Sunday 21 April 2019

Royal Ascot is Flat racing's Cheltenham and this year should deliver some thrilling battles

Trainer Aidan O'Brien at Ascot. Photo: Julian Herbert/Getty Images
Trainer Aidan O'Brien at Ascot. Photo: Julian Herbert/Getty Images
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

All the tradition, fashion, ceremony and memories of Audrey Hepburn in a bonnet sometimes make it easy to forget what an outstanding event Royal Ascot is from a purely sporting perspective. The eight Group One races in the festival makes it the closest thing Flat racing has to a Cheltenham.

Last year was particularly exciting with the highlight an epic struggle in the Ascot Gold Cup where Aidan O'Brien's two-in-a-row-seeking Order Of St George lost by a short head to double Goodwood Cup winner Big Orange. Big Orange's bid for three Goodwood Cups on the trot was later denied by John Gosden's Stradivarius which will pose the main challenge to Order Of St George this Thursday.

O'Brien's star bounced back from last year's narrow reverse to win the Irish St Leger and the Champions Long Distance Cup at Ascot where Stradivarius, which has won the Group Two Yorkshire Cup already this year, was a length back in third place. To make things even livelier, the Aga Khan-owned Vazirabad, which has won three Dubai Gold Cups in a row against some excellent opposition, will also be there.

The most thrilling individual performance of last year's festival came from the electric American sprinter Lady Aurelia which won the five furlong Kings Stand Stakes by three lengths. She's back to defend her crown but will face stiff opposition from Bataash, trained by Charles Hills, whose four-length win in last year's Prix de l'Abbaye du Longchamp was perhaps an even more impressive display. Tuesday's race should be just as intriguing a contest as that in the Gold Cup.

Aidan O'Brien's record-breaking haul of Group One winners last year included three at Royal Ascot and he will have big hopes for Clemmie in Friday's Coronation Stakes. The race should include the winners of the English (Billesdon Brook), Irish (Alpha Centauri) and French (Teppal) 1,000 Guineas but it's Clemmie which will probably start favourite. Last year's outstanding two-year-old filly missed the Newmarket classic after a setback and was well beaten in the Irish version but she could work the oracle in a race O'Brien won last year with the brilliant Winter.

O'Brien's thunder was stolen in the Irish 2,000 Guineas when his US Navy Flag was beaten by 25/1 shot Romanised. Romanised's victory for Cork-born and Kildare-based trainer Ken Condon is one of the fairytale stories of the year and he'll renew rivalry with US Navy Flag in Tuesday's St James's Palace Stakes. Also in the mix will be Tip Two Win, which did his bit for romance when finishing second in the English 2,000 Guineas at 50/1 for another small trainer, Roger Teal. But the one they'll all have to beat is John Gosden's lightly-raced, unbeaten and highly regarded Without Parole whose sire Frankel won this race seven years ago.

The Queen Anne Stakes on Tuesday sees O'Brien saddle Rhododendron, recent winner of the Lockinge Stakes at Newbury after being the nearly woman of 2017 when finishing second in both the 1,000 Guineas and the Oaks. The Coolmore v Godolphin rivalry will come into play here as the latter send Ben Batl, a winner at last year's festival and with four victories at Dubai's Meydan racetrack since.

Saturday's Diamond Jubilee Stakes will be O'Brien v Godolphin as he bids to upset Harry Angel, an outstanding winner of last year's July Cup and Haydock Sprint Cup, with Merchant Navy, an impressive winner at the Curragh recently in his first run since moving from Australia. Another outstanding Australian horse, Redkirk Warrior, which has made a remarkable comeback since sustaining an apparent career-ending injury in the Hong Kong Derby three years ago adds an element of intrigue.

Such are the riches on show it's a pity that the meeting organisers feel it necessary to carry out breath tests on spectators, use sniffer dogs to search for drugs and to stop selling beer in the stands. This follows mass punch-ups in recent months at Ascot and Goodwood. The shaven-headed tattooed moron slugging it out with others of the same ilk has become an unfortunate feature of English racing in recent years.

You could perhaps make a case for them being the heirs of the footpads, cutpurses and general lowlifes who were part of racing's early days, but that doesn't make these lads any less of a blight right now.

Hopefully the headlines next week are all about what happens on the track. Racing is still one of the great sports and it's rarely greater than it is at Royal Ascot.

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