Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake is excited by two sprint contests at this year’s Royal Ascot meeting – the King’s Stand Stakes and Diamond Jubilee Stakes – and delves into a number of fascinating clashes involving the world’s best sprinters.

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Sprints to savour at Royal Ascot

Royal Ascot means different things to different people. Some love the history, traditions and pageantry, while others simply love it for the tremendous quality of the racing. There are many sub-divisions within the latter group, but arguably the one best catered for by the Royal meeting is those who love to see world-class sprinters burning up a straight track. While the meeting rarely disappoints on that front, this year will play host to a series of mouth-watering sprints that promise to define the merits of a generation.

The first of the two Group 1 sprints is the King’s Stand Stakes over five furlongs on Tuesday. So often a wide-open contest in which the draw and luck in running can play such a pivotal role, for many this year’s renewal can be distilled down to a two-horse war that has just as much potential to be an anti-climax as it does a classic.

The reason for this is that one of the main protagonists, the Charlie Hills-trained Battaash, seems to be constantly teetering on the edge of the line that separates brilliance from madness. In the case of this four-year-old, that line has always been dangerously thin.

The son of Dark Angel’s temperament let him down so badly prior to and during the Windsor Castle Stakes at the Royal meeting two years ago that he was sent back to Shadwell to be gelded. While his form later that year represented a slight improvement, it was when he returned as a three-year-old last year that he really came into his own, producing four tremendous winning performances that stamped him as one of the very best sprinters on the planet.

However, he showed prior to his one below-form effort in the Nunthorpe that his temperament can still be an issue, with him playing up in the preliminaries and being very reluctant to load in the stalls. 

While the visuals of his winning seasonal reappearance in the Temple Stakes at Haydock last month are unlikely to have set too many observers alight, it is possible to put a positive spin on the performance. Battaash was the only horse involved in the finish that didn’t have the benefit of race fitness, he also had to give away a 5lb Group 1 penalty to those rivals and had not yet come in his coat. 

As well as that, the race developed away from the part of the track that he initially raced up and led to him wandering to his left in search of company in the closing stages. So, while he pretty much fell in on the day, in many ways it was commendable that he still managed to win despite so much being against him. 

Of course, he will need to be sharper and on his best behaviour at Royal Ascot if he is to deliver the type of performance that we know he is capable of. On the latter front, there must be a concern that this will be his first return to the scene where his behaviour was so bad two years ago that it prompted him to be gelded. 

It may not be a coincidence that it was Ascot that blew his lid either, as not only does the Royal meeting have an unrivalled atmosphere to cope with, the racecourse stables are also situated quite a way away from the saddling boxes. As a result, Battaash will have to walk half a mile and cross a busy road to get from the stables to the track and all of this will test his volatile temperament. 

While it would be difficult to place one’s utmost faith in him keeping it all together, the very question of how he handles the preliminaries will only add to what is a marvellous race in prospect.

The other half of the top of the bill in the King’s Stand is the Wesley Ward-trained Lady Aurelia. The daughter of Scat Daddy has lit up the Royal meeting in each of the last two years with stunning displays of speed and power. Indeed, her spectacular winning effort in the Queen Mary Stakes in 2016 is likely to be remembered as one of the most remarkable performances by a two-year-old in the recent history of the meeting. She returned last year to win the King’s Stand Stakes in great style, beating the likes of Profitable and Marsha with plenty to spare. 

In contrast with Battaash, Lady Aurelia has proven to be very reliable, particularly at Ascot. While there is a theory that progeny of Scat Daddy have a particular liking for Ascot, in her case the fact that her two best efforts have come at Ascot is perhaps more so a reflection of her trainer’s stated goal of having her peaked for the Royal meeting. 

It is within that context that her defeat on her seasonal reappearance at Keeneland in April should be viewed, in it shouldn’t be taken as any sort of indication of how much ability she retains. That question will be answered on Tuesday and with Ward being typically bullish about her chances, perhaps only the very best version of Battaash can threaten her unbeaten record at the Royal meeting. 

All told, the King’s Stand Stakes promises to be an enthralling contest from the very first glimpse we get of Battaash in the preliminaries up to the finishing line. 

While the King’s Stand is more than worthy of all the attention it has been getting, it has perhaps unfairly overshadowed what promises to be a fascinating renewal of the Diamond Jubilee Stakes on Saturday.

The home defence will very much be led by the Clive Cox-trained Harry Angel. A free-goer with blistering speed, he won both the July Cup and Haydock Sprint Cup last season, creating a particularly deep impression on the latter occasion. However, it is a telling fact that every single one of Harry Angel’s four career defeats have come at Ascot. While there have been extenuating circumstances around some of those defeats, most notably when he was taken on in the early stages of the Commonwealth Cup and when he reared at the start of the British Champions Sprint, the real relevance of this fact is that the stiff six-furlong trip at Ascot has seemed to be at the very outer reaches of his stamina limitations.

Of course, he could well prove to have physically matured enough over the winter to cope better with the test that this course and distance presents this year, but it is a concern going into Saturday.

Without doubt the most intriguing element to this race is the Australian connection. While what had been a regular stream of Australian-trained success has been brought to a halt since Black Caviar got the fright of her life when winning this race in 2012, this year’s renewal will very much have an Aussie feel to it.

The David Hayes-trained Redkirk Warrior will represent Australian connections in the race, though this will represent something of a homecoming for him given he was originally trained by William Haggas, winning a handicap over a mile-and-a-quarter at Ascot in 2014. Sold to race in Hong Kong soon after, persistent foot problems led to him being retired from racing out there. Subsequently sent to Australia, Hayes and his farrier have reinvented him as a sprinter with staggering results. 

The seven-year-old is now a three-time Group 1 winner, with him gaining those victories over both five and six furlongs under both patient and forceful rides. His connections feel he is particularly well suited by straight tracks and he must be considered a serious danger to all.

The case for Redkirk Warrior arguably becomes even stronger when one weighs up the prospects of the Aidan O’Brien-trained Merchant Navy. The four-year-old was previously trained in Australia where he showed an incredible turn of foot to win the Group 1 Coolmore Stakes at Flemington in November prior to finishing a neck third to Redkirk Warrior in the Newmarket Handicap at Flemington in March. 

Switched to Aidan O’Brien soon after the latter race, he made his Irish debut in the Greenlands Stakes at the Curragh with his new handler emphasising that he would need the run and the race was considered a stepping stone to Royal Ascot. 

As well as that, Merchant Navy faced a very tough ask in the Greenlands in the shape of the weight-for-age scale. To briefly summarise the situation for those that aren’t familiar with it, in the Northern Hemisphere the universal birthday for all thoroughbreds is January 1st. For example, any horse born at any stage in 2014 is currently considered a four-year-old regardless of whether they were born on January 1st or June 1st. 

In the Southern Hemisphere, the universal birthday for thoroughbreds in August 1st to reflect the reversed seasons down there. These systems work fine within themselves, but they create a very unsatisfactory situation when a three-year-old from either hemisphere travels into the opposite hemisphere to race against older horses.

The unfair nature of this situation is illustrated very clearly by Merchant Navy. He was born on November 14th 2014 and is thus considered a four-year-old in the Northern Hemisphere. Had he been born just six weeks later in 2015, as a Northern Hemisphere three-year-old he would have theoretically been entitled to have received 9lb off the older horses in the Greenlands Stakes and 7lb from them in the Diamond Jubilee. 

It is of course all academic as neither of those races permit three-year-olds to run in them, but it does highlight an issue that is worthy of discussion at an official level. 

The racing world is getting smaller and connections of top-class horses should be encouraged to travel them across the hemispheres to test them. The current weight-for-age regulations make it very unattractive to travel a three-year-old in this way and perhaps the racing authorities should make a provision for such cases going forwardly. Indeed, Aidan O’Brien also made this call when discussing Merchant Navy in a recent stable tour on the At The Races website.

In real terms, the task that the current rules set for the likes of Merchant Navy is that despite finishing a neck behind Redkirk Warrior in the Newmarket Handicap receiving 12lb just over three months ago, he will meet him on Saturday on level weights. 

In truth, Merchant Navy should be receiving in the region of 7lb from Redkirk Warrior and the rest of the field, but if he can overcome that systemic handicap as he did in the Greenlands Stakes, it will make the victory all the more meritorious.

The week ahead promises to go a long way to establishing what the best sprinter in the world is right now and it should make for incredibly exciting viewing.

Kevin Blake
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