Goldikova can rattle Rip
The long-absent Ballydoyle star Rip Van Winkle leads a small, but generally select Irish team into action this afternoon as a vintage renewal of the Queen Anne Stakes launches the Royal Ascot extravaganza that traditionally dominates this month's racing calendar.
The English, French and Irish Derbys, which bookend the June schedule around Europe, pale into relative insignificance compared to the hectic five days of lavish spending and sustained punting we can expect at the ultra-smart Berkshire venue.
After defeats for the pick of his second-season performers in the Epsom and Chantilly Classics, champion trainer Aidan O'Brien will be keen for Rip Van Winkle to build on the solid start made to the campaign by Coronation Cup victor Fame And Glory.
Perhaps obliged to rely mostly this year on his older and juvenile runners for fireworks, the Wexford native saddles seven runners during today's session and the pick of this Ballydoyle crop would appear to be Rip Van Winkle and Zoffany.
'Rip' is on the scent of a Group One hat-trick on British soil with Johnny Murtagh up, as the Galileo colt captured the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood from the re-opposing Paco Boy before readily landing the odds on the round mile here last September.
Successful 12 months ago in the opener for regular partner Richard Hughes, Paco Boy is 8lbs better off than Murtagh's mount from Goodwood late last July and comes into this renewal on the back of an easy Lockinge Stakes win at Newbury last month.
Richard Hannon's Irish-bred stable star has the tactical pace to cruise right into contention for Hughes and, at the weights, plus proven match-fitness this season, will be fancied to avenge his Goodwood defeat by the O'Brien runner.
Two major stumbling blocks to Paco Boy's repeat victory bid, however, are the presence of French superstar Goldikova and the improvement we can expect Rip Van Winkle to have made from three to four, even if his gifted trainer has some reservations as to whether his standard-bearer will be sharp enough to give of his best after that 220-day break from competition.
Top jockey at the fixture for the past two years, Murtagh, thus might not feel as confident about seizing the initiative earlier than most today compared to when he put the opposition to the sword at both Goodwood and Ascot last year.
This race promises to be a tremendous curtain-raiser to the week and heavy-hitting punters have been out in force already to pin their faith on the three prime fancies to dominate the finish. While the heart suggests Rip Van Winkle can emulate Ad Valorem in 2006 and Haradasun two years ago for O'Brien, the head rules in favour of the older, often imperious Goldikova.
Dewhurst Stakes surprise scorer Beethoven has been rejected by Murtagh in favour of the less exposed Steinbeck for the St James' Palace Stakes, which he won on Mastercraftsman last year.
Strictly on the form of their meeting at the Curragh last month in the Irish 2,000 Guineas, Steinbeck has five lengths to find with Canford Cliffs, but O'Brien remains optimistic.
"You always hope you can turn the tables on a horse," said O'Brien. "The Curragh was his first run back, he ran a lovely race, got a little tired and then stayed on at the finish. He's been in very good form. He looks a tighter horse than he did then and he wasn't stopping at the Curragh, he just got shuffled back a little bit.
"He was just in a nice rhythm when he went for the same gap as Canford Cliffs, so he just had to wait for a second. He maybe lost a little ground, but stayed on well when he got back into top gear."
The latter's stablemate Dick Turpin, as well as lone American raider Noble's Promise, plus French pair Makfi, victorious in the English Guineas from the Hannon duo, and Siyouni, make this an international affair that might be more profitably watched than punted on.
The following Coventry Stakes is another puzzle for backers to fathom as impressive Newbury winner Strong Suit for the Hannon-Hughes alliance squares up to Tommy Stack's Epsom hero High Award and the unbeaten O'Brien pair Zoffany and Samuel Morse.
It could be down to a toss of a coin how this six-furlong dash will pan out, with 15 runners to weigh up and maybe a draw bias, too, but the Dansili colt Zoffany appeals greatly as he demonstrated lots of raw talent when romping home at Leopardstown and Naas.
More recently at the Kildare track, Oor Jock looked a colt of some potential when opening his account in style and Dermot Weld's speedy charge merits a little each-way support in the concluding Windsor Castle Stakes.
2.30 -- Goldikova
4.25 -- Zoffany (nap)
5.35 -- Oor Jock (each-way)