom a pretty big headstart off what were not strong fractions.
It took Martin Dwyer’s mount a little while to master the Dettori-ridden second, but at the finishing post, he was well on top, hitting the line nicely. He was value for every bit of his two-length success and probably deserves a small upgrade given how much early rope he gave the second. I have the winner running to 109, the same mark as Derby favourite, English King (109P).
Leading pre-race Derby hope Mogul was disappointing back in fourth, but the chat from Ballydoyle is that he needed the race. It’s hard to tell on the TV screen, but he looked quite big to me, and under the circumstances ran well. He came from a fair way off the pace, had no cover throughout and raced widest of all for large parts. I would think Aidan O’Brien would be happy with this run, but the horse needs to take a huge step forward to win a Derby in just under three weeks. Maybe the Blue Riband race will crown him, just like it did with his full-brother Japan last year?
The Group 3 Hampton Court went the way of Mogul’s stablemate, Russian Emperor. By Galileo and out of superb Australian race-mare Atlantic Jewell, Aidan O’Brien’s inmate has done nothing but improve with each start and has now got to a level (110P) whereby he is more than entitled to run in a Derby.
He has yet to race over the 12f trip, which would be a small doubt, but he did shape like he could stay that far, running here like he was a touch outpaced, or maybe even still a bit green. Ryan Moore had the revs up on this colt well before turning for home and his mount responded showing a fine attitude and a strong ability to gallop. His final time and closing sectionals match up quite well with what the 121-rated winner of the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes, Lord North, did. If he can continue with his upward trajectory, he’ll be a danger to all in the Derby.
Finally, although winning ‘just a handicap’, Highland Chief looked a good winner of a warm race that could well work out to be strong form going forward. The Paul & Oliver Cole-trained colt clocked a faster time than the older horses in the Wolverton Stakes (10f) on the same card, despite carrying 4lb more - and top weight - than Mountain Angel.
How the Golden Gates Handicap (10f) was run aided the quicker time, but his closing sectionals also matched up with Mountain Angel, meaning he got a rating of 109p for the performance. In soft ground, the son of Gleneagles picked up superbly from what looked an uncompromising early position, still looking green and having a bit up his sleeve late.
The cat is out of the bag with his Derby price now however, given Hugh Taylor advised him as an each-way bet at 33/1 for the July 4th Classic. Hugh putting him up for the race is all you need to know, but he impressed me too. Like Russian Emperor, he’s got to prove he stays, but this performance, and his pedigree give hope.
He did have quite a tough race here, so whether or not it has left a mark will be seen come Derby day. Funnily enough, of all the races mentioned in the above, the horse that ran the best trial for me was Mogul, who didn’t have a tough race, ran to a respectable level and you know will improve.
FRANKLY, DARLING NEEDS TO IMPROVE TO REACH LOVE’S LEVEL
Visually, we saw a taking Group 2 Ribblesdale Stakes success from Frankly Darling on the Tuesday. Under leading rider of the week Frankie Dettori, the daughter of Frankel and her supporters had few anxious moments as she went on to win by a not fully extended 1¾ of a length.
During the race and in the immediate aftermath John Gosden’s inmate impressed me, but having looked back at the race now the dust has settled, I can’t help but feel there has been a touch of an overreaction to what she actually achieved.
Going into the race, it had looked a real low level Group 2, no doubt helped by the fact pre-race, horses didn’t have the opportunity to climb the ratings due to Covid-19 essentially wiping out the opening months of the campaign. For context, going into the race, I had this year’s Ribblesdale 1-2-3 respectively rated 90p – 80p – and 92p.
What has seemingly been missed, is how well the race fell for Frankly Darling; in short, I feel she had the total run of the race, thanks to a typically vintage, straight-forward and effective Dettori ride. OK, early the pace was honest, and she took quite a hold off that gallop while being in the teeth of it, but the mid-part of the race climbing up from Swinley Bottom saw a drop in pace, leaving Franky Darling in a far better position than the second and third horses home.
With this, maybe it’s more a case of people being right regards Frankly Darling, but forgetting about the runner-up, Ennistymon? Given how the contest fell for Aidan O’Brien’s daughter of Galileo, she ran a huge race under James Doyle, especially considering the sizable head start she conceded to the race favourite. The current 11/4 (Frankly Darling) and 16/1 (Ennistymon) difference concerning the Oaks looks too big of a difference to my eye, but both still need to improve a fair bit to get to 1000 Guineas winner Love’s level.
At the moment, I have Love running to 113 and Frankly Darling 103p. Ennistymon sits on 100p. In terms of ability and raw class, Love is comfortably a better filly than the Ribblesdale first two home, but while Frankly Darling and Ennistymon promise to stay the 12f Oaks trip, that is not the case with Love.
Will the trip be an equalizer and blunt Love’s class, bringing her Oaks rivals closer? That is obviously possible, but we’ll find out on July 4th for sure. From what we saw at Royal Ascot, Frankly Darling should have no problem off stronger fractions, which should allow her to settle better and bring her stamina into play.
I know some have expressed their concerns about how keen she was, but the 12f downhill Ascot start likely contributed to that, and with the Oaks starting with a steep uphill climb, Frankie Dettori should be able to get his mount back on her hocks early, and hopefully settle her. Her keenness, to me anyway, showed mentally, Frankly Darling has come forward form her Newcastle run.
Mentally, she is now alive and looks to be peaking at the right time with the Oaks in mind, but is Ennistymon the sleeper in the race?
GODOLPHIN RESOURCES NEED TO SUPPORT PINATUBO BETTER
Seven horses went to post for the Group 1 St James’s Palace Stakes last Saturday, with three of those trained by Ballydoyle. The 11/8 favourite was Pinatubo, owned by Godolphin and trained by Charlie Appleby.
Pre-race, like a lot of Group 1 contests where Coolmore are represented with multiple runners, it looked like Ballydoyle horses could control how the race was run, and, that’s exactly how it panned out with Arizona, Royal Dornoch and Wichita filling the first trio of positions early, off what was a slack gallop.
The horse in the worst position tactically here? Well, that was Pinatubo who had no pacemaker there to potentially help him. With the Ballydoyle trio sitting out in front at their leisure, this especially the case of 9/4 second-favourite Wichita, Pinatubo was travelling too well at the back of the field and likely using up valuable energy.
Yes, under William Buick, last season’s Champion Juvenile came there travelling sweetly and had every chance 2 out; a sign of his class and pace, but this race could have fallen better for him had he had the help from his owner and trainer, in the way of a pacemaker or two.
With the resources available to Godolphin, a better support unit for Pinatubo should be there for the colt, who is a future stallion prospect, every time he runs. As we saw in this race, with terrible team tactics employed on Royal Dornoch, Ballydoyle have no issue making it harder for their rivals to compete against them.
While I am not suggesting Godolphin stoop this low, with Pinatubo’s strong traveling abilities, a pacemaker makes sense for a horse like him. If the great Frankel and his team used a pacemaker, why shouldn’t Pinatubo?
IRISH JUVENILES DISADVANTAGED?
With the British Flat racing season starting on June 1st and the Irish campaign resuming on June 8th - both obviously due to the Covid-19 pandemic - there is a real case to argue that especially in the juvenile races at Royal Ascot last week, British-trained horses were favoured.
Now, no one is to blame for this, it’s just the way the respective seasons panned out, with both jurisdictions obviously having to obey their government guidelines on the back of Covid-19. To be fair to Ascot and the BHA, juvenile races were moved to the backend of the meeting, to give horses more time in between their respective races, but the time simply still looked too short. For some.
I feel we saw good examples of this on Saturday in the Coventry Stakes and Queen Mary Stakes. In the former, the Aidan O’Brien-trained 5/2 favourite Admiral Nelson was slow into stride and never travelled, looking a flat horse. Maybe not a surprise for a big juvenile who looked impressive on fast ground just eight day’s previous, though. In the Queen Mary, O’Brien’s even-money favourite More Beautiful was a well-held ninth, failing to pick up in the final stages of the race, 12 days after her own impressive debut.
On Friday, again one of O’Brien’s, Lipizzaner, looked beaten after a couple of furlongs in the Norfolk Stakes, despite shaping like a horse who would love the drop to 5f in his previous starts. Chief Little Hawk (Windsor Castle Stakes), Hyde Park Barracks (Windsor Castle Stakes) and Mother Earth (Albany Stakes) were other disappointments for Ballydoyle and Coolmore during the week in the two-year-old races.
Maybe all of the aforementioned are as good as they looked at Royal Ascot, variables like ground and draw also need to be taken into account – this especially the case of the last quartet mentioned - but it could well be worth forgiving Irish juveniles who were (potentially) below par.
Ballydoyle did manage to win the Chesham Stakes last week however, with the superbly bred Battleground (War Front x Found), so given how the rest of O’Brien’s juvenile string performed, he is a horse who maybe deserves credit for backing up a relatively quick run. On debut, he didn’t have a tough a race however, and maybe that stood to him here, in comparison to some of his stablemates.
As ever, I could be wrong with all of the above, but I do think it is worth considering and so, forgiving some Irish juveniles.