Cliffs has the class to trump Goldikova
Fittingly, in the 300th year since racing first took place at Ascot, the Royal meeting commences today with two absolutely compelling races.
Over the next five days there will be 30 races run, and seven of them are Group One events. These are all part of the QIPCO Champions Series, and if the final legs of this concept -- which is in its inaugural year -- that take place back here at Ascot in October can serve up something approaching the expectation that today's events have mustered, then the series will be considered a success.
Seasoned observers are accustomed to fine racing at this meeting -- indeed we expect it -- yet in the Queen Anne Stakes that opens today and the St James's Palace Stakes two races later, racegoers and TV punters have everything they could want and more.
In the Queen Anne, the incredible Goldikova attempts her 14th win at Group/Grade One level when, just as she did 12 months ago, she opens Royal Ascot in a clash with an outstanding miler prepared by champion trainer Richard Hannon. Last year, she just held off Hannon's Paco Boy in a thrilling finish, this time stablemate Canford Cliffs is her chief rival.
Recent rain at Ascot will not worry Goldikova. Her only defeat in five runs since her victory here a year ago came when 2,000 Guineas winner Makfi proved too strong in the mud at Deauville in August. However, she won on Arc weekend at Longchamp and then registered a record third Breeders' Cup Mile in the US.
Despite her fantastic record she is not considered to have the best chance by bookmakers, who prefer Canford Cliffs, and they may just be right. As tough as she is, I believe Canford Cliffs might hold the edge. For me, the most significant factor is that Richard Hughes has now mastered how to ride this explosive colt. If Canford Cliffs wins, it will be his third successive victory at the Royal meeting, adding to the 2009 Coventry and 2010 St James's Palace Stakes.
Australians have been coming here in force for a while. Ever since Choisir completed the King's Stand/Golden Jubilee double in 2003, their love affair with Ascot has blossomed.
Two years ago the colourful American trainer Wesley Ward took the place by storm when winning with the two-year-olds Strike The Tiger and Jealous Again. He is back again with an even stronger team, including three runners today. There are also horses from Hong Kong, Japan and Hungary taking part on this opening day.
Star Witness has drawn on the stands side, which may prove an advantage when the Australian sprinter lines up against a strong international field in the King's Stand Stakes. In his home country, he ranks third best behind the all-conquering Black Caviar and the well-credentialed Hay List.
The Coventry is very open, with preference being for the Barry Hills-trained Mezmaar, which took the eye when winning a maiden at Haydock Park last month.
With the Royal meeting upon us, it may seem strange to be discussing a big race over jumps but the French Champion Hurdle takes place at Auteuil this weekend and Tony McCoy will ride David Pipe's big hope Grands Crus.
The grey was a brilliant winner of the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham in January and went on to chase home legendary stayer Big Buck's in both the World Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival and Aintree's Liverpool Hurdle.
Grands Crus now bids to secure a Grade One prize of his own and Pipe, who will also saddle Or Noir De Somoza on the card, is looking forward to the challenge.
"We will have two runners in France this weekend as Grands Crus takes in the Grande Course de Haies d'Auteuil, while Or Noir de Somoza runs in the Grade Two Prix des Drags Steeplechase," the trainer stated. "I am delighted that in the absence of stable jockey Tom Scudamore, we have been able to secure the services of AP McCoy aboard Grands Crus. He will certainly appreciate the softer ground that is inevitably prevailing at the French racecourse."
There is a strong overseas contingent present among the entries, with Willie Mullins considering a number of possibles, including Thousand Stars, Mourad, Final Approach as well as that incredible mare Quevega. (© Daily Telegraph, London)