Latest horse racing news from UK, Ireland, and around the world.

Harrington delighted as Birdman takes flight at Navan

Jessica Harrington has Royal Ascot in mind for Birdman after he flew to victory in the Irish Stallion Farms EBF Yeats Stakes at Navan.

The Free Eagle gelding was a winner on debut when taking a Cork maiden over a mile and a half in April, and stepped up both in class and trip for his next outing.

Competing over a mile and five furlongs at Listed level, the three-year-old was partnered by Shane Foley in a field of four.

A 9-4 chance, Birdman was ridden patiently but had no trouble taking up the lead in the final two furlongs to secure a comfortable length-and-a-quarter triumph.

“It was a lovely run and it was great to see,” Harrington.

“It was only the second run of his life and we are delighted.

“Most likely he’ll go for the Queen’s Vase at Ascot, that’s the plan. We thought he would take the jump in class in his stride.

“He goes on good ground and would go on quicker ground. I was a bit worried in Cork that it was a little bit too soft for him, but he coped with that.

“He’s a great big baby and he’s only a frame of a horse. He’s still a work in progress.”

Andy Oliver’s Sounds Like A Plan also has bigger prizes in his sights after a taking three-length win in the Irish Stallion Farms EBF Maiden.

Under Billy Lee the Night Of Thunder colt was making his debut, but showed only a few signs of greenness when scoring at 5-1 to bring Group targets into consideration.

“He’s a horse that at home does his work, eats, sleeps and repeats,” the trainer said.

“Credit to Molly who was leading up today, she rides him every day and just loves him. She does a great job.

“He had done everything we asked him, we never pushed him at home but he had come on and we felt he was ready for a run.

“We came here with hope rather than expectation because we had never asked him the big question.

“He did it very well and was very straightforward. He was slightly green just when he was out on his own but, apart from that, very straightforward. Billy was very happy with him, so delighted with the performance.

“There is the Marble Hill next week, but it might be a bit quick to come back. You never know, we will see. He has been engaged in the Railway Stakes, obviously with the possibility of going across the water. We’ll talk it out and make a plan.”

Big Rock team will regroup after Lockinge conditions go against QEII winner

Maurizio Guarnieri was left to bemoan conditions at Newbury after Big Rock failed to deliver a blow on his debut for the trainer in the Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes.

The son of Rock Of Gibraltar was the highest-rated miler in the world last season when trained by Christopher Head, but owners Yeguada Centurion SL made the decision to switch the colt for this season to Guarnieri.

Having chased home Ace Impact in the Prix du Jockey Club, he dropped back to a mile to finish second in some high-class events last season before ending 2023 with an emphatic display in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot.

That six-length success came on rain-softened ground on British Champions Day, and Chantilly-based Italian Guarnieri was dreaming of similar when he looked at the weather forecasts ahead of Big Rock’s latest UK raid.

But the anticipated rainfall never materialised for the strapping four-year-old, as the 11-4 second-favourite could only finish sixth, beaten 15 lengths behind shock winner Audience.

Guarnieri said: “We know that the ground is a real problem and if he had the ground OK for him, after 210 days off then he would have been OK.

“But this is a Group One and against horses with one or two races and it is not so easy and with today’s conditions it felt like the world was against us.

“The horse didn’t show what he can do in heavy and soft ground, he didn’t change his speed and normally the others are three and four lengths behind, but today he just stayed at the same pace.”

Big Rock holds an entry in the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot where he would have the chance to recreate his QEII heroics.

However, Guarnieri has warned he would like to see soft in the going description before committing to another visit to Berkshire.

“I think before we decide we need to know the horse is all right and then discuss it with the owner,” continued Guarnieri.

“In my opinion, he could go to Ascot if we get some soft ground which can sometimes happen at Ascot.

“Today we are just unlucky with the weather and he has had 200 days off. The jockey said the horse was just the same all the time and he had no chance in the race.”

King’s Gambit impresses in London Gold Cup

King’s Gambit appears to be Royal Ascot-bound after enhancing the Charlton family’s fine record in the Trade Nation London Gold Cup Handicap at Newbury.

Roger Charlton has won the valuable 10-furlong handicap with the likes of subsequent Group One performers Time Test and Al Kazeem in the past, but his son Harry was winning it for the first time since taking over the licence at Beckhampton.

Charlton said after his 7-2 favourite had obliged by four lengths from Poniros in the hands of William Buick: “Every horse that has won this has been a good horse and Ed Walker said to me in the week, if you are going to win this off 92 you will need to be a Group One horse, you need to be 20lb well-in.

“80 per cent of the winners are stallions now, it’s a proper race.

“We always thought he was a proper horse, but he was exceptionally raw last year and has taken time. The lad who rides him at home would fall off him once a month, he’s a tough ride, but he’s growing up every day and didn’t put a foot wrong there.

“I don’t know if he will be a Group One horse, we will see, but if he progresses again we will dare to dream.

“It will hopefully be the Hampton Court next.”

He added: “This was the plan for Hand Of God until he won the Esher Cup, so we switched horses and King’s Gambit has come here and Hand Of God will wait for the 10-furlong handicap at Ascot. They are two nice horses.”

Audience leaves Lockinge onlookers in disbelief

Audience was a shock winner of the Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes at Newbury.

The 22-1 shot was very much the second string for John and Thady Gosden, with stablemate Inspiral considered the real chance for Cheveley Park Stud, who own both horses.

Big Rock was another obvious major player on his first run for Maurizio Guarnieri, but the runaway Queen Elizabeth II hero never got involved as Audience – trying a mile for the first time having been a proven Group Two/Three performer at seven furlongs – was sent to the head of the field under Robert Havlin to set the fractions early on.

The sizeable lead he had built up then began to look insurmountable, with only Roger Varian’s Charyn able to give valiant chase, crossing the line a length and a quarter in arrears.

“When you know what this horse is and what he’s done, then don’t leave him alone,” said John Gosden.

Audience winning the Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes
Audience winning the Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes (Steven Paston/PA)

“He’s been working very well and I didn’t think Rab would be left in splendid isolation out in front, but I knew he would get a hell of a run out of him. I told Rab to go straight and he followed his line of mowing and no one came near him. It’s wonderful for Rab as he puts all the work in with him.

“He’s a wild boy, but he’s a horse with ability – look at the Kinross race, the City of York.

“He’s got solid Group form and he’s learnt to relax more with age, if you leave a horse like that alone he’s going to be very dangerous. We always knew he was going to be part of it and I thought he could maybe finish in the first four or five. As it was they ignored him and all got racing on the other side.

“The idea was he was there with Big Rock and softens up Big Rock, but he never really saw Big Rock. He thoroughly enjoyed himself and is a grand horse. Mrs (Patricia) Thompson kept him in training very kindly rather than him going to Hong Kong so he could be a lead horse for Inspiral and I think he has covered himself in glory.”

Thompson added of the winner: “That was amazing, we’re getting very good with geldings I think!

Audience and Robert Havlin en route to Lockinge success
Audience and Robert Havlin en route to Lockinge success (Steven Paston/PA)

“He’s the half-brother to Esquire, the gelding who won the Group Three the other day (Greenham). It must be a fiery family, he was very fiery.”

Neither owner nor trainer were disappointed with the performance of Inspiral, who was fourth under Kieran Shoemark having started as the 2-1 favourite.

“The filly will come on a bundle for that, the trainer is so hopeless he couldn’t get her fit at home. I didn’t want to take her away for gallops at racecourses, that’s not her game,” Gosden said.

“She was always going to need it, but there will be another day with her and we’re on the road with her. She’s run a lovely race and has rather come across right across which is what she did in the Jacques le Marois last year with Frankie (Dettori). She’s come to make her run and has just got tired – she’s ‘blown up’ as they call it.

Audience takes centre stage
Audience takes centre stage (Steven Paston/PA)

“In her work at home, she’s a lot older and wiser and I’m not going to tell her what she’s got to do, so she’s been quietly doing what she’s happier doing and she needed this race to bring her on for Ascot and I’m delighted with her run. She’s carrying rather a lot of condition.

“The Queen Anne would probably be the aim, as it would be for Audience as well, but talking to Mrs Thompson we would also look at the mile-and-a-quarter race (Prince of Wales’s Stakes) because when she won at the Breeders’ Cup – and I know it’s an easy mile and a quarter at Santa Anita – Frankie could not pull her up. He came back and said I think we’ve been running her over the wrong trip all the time. So we will leave our options open and see how she is over the next week.”

Thompson opted to give Inspiral another season in training instead of sending her off to stud, and added: “Inspiral always tells us when she wants to win, nobody knows before her!

“So rarely one gets a filly like that so you want to enjoy them as much as you can. We can wait until next year for the covering.”

Chris Richardson, managing director of Cheveley Park Stud, was delighted to see the bloodline come to the fore and had Royal Ascot on his mind for the winner.

“It’s a family we’ve nurtured for 32 years, it’s extraordinary how we can go back to the fourth or fifth generation,” he said.

“There’s plenty of speed in the family and it’s a family that, as they can do, has just come alight again.

“Now we’ll seriously have to consider the Queen Anne for him, whether we step up in trip for Inspiral – that will be a decision we’ll make.

“We’ll enjoy the moment and it’s just fantastic, we can’t really believe it!”

For Havlin the success was a second at Group One level, and on a horse he knows well as he has ridden him in nearly all of his career starts.

“It’s a nice surprise, last year we ran him over sprinting trips at the start,” he said.

“He’s a little bit of a thug, he ran some great races last year and really stayed on at the end.

“This was always going to be a starting point, I didn’t think he’d be good enough to beat Inspiral but he’s always threatened to have a good one in him.

“He gave himself a breather, you’re a little bit of a passenger on him. You just let him get on with it, we’ve learnt from experience that you don’t try to organise him.

“You let him do what he wants. He’s super talented. It’s his first run over a mile and last year he would never have got a mile, he was just too much like a bull in a China shop.

“He’s had good horses around him and if he can improve over a mile, which he obviously has, there’ll be some nice races to win with him.”

Elite Status confirmed in Carnarvon Stakes victory

Elite Status blew the rest away and set himself up for Royal Ascot in streaking to success in the Highclere Castle Gin Carnarvon Stakes at Newbury.

Karl Burke’s 13-2 chance was ridden by Clifford Lee for the six-furlong Listed feature and travelled well from the off.

At the head of the field from an early stage, the Sheikh Obaid-owned colt pulled further and further away from his rivals and although Relief Rally, the 3-1 favourite, challenged behind him she could not get close and was two and three-quarter lengths adrift on the line.

“I’ve always thought he was a high-class horse and I think if we can keep him on the right track, the world is his oyster,” said Burke from his Middleham base.

“He is a very good horse with a massive engine, we just lost our way with him.

“He’s one of these horses that just catches the point of his sesamoid at the back of the joint there. They are horrible and when they start catching them they catch them every time and they go sore really quickly. It’s like having a stone in your shoe or a bad nail in your foot and you keep catching it.

Elite Status winning the Highclere Castle Gin Carnarvon Stakes
Elite Status winning the Highclere Castle Gin Carnarvon Stakes (Steven Paston/PA)

“A few performances last year were disappointing, but it was probably Deauville in the bad ground last summer where it started and we never really got him back properly at the backend of the year.

“He was electric in the National Stakes and after that performance it was hard to step up to six furlongs, so we went for the Norfolk (at Royal Ascot). Sheikh Obaid was always very keen to step him up and probably rightly so, but when we did eventually step him up he was never quite right for us.

“He’s proved there today he stays six very well. He’s a horse with a big future, I think, and the Commonwealth Cup will definitely be his next run barring accidents.

“It wasn’t a question of us wanting to make the running today, but what we didn’t want to do was pull him around and take a chance of him banging himself.

“Clifford was under instruction to get into a nice rhythm, let him use his big, long stride he’s got and sit comfortably. Clifford pulled it off to perfection and he doesn’t have to make the running – if he jumps and sits second or third that’s fine. He showed in the National Stakes the turn of foot he has got.”

Tom Marquand took the ride on Relief Rally for William Haggas and said of her performance: “It was nice to see her back to last year’s self there, I thought, and she came with a real strong run.

“The winner was very fast on the front-end, he really kicked and went on.”

Middle Earth makes most of Aston Park opportunity

Middle Earth came with a sustained late charge to take the Sky Sports Racing Aston Park Stakes at Newbury.

John and Thady Gosden’s well-regarded colt broke steadily from the stalls and was ridden patiently by Oisin Murphy, settling into a space on the far rail having started at 100-30.

The lead changed hands a few times in the home straight, although the King and Queen’s even-money favourite Desert Hero never looked a threat, as King Of Conquest seemed poised to strike.

Charlie Appleby’s five-year-old had broken clear of the field in the Group Three contest, but it was Middle Earth who was gaining momentum on the inside and he surged home to score with just a nose between him and the Godolphin-trained runner-up.

“That was good, the jockey saved every inch and he needed every inch,” said John Gosden.

“He won well in the Noel Murless Stakes at Ascot (in October) and he’s a grand horse.

“The horse will come on for that, because it wasn’t strongly run for a horse coming from last. He’s like his father (Roaring Lion), he likes good ground, good to firm and firm. He’s not a lover of soft ground.

“He was slow out the gates, he usually is, but he was slower than ever and there was no pace until old Cemhaan tried to put a bit of pace in it.

“He did well to win off that pace, but Oisin was clever sneaking up the rail and when you are winning by a nose you need to sneak up the rail.”

Middle Earth with Oisin Murphy
Middle Earth with Oisin Murphy (Steven Paston/PA)

Middle Earth – whose only below-par effort last year was in the St Leger – now appears set to march on towards Royal Ascot for an outing in the Hardwicke Stakes, but with Australian handler Ciaron Maher holding an interest, a trip to Australia is inevitable in the autumn.

“He’s entered in the Hardwicke and we will have to check. Ciaron Maher owns the other half in Australia so we will chat with them and see what the game plan will be, but that seems the place he is likely to go,” continued Gosden.

“The plan is to go down to Australia for the Melbourne Cup. We’ll probably run him a couple or more times here, we’ll not overrace him and then go down there.

“He hated the ground in the St Leger last year, it was too loose and he does not like it. So if they get one of those downpours in Melbourne we may as well all stay in the hotel.”

Desert Hero was fifth eventually, with rider Tom Marquand saying of his run: “He ended up sitting a bit closer than he normally does off the slower pace, but whether that race at Sandown (last month) took a bit out of him, I’m not sure.

“He is certainly better suited when there is a stronger gallop on and it was not the worst run ever, but it was certainly not up to some of his best form.”

Kyprios claims Saval Beg honours

Kyprios triumphed as the 1-12 favourite in the Saval Beg Levmoss Stakes at Leopardstown.

Trained by Aidan O’Brien and ridden by Ryan Moore, Kyprios landed the Group Three contest before going on to claim the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot in 2022, with his outings limited due to injury last term.

Kyprios’ stablemate Queenstown set the early pace although Sunchart was similarly eager to be in front and took over after a couple of furlongs, with Kyprios settled on the heels of the first two by Ryan Moore.

The rider appeared to be pushing along on the market leader with around three furlongs to run, with Kyprios slowly making up ground to be in front in the final furlong.

Queenstown tried to make a battle of it but Kyprios was always holding him, coming home a one-length winner, with Yashin staying on for third.

Coral left Kyprios unchanged as the 11-10 favourite for the Gold Cup, with O’Brien satisfied by his Ascot prep run.

He said: “We’re delighted with him, he’s a lovely horse. When he gets there he just waits but Ryan was very happy with him.

“Ryan said he has plenty of speed left, all the speed is there, but he just pulls up when he gets there, he’s just lazy.

“The plan was obviously the two runs and then go to Ascot, if everything is well with him then.

“It’s amazing that he came back, it’s great to have him back. He just has a lovely, relaxed way of doing it.”

Lead Artist takes starring role at York

John Gosden may have found a contender for the St James’s Palace Stakes after Lead Artist bolted home by four and three-quarter lengths at York.

Lead Artist was beaten a nose by First Conquest when the pair made their debuts in the Wood Ditton at Newmarket in April, but in receipt of 6lb this time, he reversed that form with ease on the Knavesmire.

The three-year-old was battling with First Conquest for the lead with two furlongs remaining before he hit the front.

Lead Artist was closely followed by Dark Tornado and Under Siege, but he continued to stretch his advantage as he powered to the line and shed his maiden tag comfortably in the Darley EBF Novices Stakes, with Under Siege a distant second for Andrew Balding.

The Dubawi colt has an entry for the Group One contest at Royal Ascot and Gosden, who trains in partnership with his son Thady, did not rule out the option, with Lead Artist now a 12-1 shot from 33s with Coral.

“We couldn’t run him last year but he’s come on from the Wood Ditton,” he said. “Obviously the Wood Ditton winner was giving him weight today, but he’s pulled nicely clear in the last furlong, that was his most impressive.

“He’s a grand horse. I think a stiff mile is his game right now. He’s out of Obligate, a good Juddmonte family, but when you look at him he looks like a powerful Dubawi, so I wouldn’t want to stretch him out.

“I wouldn’t be keen on bringing him back to seven, but a stiff mile would be good. Something has to take on the Guineas winner (Notable Speech at Ascot) and my, he was impressive.

Lead Artist
Lead Artist eased to victory in the Darley EBF Novice Stakes at York (Mike Egerton/PA)

“I’d watched him win at Kempton and he’s the most beautiful moulded horse, by the same sire. Someone has to finish second and third!”

Botanical ran out an impressive three-length winner of the Knights Solicitors Handicap.

The Roger Varian-trained market leader justified his 5-2 price tag when he got his nose in front for the first time inside the closing stages before blitzing the other 15 runners in the mile-and-two-furlong race.

Botanical, Loyal Touch, King’s Code and Qitaal were to the fore with just over a furlong to run and it looked as though it could have been a blanket finish.

But it was four-year-old, in the hands of James Doyle, who kicked on when it mattered most to secure victory on his first appearance of the season, ahead of David Evans’ King’s Code with Reach, trained by Mick and David Easterby, a length and a quarter further adrift in third.

Botanical
Botanical comes home to win the Knights Solicitors Handicap (Mike Egerton/PA)

It provided another success for Varian and owner Sheikh Mohammed Obaid Al Maktoum in this race, having won with UAE Prince in 2019.

Doyle said: “He was in super nick today. The worry was the drying ground.

“He was so dominant on soft to heavy ground in Hamilton, maybe it was a weak race, but he showed there that he can cope with these conditions no problem.”

Riot (16-1) ended a nine-race winless run when claiming the Yorkshire Equine Practice Stakes by two and a half lengths.

Riot
Riot secured the Yorkshire Equine Practice Handicap on Friday (Mike Egerton/PA)

The David O’Meara-trained seven-year-old hit the front inside the final furlong before bursting further clear, with Richard Fahey’s Gincident only a neck clear of Hectic in second.

Jockey Danny Tudhope said: “I got a lovely track through, sometimes you can get boxed in. Your horse needs to be ridden with a lot of luck, he travelled super and got a nice gap.”

Jubilee Walk then claimed the concluding Irish Thoroughbred Marketing Handicap for Oisin Murphy and James Ferguson, streaking to a length-and-a-quarter victory as the 4-1 favourite.

The three-year-old was dropping back to five furlongs for the first time and seemed to relish the sprint distance when giving his jockey, who took the Boodles Yorkshire Cup on Giavellotto earlier in the day, a double on the card.

Giavellotto defends Yorkshire Cup crown in style

Giavellotto dominated his rivals to make it back-to-back wins in the Boodles Yorkshire Cup.

Six runners went to post for the Group Two feature on day three of York’s Dante Festival, with Tower Of London the 7-4 favourite to provide Aidan O’Brien with a first victory in the race following lucrative winter triumphs in Saudi Arabia and Dubai.

The presence of the Willie Mullins-trained Vauban, a top-class hurdler turned quality Flat horse, added further Irish interest, but neither were able to lay a glove on Marco Botti’s defending champion.

Giavellotto, who had finished behind Tower Of London on both of his starts in the Middle East earlier in the year, was a 7-2 shot in the hands of Oisin Murphy, who cut a confident figure in the saddle when looming ominously alongside Vauban and William Buick as the race began in earnest.

The three-times champion jockey had a nonchalant look over his shoulder for non-existent dangers with a furlong still to run and with Tower Of London unable to pick up, Giavellotto put real daylight between himself and his rivals late on, passing the post with four and three-quarter lengths in hand.

Connections of Vauban will doubtless be satisfied with his performance on what was his first competitive outing since failing to fire in the Melbourne Cup in November, but Tower Of London was bitterly disappointing, finishing a well-beaten fifth under Ryan Moore.

Giavellotto bypassed Royal Ascot last year and he is not entered in the Gold Cup this term either, with Botti feeling the two-and-a-half-mile trip is too far for his charge.

Oisin Murphy salutes the York crowd
Oisin Murphy salutes the York crowd (Mike Egerton/PA)

He said: “He loves the track, fortunately, he always shows his best form at York. Earlier in the week I thought the ground might be a problem because we know he acts on fast ground best and the forecast didn’t look great, but we’ve been lucky with the rain.

“The race went to plan, he got into a nice rhythm and while he got to the front a little sooner than we wanted, he galloped all the way to the line.

“It’s good to be back and it’s a race that suits him, the track is perfect. We’ve tried several times over two miles and while I’m not saying he doesn’t stay, because he has run well a few times, but it does stretch him. The Gold Cup trip is too far for him.

“I’ll need to discuss with the owners but the plan was not to go to Ascot. The Irish St Leger I know is in September and the ground could be softer, but it was a race we considered last year and we didn’t go but I would say that could be his target. I doubt we’ll go to Ascot.

“He put it to bed very easily today but the track suits him well and Oisin gave him a great ride, he was in a lovely rhythm and he picked up well.

“I was a bit shocked he was in front so early, he made them look slow today.

“We have been thinking of running him over a mile and a half eventually, we wouldn’t rule it out. Between a mile and a half and two miles, I think I’d rather run him over shorter than further. He’s definitely got stronger.”

Vauban pleased William Buick in second
Vauban pleased William Buick in second (John Walton/PA)

Vauban is entered for the Gold Cup and Buick felt it was a good starting point for the campaign.

He said: “I was delighted, they’ll be very happy with that. He’s going to get further and he felt he was going to improve for that, so there are plenty of positives to take from it.”

Ascot is the next port of call for Gregory, who won the Queen’s Vase at the meeting last year.

Joint-trainer John Gosden said: “I really liked the way he got his second wind and stayed on again. The plan is to go straight to the Gold Cup. He’ll enjoy the distance.”

Devoted Queen enters Royal Ascot reckoning with stylish victory

Charlie Appleby’s Devoted Queen gave an insight into her ability with a neat victory in the Sky Bet Fillies’ Stakes at York.

The Kingman three-year-old, who is out of a good Group performer in Fintry, was unbeaten in two runs before taking this Listed step up.

A Newmarket maiden winner on debut and successful on the all-weather at Kempton subsequently, the dark bay was the 3-1 favourite to record her hat-trick under William Buick.

Fitted with a hood to help her settle, the headgear seemed to have the desired effect as she was slotted in midfield for much of the race.

After rounding the bend she began to progress and when asked to go on and win the race she was well able to do so, prevailing by two lengths and gaining quotes as short as 10-1 for the Coronation Stakes with Betfair.

“That was really nice, she’s really grown up and she was very professional,” Alex Merriam, assistant trainer to Appleby.

“The hood definitely helped and Will said she’s really improved from her last run so she’s going the right way.

“I mentioned it (the Coronation Stakes) to Charlie and he said ‘see what Will thinks’, Will said it’s definitely something to consider so we’ll see how she comes out of it.

“He also mentioned that she could do with a bit of juice in the ground so that might come into consideration as well, hopefully she’s given herself a few options.

“She’s doing everything the right way round, I think watching her there you’d stick to the mile for now.”

John and Thady Gosden’s Spiritual was second under Kieran Shoemark, an improved performance after two well-beaten runs on the Rowley Mile.

“That was a lovely run. She hadn’t quite come to herself in the Nell Gwyn, but it was a good run there and I like the way she battled on once she got headed,” said the elder Gosden.

“That was a solid, good Listed race and it’s nice to get her black type. We’ve nothing in mind, we’re thrilled with that and we’ll come up with another Baldrick plan!”

Kevin Ryan’s Bolsena was the third-placed horse under Ryan Moore, beaten just over two lengths.

Ryan said: “She’s run great. All she’s done is gallop to the line, probably hit a bit of a flat spot and stayed on really well again.

“All suggests maybe stepping up in trip. Ryan was delighted with her and said she’s progressing well.”

Upwardly mobile Ice Max has Sandown option

Karl Burke is undecided as to whether to let the progressive Ice Max take his chance in the Chasemore Farm Stud Staff Heron Stakes at Sandown on Thursday.

The three-year-old began the season rated 89, but two wide-margin victories at Bath and Musselburgh have left the handicapper with no choice but to raise his mark to 109, a full 20lb higher.

Burke and owner Sheikh Mohammed Obaid Al Maktoum are planning to step Ice Max up in trip at some stage, but the Leyburn handler is minded to give him one more run over a mile before heading to Royal Ascot.

Burke said: “I’m not sure if he’s going to run or not yet. Sheikh Obaid is keen to step him up in trip. I’d like to run him once more over a mile and then maybe run him in the Group race at Royal Ascot over 10 furlongs (Hampton Court Stakes).

“He’s progressed rapidly and he was very impressive last time out. I just need to have a think.”

Ice Max is one of 13 entries for the Heron Stakes, with Richard Hannon’s Son, the William Haggas-trained Remaadd and Kikkuli from Harry Charlton’s yard among his potential rivals.

Kikkuli at Newmarket under Ryan Moore
Kikkuli at Newmarket under Ryan Moore (Bradley Collyer/PA)

The latter is a Kingman half-brother to the great Frankel and having opened his account at Newmarket’s Craven meeting last month, could now test the water at Listed level.

Several unbeaten juveniles are in contention for the Orbital Veterinary Services National Stakes, including Hannon’s Hawaiian, the Dominic Ffrench Davis-trained Enchanting Empress and a couple of potential Irish raiders in Make Haste (Diego Dias) and Rock N Roll Rocket (Jessica Harrington).

John and Thady Gosden’s pair of Sweet William and Trawlerman and Alan King’s veteran stayer Trueshan are among the likely contenders for the Group Three Henry II Stakes, while Charlton’s Gordon Richards victor Okeechobee is one of seven in the mix for the feature Brigadier Gerard Stakes.

Okeechobee narrowly denied Desert Hero over the course and distance four weeks ago and could lock horns with Isle Of Jura following his profitable winter campaign in Bahrain for George Scott.

Betty Clover has Johnson Houghton in raptures with York victory

Eve Johnson Houghton’s Betty Clover came to the fore to land the Clipper EBF Marygate Fillies’ Stakes at York.

The Time Test two-year-old, who was bred and is owned by her trainer, won on debut and then came home behind Running Queen when last seen in a Salisbury conditions race.

Moving up in grade to Listed level on the Knavesmire, made ground stealthily on the far side of runners and picked off her rivals in the closing stages of the five-furlong contest to eventually prevail by half a length from Miss Lamai, having started at 12-1. Running Queen was third on this occasion.

Georgia Dobie has been in the saddle for all of the filly’s starts and said of the success: “She’s really tough, she was a little bit outpaced halfway through and I thought she might need six, but the further she went the better.

“She just got there in time. I think she’ll be quite exciting over six, she’s homebred and she’s just blossomed into a lovely little filly.

“Everyone just adores her, she’s so straightforward which I think is the key really. She’s got no quirks, I really appreciate the ride.”

Johnson Houghton, who was watching from her local track in Newbury, said: “That was amazing! I think everyone in Newbury knows I won with her! I was a little bit noisy.

“I bred her and I’m so wildly excited, I just can’t believe it.

“I thought she had a chance of a place and I thought she had a chance of turning the form round with Running Queen, who got first run on us last time.

“Georgia gave her the most beautiful ride. I’m very proud of my jockey, she doesn’t get many chances and bloody hell she’s good. She should be saluted for that

“We have to look at Ascot. I don’t know which race. It’s a very fast five furlongs at York and she travelled all right into it, but we’ll have a think.”

Karl Burke has a good record in the race and saddled three fillies this time, with Miss Lamai doing the best of the trio under Callum Rodriguez.

“I thought she had it won at the furlong pole, but she was probably in front a little too long and she got a bit lonely,” the trainer said.

“We were beaten fair and square on the line. She’s a very nice filly. I thought she was the better of my three in the race, but I thought she’d be better over six furlongs later on rather than now. But she’s obviously learned a hell of a lot.

“She’s a good filly, I’ll have to speak to the owners whether we go to Ascot for the Queen Mary, she wouldn’t be disgraced, that’s for sure.”

Running Queen and Oisin Murphy crossed the line a length and three-quarters behind the winner.

Trainer Ollie Sangster said of the run: “Very happy, third in a Listed race.

“Obviously the form has been overturned from Salisbury – maybe the change in ground or something, not too sure.

“She will go to Ascot now, Oisin seems to think the Queen Mary is the logical one, but we will have a think and it will be one or the other anyway.”

Siyola going on trial at Newbury for possible Oaks bid

Siyola has the chance to add her name to the Betfred Oaks picture when she runs in the Haras De Bouquetot Fillies’ Trial Stakes at Newbury on Saturday.

Held in high regard by her John and Thady Gosden training team, the daughter of Siyouni created a taking impression when scoring on debut at Sandown.

That earned the Juddmonte-owned filly a ‘win and you’re in’ ticket to the Oaks at Epsom and having seen the form of her Sandown success given a timely boost by Musidora scorer Secret Satire, connections view this Listed event as the perfect spot to step up in class and put Classic aspirations to the test.

“Her form got well franked at York, which is always nice to see. She’s a nice filly who won a nice maiden and it’s time to step up and see if we’re up to taking on something better or not,” said Barry Mahon, European racing manager for the owners, who saw their Bluestocking narrowly beaten in this race last year.

“I don’t think any soft ground will be an inconvenience to her unless it gets really deep ground, it’s an unknown but good to soft or soft should be fine.

“Ylang Ylang ran a lovely Oaks trial in the Guineas, Ralph Beckett had a nice filly win at Chester and the filly who won at York looked nice, but there hasn’t been a standout and it looks an open enough Oaks.

“We’re rolling the dice and hoping we can jump into that mix and if we’re not good enough, we will have to lower our sights.”

High-class fillies Warm Heart and Nashwa are the two most recent winners of this 10-furlong event, while William Haggas’ Sea Of Class is another top-level filly to graduate to better things after this contest.

Diamond Rain won nicely on debut at Ascot
Diamond Rain won nicely on debut at Ascot (Adam Davy/PA)

Charlie Appleby’s Diamond Rain definitely has the pedigree to follow suit and showed she possesses plenty of ability on debut at Ascot, while Roger Varian won with Eshaada in 2021 and hopes to learn plenty about the well-entered Ejaabiyah who could bolt into Classic contention.

Varian said: “We think she’s nice, but she has only run the once. She’s a filly we have quite a lot of faith in and hold in quite high regard.

“This looks a good starting point and this will give us a steer where we head next, she’s well entered up. She’s got plenty of quality and I’m looking forward to getting her back on track.”

The other Listed action on the card is the Highclere Castle Gin Carnarvon Stakes where James’s Delight attempts to follow in the footsteps of last year’s winner Shaquille having won the same Newmarket handicap earlier this month.

He is one of two runners for trainer Clive Cox alongside the three-year-old filly Symbology and he is hoping conditions allow both of his candidates to get involved at the finish.

James’s Delight (second right) winning well at Newmarket
James’s Delight (second right) winning well at Newmarket (Bradley Collyer/PA)

He said: “We’ve got a little bit of uncertainty with the rainfall predicted, but James’s Delight has made a wonderful start to the season winning at Pontefract and then when up 5lb at Newmarket on Guineas day.

“He’s in excellent form and will cope with any ease in the ground. I’m happy for him to take the step up to Listed company now he’s rated 102.

“Symbology makes her seasonal reappearance and is a filly we have always held in high regard and she brings some very good form with her from last season. She has done very well from two to three.

“I still have plenty of confidence she is a nice filly and I just hope conditions don’t get too soft for her so she can show her potential and class we believe she has.”

Shaquille, of course, was a notable performer for the north last season and another hoping to fill those boots is the unbeaten Pocklington who puts his Royal Ascot credentials to the test for Yorkshire handler Geoff Oldroyd.

“I think he will run a big race and he has trained well. He has probably improved and got stronger since his last run,” said Oldroyd.

“The main danger we have is we could do with good ground really, or quicker, so we’re hoping it dries up and he wouldn’t want soft ground.

“He’s fit and well and going there with a big chance, but his family all loved quick ground, so we just hope we don’t get rain.

“This is sort of a trial for Royal Ascot and if all goes well here, I would say that is where he will head.”

Relief Rally is another with a Commonwealth Cup objective as she drops back in trip to take on the colts, while Adaay In Devon has claims judged on her second to Jasour in the Pavilion Stakes on Royal Ascot Trials day.

Also returning to a sprinting distance is Eve Johnson Houghton’s Mister Sketch after the Mill Reef runner-up struggled to trouble the judge in the Greenham.

“William Buick got off after the Greenham and said seven furlongs may be within his compass later in the year, but he’s a big horse and he showed plenty of speed so we have dropped back to six and will give it a try,” said Richard Brown, racing adviser for owners Wathnan Racing.

“He didn’t get the most ideal trip (through the race) in the Greenham, but it’s a very fast pedigree and I think we will see him back to his best at six.”

Big Rock ready to roll in Lockinge showdown with Inspiral

It is very much the first day at school for Maurizio Guarnieri as he prepares to saddle Big Rock in the Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes at Newbury.

Big Rock was rated the best miler in the world last year when trained by Christopher Head, but Guarnieri only welcomed the four-year-old to his Chantilly stables three weeks ago after owners Yeguada Centurion SL. decided on a switch for the new season.

The French-based Italian admits he is still getting to grips with his new charge, relying on the assistance of the colt’s regular pilot Aurelien Lemaitre to guide him in the right direction.

“I received the horse three weeks ago, so I am just starting to get to know him and he is just starting to get know me,” said Guarnieri.

Big Rock delivered a dominant display at Ascot on Champions Day
Big Rock delivered a dominant display at Ascot on Champions Day (PA)

“He is a nice horse, like a nice man, he is quiet all the time and causes no problems, he is very easy.

“I did a canter with him on the racetrack at Chantilly with a lead horse and his rider Aurelien Lemaitre and he did the minimum, so I’m not sure if he is ready to run and what percent of his potential he is at or not. But his jockey said he is always this way and the horse is always quiet in the morning. A lot of good horses are this way.

“I appreciate having this horse and each day I learn a little bit more about him, but at the moment I do not understand 100 per cent of him.”

Big Rock has finished in the top two in 10 of his 11 career starts and having filled the spot of bridesmaid in races such as the Prix du Jockey Club and Prix du Moulin, finished 2023 with a deserved victory in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on British Champions Day.

The Rock Of Gibraltar colt relished the rain-softened ground at Ascot that day and Guarnieri is hoping for even more rain at Newbury as he assesses his charge’s big-race credentials.

“He’s in good condition and he’s really good mentally and this race was always the first on his programme so we will run and try,” continued the Italian.

“I think this race is very, very hard and there is not only Inspiral who can win the race. Big Rock has not run since 2023 so there is a lot we don’t know.

“But the jockey knows the horse and has ridden him every time, so there is a big feeling put on them and I hope they can do the best job for me.

“I hope it will start to rain, when it rains it is normally better for us. I’m hoping Big Rock can show his class in this race and I will be doing everything in my power to make him better.

“It’s a new start for both me and the owner and I thank them for the opportunity, we are looking forward to not just this race but also the whole season.”

Inspiral was exceptional at Santa Anita
Inspiral was exceptional at Santa Anita (PA)

In contrast, connections of Inspiral are hoping to see minimal rainfall ahead of her return to action.

The John and Thady Gosden-trained five-year-old claimed the scalp of Big Rock when defending her Prix Jacques le Marois crown last summer before going on to win both the Sun Chariot Stakes and land a blow over further at the Breeders’ Cup.

However, she has never been at her best when there is cut in the ground and connections will be keeping a close eye on the weather forecasts.

“We hope to run, we’ve declared, we’ll just have to watch the forecast and see what happens,” said Chris Richardson, managing director of owners Cheveley Park Stud, who are also represented by the Gosden-trained Audience in the race.

“She didn’t enjoy soft ground when she ran in the Sussex and it’s still early in the year. We think she’s in good form, but we don’t want to risk her on ground which doesn’t suit as she is unlikely to put her best foot forward.

“She seems to come good in June and maybe that is the way it will work out again. We’d like to get her out earlier if we can, but we’ll see what happens between now and Saturday and see what John decides.

“The two of them (Inspiral and Audience) have been working together for the last few weeks and he is in there to make sure there’s pace in the race.”

John Gosden also has concerns about her draw in stall one: “We’re on wing of the field in one and all the pace is high, so that is a concern. At the moment she runs, but I will obviously be walking the course.”

While Big Rock and Inspiral are making their returns, Roger Varian’s consistent performer Charyn has made hay in the early part of the season, with the versatile son of Dark Angel now back to Group One company in search of a hat-trick.

Varian said: “The rain won’t harm Charyn, but he’s a versatile horse in terms of ground and we won’t mind conditions on Saturday. It’s a nice position to be in when you are not sweating on the weather and he is in good form.

Charyn has been in top form this term
Charyn has been in top form this term (John Walton/PA)

“Although he didn’t win last year, on three or four of his performances, he only had to repeat that level to win the two races he has done so far. He wasn’t facing Paddington in his last two starts.

“His fourth in the Irish 2,000 Guineas, his third in both the St James’s Palace and the Sussex Stakes, all of those performances I think were good enough to do what he has done so far at Doncaster and Sandown.

“With that said, I was very impressed with him at Sandown and he was very powerful through the line. He will have to do more to win the Lockinge, but he goes there as one of the frontrunners in the market and deservedly so, and it is exciting.”

Charyn impressed when coming through the pack strongly to win the bet365 Mile at Sandown, with Ed and Simon Crisford’s Poker Face back in second and now looking to turn the tables.

The race also sees the return of last year’s 2000 Guineas third Royal Scotsman for Paul and Oliver Cole, while Karl Burke’s Flight Plan finished last season in the winner’s enclosure and is another dipping his toe into deeper waters.

Desert Hero warming up for Royal return with Newbury outing

Desert Hero takes another step on the road back to Royal Ascot in the Sky Sports Racing Aston Park Stakes at Newbury on Saturday.

The William Haggas-trained four-year-old lit up the showpiece meeting last summer when providing the newly-crowned King and Queen with their first victory at the Royal meeting in the King George V Stakes.

Desert Hero went on to establish himself as a genuine Classic contender by following up in the Gordon Stakes at Glorious Goodwood before rounding off his three-year-old campaign with an honourable third in the St Leger at Doncaster.

And having made an encouraging return when beaten a head into second place by Okeechobee in Sandown’s Gordon Richards Stakes over a mile and a quarter, the chestnut son of Sea The Stars is well fancied to go one better and book his return to Berkshire next month, with the Hardwicke Stakes his objective.

“He ran very well at Sandown and he should be just as good if not better at this trip (mile and a half), it should be right up his street,” said Haggas.

“I thought he stayed on very well at Sandown and was just a bit rusty, but I was very happy with him.

“Hopefully we will have him for his very best after this for the Hardwicke.”

Middle Earth after winning the Melrose Handicap
Middle Earth after winning the Melrose Handicap at York (Molly Hunter/PA)

Another runner with Ascot on the agenda is John and Thady Gosden’s Middle Earth, who won three of his five starts last season but disappointed in the Leger.

Now jointly owned by Qatar Racing and leading Australian trainer Ciaron Maher, the Roaring Lion colt will be heading across the globe later in the year, but not before showing up at the big Ascot meeting.

David Redvers, racing manager for Qatar Racing, said: “We’re very much looking forward to getting him back on track, he seems in rude health and the long-term target is the Melbourne Cup. Ciaron Maher has bought into him and going to Australia is very much the plan for later in the year.

“This race is a nice starting point and hopefully a stepping-stone to the Hardwicke at Royal Ascot.

“We think he’s done very well over the winter, physically he’s turned into a very nice horse having looked a bit of a baby last year, so we’re hoping he’ll improve.”

The Ralph Beckett-trained Salt Bay looked much improved for a gelding operation when a close third as a 33-1 shot for the John Porter over the course and distance last month and connections are hoping for another positive showing this weekend.

“His two best races have both come at Newbury so it is a place he likes and he seems to like a flat track,” said Alex Elliott, racing adviser to owners Valmont.

“His first run back this year was top drawer and we think he has come forward from it. He won’t mind conditions and we’re looking forward to running him.”

Other hopefuls include Charlie Appleby’s King Of Conquest, George Baker’s stable stalwart Cemhaan and the long-absent German recruit So Moonstruck, who is poised to make his debut for Owen Burrows following 685 days off the track.

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