Ribchester and Lady Aurelia reinforced their star status, but it proved to be an off-day for Aidan O’Brien’s Churchill.
On a baking opening day at Ascot, the Royal Meeting provided a plethora of dazzling performances fit for a Queen. Track records were tumbling left, right and centre, with Ribchester setting the tone thanks to a classy performance in the Queen Anne Stakes.
Team Godolphin had a day to remember, and it was Ribchester that settled the nerves with a professional display. Taking over the running a furlong from home, he battled on bravely to see off Mutakayyef by just over a length. The runner-up had travelled powerfully into contention but was unable to peg-back Fahey’s fella. And though he wandered off a straight path in the closing stages, the winner never looked likely to be caught. Deauville put in an eye-catching performance for Ballydoyle to finish third.
Of the winner, jockey William Buick said: “I said after the Lockinge he's very versatile. He's an exceptional miler, of course he's got lots of quality but he travels so well and sees it out so well. You've got to hand it to the horse, he's an absolute jockey's dream. It doesn't get much better than this, it's the biggest week in our sport, and to wear the Royal Blue for Sheikh Mohammed here is absolutely fantastic.”
With the course-record broken, an exceedingly proud Richard Fahey said: “I'm delighted he won, William said he's got huge gears and said that he was never in trouble. He gets the trip well and that makes him a good horse. He's got to be the best I've trained, especially breaking the track record here today, and that is not being disrespectful to the other horses. I'm in a happy place at the minute.”
Ribchester’s thoroughly professional performance was arguably overshadowed by the dazzling display from America’s Lady Aurelia. Wes Ward’s flying filly had sparkled 12 months earlier, when storming to victory in the Queen Mary. That success came on soft ground, but she found the fast ground yesterday equally to her liking. Moving to the front beyond the furlong mark, she quickly put distance between herself and the rest. Last year’s winner Profitable, now a Godolphin blue, proved best of the rest despite the ground being plenty quick enough for him. Marsha ran another cracker to finish a head further back in third.
An injury to Frankie Dettori meant that American jock John Velazquez became the lucky pilot. He said of the victory: “It's unfortunate for Frankie and a bad situation for him, but she was spectacular. I gave her a little break in the first half of the race and then when I asked her to run she responded, that doesn't always happen. Wes does a great job and he has a great team.”
For Ward, the flying filly made it eight Royal Ascot winners, and the ecstatic trainer added: “She's a very special filly. This is a Group One against the fastest sprinters in the world and to duplicate what she did last year and come back and do it again - she's a once in a lifetime horse. She's amazing and she loves it over here. We can look forward to a really big summer, the Breeders' Cup - her owners are so excited, it's wonderful for American racing.”
With mission accomplished for two leading lights, it was the turn of Ballydoyle’s latest star to shine. Churchill had won the Guineas on both sides of the Irish Sea, and was sent off a short-priced favourite to add the St James’s Palace Stakes. Held up in midfield, Ryan Moore looked to track chief danger Barney Roy as they approached the two-furlong mark. But as Godolphin’s fella responded for pressure, so O’Brien’s star faltered. Barney battled bravely to head Lancaster Bomber and Thunder Snow inside the final furlong, whilst Churchill could only manage fourth.
Many had thought him unfortunate not to have won the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket, though Churchill’s below-par performance here, still leaves doubts over the identity of the best three-year-old miler. Nevertheless, this was Godolphin’s day, and trainer Richard Hannon was clearly delighted: “I was confident he'd run his race, not confident he'd win - I just wanted to give him the chance to prove that, as I don't think he got that chance in the Guineas. There isn't another Guineas to go at, but that is a good pot and Sean Levey, who rides him at home, has done a good job.”
Of future plans, a step up in trip appears likely when he added: “He's in the Eclipse, he's in the Arc. He takes time to get there but he picked up well, he's a very relaxed horse and was only having his fourth run, so to beat the Guineas winner is great.”
Hopefully Churchill will bounce back at some point during the Summer. He undoubtedly ran flat, maybe feeling the exertions of those two Guineas victories. O’Brien, as ever philosophical, said of the loss: “He ran well. His form with Lancaster Bomber changed a bit from what it usually is. He should like fast ground really. It is a very hot day and maybe the heat and change didn't help. He just didn't pick up for some reason. We don't know the reason but we will hopefully know sometime.”
Godolphin completed a stunning opening day, with a one-two in the Windsor Castle Stakes. The Charlie Appleby pair of Sound And Silence and Roussel, dominated the finish, with the former getting home by a neck. The juveniles look to have a bright future, as do the ‘Boys in Blue’. It’s been a turbulent period for Sheikh Mohammed and his team, yet they have roared into the Royal Meeting, and look sure to have further success during Flat racing’s most celebrated event.