Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer, Kevin Blake has multiple Royal Ascot reflections including the star performers of the week, Cracksman and more.

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THE STAR PERFORMANCES

Royal Ascot is all about the best racing against the best in the grandest of settings. The hope will always be that it produces top-class performances, exciting finishes and drama in abundance and this year’s meeting had all of that and more.

Everyone will have their own opinion, but in terms of a performance of the week, the Jessica Harrington-trained Alpha Centauri in the Coronation Stakes takes some beating. The three-year-old fillies’ division wasn’t one that had set the racing world alight thus far this season, but Alpha Centauri changed all that by absolutely slamming a high-class field of fillies by six lengths. 

As well as being a spectacular performance in visual terms, she stopped the clock in a time that broke the track record held by Barney Roy by over a second. The daughter of Mastercraftsman has taken two giant leaps forward in her last two starts and looks more than capable of competing with the boys later this season. 

The Gold Cup looked one of the races of the week on paper and it very much delivered as a contest. While Order Of St George didn’t produce his best on the day, the other leading contenders Stradivarius and Vazirabad very much did and combined to produce a pulsating finish. 

As it transpired, it was Stradivarius that proved the strongest under what was a wonderful ride from Frankie Dettori. The French raider Vazirabad lost nothing in defeat under what may well have been the best losing ride of the week from Christophe Soumillion. The Belgian delivered his mount to challenge as late as he dared, but just wasn’t quite good enough on the day. Stradivarius now has the staying world at his feet and with this being just his 11th career start, he may well not be finished improving yet. 

What proved to be a marvellous week for John Gosden had been kicked off by a treble on the opening day of the meeting that featured the victory of Without Parole in the St James’ Palace Stakes. The primary fear for the unbeaten son of Frankel going into the race was that he wouldn’t be battle hardened enough after just three races to beat some of the best three-year-old milers in Europe, but those concerns proved to be unfounded. 

Given a no-nonsense ride by Frankie Dettori, he hit the front perhaps sooner than Dettori would have ideally liked, but had enough in reserve to hold off the challenge of the more quietly-ridden Gustav Klimt. 

That Without Parole could overcome his inexperience to beat a solid field of more experienced milers bodes very well for his future. He can be expected to improve from this and his connections have the option of stepping up in trip with him at some point, as he promises to stay a mile-and-a-quarter. Either way, he looks to have strong claims of proving to be the best of his generation when all is said and done at the end of the season.

ARTHUR KITT DOES IT FOR MUM

Without doubt one of the best stories to emerge from the Royal meeting was that of Arthur Kitt. His mother Ceiling Kitty won the Queen Mary Stakes for the same connections in 2012, but tragically died whilst giving birth to him in 2016. The foal that would become Arthur Kitt needed to be resuscitated six times after being delivered and having made it through his first night, was raised by a foster mare. 

For him to follow in his mother’s hoof prints to win at Royal Ascot as a two-year-old was an incredible story, one that resonated with the public on a scale rarely seen in horse racing. 

Arthur Kitt wins the Chesham Stakes
Arthur Kitt winning was one of the stories of the week

Aside from the story, Arthur Kitt looked a fine prospect in victory for Tom Dascombe and owner Andrew Black. While Ceiling Kitty has clearly stamped him with plenty of her precocity, with him being the earliest winning two-year-old by Camelot in Britain and Ireland by no less than two months, his father’s influence is clearly there as well as he looks a stayer in the making. 

It will be fascinating to watch Arthur Kitt’s progress in the months ahead, but regardless of what he goes on to achieve, he will live long in the memory for emulating his late mother by winning at the Royal meeting.

SETTLE FOR BAY TRIUMPHS FOR MARNANE

The easiest winner of any of the ultra-competitive handicaps all week was Settle For Bay in the Royal Hunt Cup and it represented a huge success for trainer Dave Marnane. 

The four-year-old looked in big trouble when pulled up lame with a fractured pelvis in a handicap at Dundalk just over a year ago, but Marnane nursed him back to health and he has proven to be relentlessly progressive since then. 

With him having improved to a rating of 99 when winning his fourth consecutive race at Dundalk in January, Marnane gave him a break with the specific intention of giving him one prep run prior to the Royal Hunt Cup. The son of Rio De La Plata completed that plan with deadly effectiveness last week. 

None of his rivals were good enough to give him a lead for as long as Billy Lee wanted and in truth, the race was all over with fully a furlong left to run which is highly unusual for such a competitive handicap. Indeed, the style in which Settle For Bay won off a mark of 99 raises the very real possibility that he could be very much be a Group horse in the making and potentially a very good one at that.

Remarkably, Marnane had become the first Irish-based trainer to win the Wokingham in 27 years when saddling Dandy Boy to win it in 2012 and Settle For Bay’s victory in the Royal Hunt Cup was only the second Irish-trained success in the race since Continuation in 1966. Those are serious feats for any trainer to have on their CV, never mind one with just 25 horses in his care. 

Marnane has had to be patient in his pursuit of his next star after Dandy Boy and Jamesie were retired, but it looks like that he may well now have the best of the lot in his care.

IRISH-TRAINED TWO-YEAR-OLDS STRUGGLE

It was a tough week at Royal Ascot for two-year-olds trained in Ireland. While a number of them hit the frame, none of them managed to win. This could well be a result of the particularly poor weather that Ireland was engulfed in during the spring. 

Much of the Irish hopes in the two-year-old division rested on Aidan O’Brien and with this year being the latest in the better part of 25 years that O’Brien was able to get his two-year-olds onto the grass gallops in Ballydoyle, that could well be a big part of the reason why many of his juveniles looked a shade short of know-how in such a competitive environment. With that in mind, it may prove wise not to be too quick to judge those that underperformed, with them as a group being likely to benefit significantly from the experience. 

WHAT TO DO WITH CRACKSMAN?

For all that John Gosden had a wonderful week, he also trained one of the biggest disappointments of the meeting in Cracksman. The four-year-old was never travelling and while he made a bold bid considering, he was ultimately well held by Poet’s Word on the day.

There could be any number of reasons for why Cracksman performed as he did, but this was not something new for him. While many recalled the lack of fluency with which he travelled in the Coronation Cup at Epsom earlier this month, this is a trait that Cracksman has shown much earlier than that. Indeed, in the aftermath of the Irish Derby a year ago it was suggested in this space that this tendency could well be remedied by the application of cheekpieces. 

On this occasion, this seemingly inherent tendency could well have been accentuated by the ground being firmer than ideal or him being flat just 19 days after a hard race in the Coronation Cup, but whatever the reason, his connections now have a conundrum. 

Do they do nothing and hope for the best? Do they try to concentrate his mind by applying cheekpieces or even blinkers? Might the solution be as simple as giving him a short break and freshening him up for an autumn target on what would be likely to be a less firm surface? 

Poet's Word beats Cracksman
Cracksman was no match for Poet's Word

It could well be significant that his very best performances have come when he has had at least six weeks in between runs and he travelled better than ever when fresh on his seasonal reappearance in the Prix Ganay in April.

Whatever they do or don’t do, his connections will be under pressure to get it right on his next start, as the jury is very much out on him for many in the aftermath of two thoroughly unconvincing performances.

A PENNY FOR THE THOUGHTS OF WINX’S CONNECTIONS

In the aftermath of what was a notably weak renewal of the Queen Anne Stakes in form terms, one wonders what the connections of Winx must have been thinking. They took the safe option by keeping their star mare at home in Australia rather than giving her the opportunity to seal her legacy outside of Australia in the Queen Anne. 

For all the concerns there would have been about her producing her best at Royal Ascot given the travel involved and the very different track she would have encountered, she wouldn’t have needed to be anywhere near her best to win the race and seal her place as an international racing legend. 

Winx may well go and win a historic fourth Cox Plate later this year, but when all is said and done, her connections may well rue not having the bravery to truly test their wonderful mare in deeper waters outside of her comfort zone. 

That decision will ultimately mean that her legendary status will not extend to any great extent beyond the borders of that comfort zone in Australia, which is a real pity for a mare that had the talent to be a star around the world.

Kevin Blake
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