If it’s not broke, don’t fix it, they say. Sagaro Stakes day at Ascot wasn’t broken, but they’ve fixed it up, fattened it out and fashioned a fabulous fixture well worthy of its rebranding as Royal Ascot Trials Day.
All five of the non-handicaps on Wednesday are big trials, connected to big races at the main event in June, and each has at least one big contender on show: that’s why this meeting is so important and influential, and will become more so in years to come, though they’ll do well to beat the cast of characters assembled for this inaugural edition of an updated day.
Here are, for me, the five key questions that will be answered in this first of a series of Ascot Angles, with an eye to the Royal meeting itself.
(HALF) SISTER ACT 2 – ANYTHING YOU CAN DO…
The wild speed from D’Wildcat Speed’s sixth foal is part of Ascot folklore, for the way Lady Aurelia burned up the track not once but twice, in the Queen Mary in 2016 and the King’s Stand the following year. Fast forward three years, and a fast-forward debut by her half-sister, Lady Pauline, had the same echoes of electricity about it. And now she’s coming to Ascot for a test run, in the Irish Thoroughbred Marketing Royal Ascot Two-Year-Old Trial at 2.15.
It’s hard to believe that, looking at the Ladies, Pauline will be quite so fast and fearsome as Aurelia, but then again there’s the outside chance that she’ll be Serena Williams to Aurelia’s Venus. Whatever the complexities of their comparison, Lady Pauline is clearly cut from the same supersonic cloth, and it’s likely this dry run will leave a dust trail to the opposition, in the present and the future. It doesn’t get much more exciting than an American drag racer tearing up this green and pleasant land, and we don’t have to wait until June to witness it this time.
(HALF) SISTER ACT 2 – ANYTHING YOU CAN DO…(PART 2)
Powered by a Spencer special, Agrotera swooped from last to first in the 2018 Sandringham Stakes at Royal Ascot, when a mark of 88 was blatantly beneath her. Though it’s unpublished, the rating of her year-younger half-sister, Baba Ghanouj, by Sea The Stars, will be at least that high already, after a two-race juvenile campaign that consisted of a fourth to no less than Qabala, at Newmarket, prior to a silky-smooth success at Wolverhampton. She starts her season with an Oaks entry and a date at Ascot in the Naas Racecourse Royal Ascot Trials Day British EBF Fillies' Conditions Stakes over a mile, a trip liable to be on the sharp side for her this year, though that’s perhaps the least of her worries, looking at the opposition.
Hidden Message was wide and buffeted by the wind when beaten favourite in the Oh So Sharp Stakes last October, a false picture of her, discolouring the first coat of premium paint that she spectacularly splashed at Yarmouth. And then, in the ‘could be anything’ category, are the once-raced winners, three of them, spearheaded by Queen Power, who beat a clutch of next-time scorers in a maiden at Newmarket, since when she’s been transferred (from Ralph Beckett) to Sir Michael Stoute, complete with an Oaks entry. This fillies’ conditions stakes, at 2.50, is the race above all others that will teach us the most on Wednesday.
OVER AND OUT
Barney Roy's stallion spell is over, and so he’s back out, on the track, faced with a question only he can answer: what’s he still got? We know what he hasn’t got, meaning there’s no going back now, gelded for chapter 3 of his career, after the blank page of chapter 2. To recap, Barney Roy was one of the best of his generation, gaining his Guineas revenge on Churchill in the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot, before pushing Ulysses close in all-aged Group 1s at Sandown and York.
The irony is that everything about Barney Roy, from his physique to his profile, says he would have made a top-notch four-year-old, sacrificing that to speed to stud, in the process retrained to not be a racehorse, illustrating the task at hand, for new trainer Charlie Appleby, of reprogramming him all over again, in body and mind. Of all the focal points for Ascot on Wednesday, Barney Roy's return in the Ascot Shop Paradise Stakes is the most open-ended, but therefore the most intriguing, to tell us whether Godolphin have another global heavy-weight amongst its ranks.
DEE EX PLAN B
It will be a quiz question in years to come: which horse beat Roaring Lion, Saxon Warrior and Kew Gardens, yet failed to win in an 8-race campaign? That was the Derby form, and that was the mountain that Dee Ex Bee never climbed again in the ratings range, hence he’s trying something new this year, starting with the Longines Sagaro Stakes (3.25).
But to think of this as a reinvention is to underestimate the test of the St Leger for a three-year-old, all fourteen-and-a-half furlongs of it, a departure which did nothing for him on the day. Explaining Dee Ex Bee isn’t easy, but backing against him is, and likewise it’s hard to support Verdana Blue at the price she is, as this is a world away from the Scottish Champion Hurdle, more so in practice than in theory. All of which paves the way for Weekender to start his season with a bang, a Cup Final for him, perhaps the only time this season that stablemate Stradivarius won’t be blocking him out.
CALYX: PHASE 2
There can’t have been many horses in history who made the impact Calyx did in just 10 days during his first phase of racing last June, working wonders to win Royal Ascot's Coventry Stakes from the disadvantaged side. A bone injury meant that, like a shooting star, his appearance was very brilliant but very brief in 2018.
And so he’s back, along with his outrageous pace, and it's the reason Frankie walks into Ascot with that smile upon his face. It’s hard to think there’ll be a shock, just put your trust in Johnny G, 'cause Calyx goes six lengths per second, maybe faster still aged three.
Following Too Darn Hot’s withdrawal, there was talk of the Guineas for Calyx, before the decision was taken of this gentler way into a significant season for him, not that today's Merriebelle Stable Commonwealth Cup Trial Stakes is a ‘gimme’ by any means, especially with another Royal Ascot juvenile winner, Signora Cabello, in opposition. All the same, if Calyx really is the second coming, he can’t be coming second at 3.55.