Day Two, Wednesday, at the Royal Ascot meeting sees the quality decibel level eased just a soupcon. But there's still the magnificent Group 1 Prince Of Wales's Stakes around which to build a sextet of supporting skirmishes, in particular a trio of Group 2's, the Queen Mary, Queen's Vase and Duke Of Cambridge Stakes. Add the Royal Hunt Cup handicap to the mix and it's a giddy afternoon of sport, though winners may be hard enough to come by.
Proceedings commence at the usual half-past-two with the...
2.30 Queen Mary Stakes (5f, Group 2, 2yo fillies)
The first two-year-old fillies race of the week is the Group 2 Queen Mary over five furlongs, first run in 1921. Attraction, the 2003 winner, was only the second filly - and the most recent - to go on to 1000 Guineas glory, though plenty of top class sprinters have announced themselves on this stage.
Wesley Ward has won the Queen Mary four times, and three times in the previous seven years, so his Love Reigns, who is favourite, needs close scrutiny. Here's her maiden score over the extended five furlongs at Keeneland:
It's hard at this stage to know what was in behind her that day, though the seventh placed horse has won since from three I could find with subsequent form (other two well beaten). What we do know is that she saw out this trip - half a furlong beyond five - well. And she has a turf pedigree, being by US Navy Flag out of a Pivotal mare. And she looks pretty rapid!
What we don't know is how she's handled the transit from America (usually Wesley's do that well) and, more importantly, how she will cope with a stiff straight track as opposed to a relatively easy turning track. As can be seen from the video, she's fast early - another typical WW runner trait - in a race not overburdened with gate speed. She is expected to lead and there's a good chance she'll still be in front at the finish.
What of the home defence? They may be headed by the similarly unbeaten-in-one Dramatised, who missed the break a touch on her sole start in a Newmarket maiden but was quickly into the vanguard; by the line she'd asserted her superiority by four widening lengths. The second has won both starts since, with the third almost six lengths away from the winner. She's similarly inexperienced to the favourite but brings plenty of speed and a bit of class to the party.
The National Stakes at Sandown has been a precursor to Queen Mary winners in the past, Rizeena and Bint Allayl both doubling up; so Maria Branwell - winner of both starts to date, most recently the National - is interesting. She showed tenacity to score in a big field on her debut before adding a dash of class to further steel at Sandown. Although her winning margin over the favourite that day, Crispy Cat, was only a neck there were fully six and a half lengths back to the third. I like the fact Maria won't be right on the speed early but ought to be close enough to have a crack should the fast gate horses waver up the hill.
Another two-from-two filly is Clive Cox's Katey Kontent. Cox was, of course, responsible for 150/1 bomb Nando Parrado in the 2020 Coventry - but also took the prizes with Heartache (2017 Queen Mary) and Reckless Abandon (2012 Norfolk) - so knows how to prepare a juvenile for the Royal meeting and, indeed, for this race. Heartache had won just a Bath novice on firm ground before blitzing a field of 23 in the Queen Mary - Wesley odds on favourite wilting in second - so it's reasonable to expect CC has KK ready to roll in the QM.
There are other unexposed fillies lining up, including Omniqueen, whose sole run and win was over track and trip, and Lady Tilbury, who has seen out five furlongs as though an uphill finish off a strong gallop is tailor made. A mention also for the Amy Murphy-trained Manhattan Jungle, whose three-from-three record has been achieved entirely in France, sent out from Murphy's satellite yard near Chantilly. That hat-trick was achieved on soft turf but we don't yet know that she won't handle faster terrain.
I've backed 10/1 Maria Branwell, 10/1 Katey Kontent and 16/1 Lady Tilbury already - more juvies in one race than in all the other Royal Ascot two-year-old races put together - but I've not really beaten the market. They're all playable each way with extra places, or splitting a single win unit across the trio. It's that sort of race.
3.05 Queen's Vase (1m6f, Group 2, 3yo)
The Queen's Vase is named after a gold vase donated for the race by Queen Victoria in 1838. It became a three-year-only event from 1987 and was truncated in trip from two miles to a mile and three quarters in 2017. Those recent changes have seen the Queen's Vase emerge as a St Leger trial with both Leading Light and Kew Gardens doing the double in the past decade.
Mark Johnston and then Aidan O'Brien have largely shared ownership of the Vase since 2001, Johnston attaining seven wins up to 2014 and O'Brien recording the same number of victories with the most recent in 2020. The former is without a runner this time while O'Brien saddles just one of his quintet of five-day entries, Anchorage, who was only third choice amongst them at that stage.
Like three of the last seven Queen's Vase winners, and five in total, Anchorage is a son of Galileo but he's not obviously loaded with the requisite stamina for this 1m6f affair. Still, he must have been showing something to be the card played. Good enough to win a mile nursery off 88 last October, he ran a touch flat in the Group 3 Gallinule Stakes over ten furlongs four weeks ago; or perhaps he just needed that first run for seven months. Either way, he was keeping on at the finish which at least offers a sliver of hope that he will see out the extra half a mile of the Vase. Cleveland's recent massive distance move to win the Chester Cup also suggests Team Ballydoyle know how to gauge such things. They know how to gauge most things.
Al Qareem is an improving type and was impressive when making all in a 0-90 handicap at York last time. He kept on well that day and should handle the extra quarter mile with the short straight expected to help, too. Syndicate manager Nick Bradley suggests this is their best chance of a winner all week.
Numerous of these are stepping up in distance a fair whack, and that includes likely favourite, Hafit. He's not won since his debut five runs ago, finishing second or third in each start since. He was outpaced as the 3/10 favourite in France last time when upped to a mile and a half, and connections clutch at further distance and first time cheekpiece straws now. He cost over two million as a yearling but this all looks a bit desperate even if he is the highest rated in the field.
Trainer Charlie Appleby also runs Nahanni, who is turned around quickly after a staying on midfield effort in the Derby 11 days ago. He'd been progressive prior the big day at Epsom and probably ran a little better again there; with stamina and 1m6f winners in the pedigree, he should see the trip out.
It's quite hard to assess the level of Eldar Eldarov's ability: unbeaten in a mile Nottingham maiden and a ten furlong Newcastle novice, this well bred (Dubawi out of a Listed-winning Sea The Stars mare) colt probably beat little when hosing up that first day but he did it in a fast time. And his Newcastle win is working out well enough, too: third placed Honiton has scooted in by nine lengths since; the fifth, Thundering, ran second next time; while the seventh and ninth both won on their subsequent starts.
Perfect Alibi is a runner for The Queen, and is trained by William Haggas. She'd looked a little shy of this level in a couple of mile and a quarter maidens but made all over an extra quarter mile last time when giving the impression she could go further. She might need more than just the three pounds sex allowance to beat all of the boys here, however. Baltic Bird is a Frankel colt who was bashed a dozen lengths by Nahanni on his debut. Since then he's progressed to a neck second and, most recently, a near four length score in a Yarmouth maiden. That's not obviously a stepping stone to Pattern glory but he's trained by the Gosden duo and so has presumably been shining in the three weeks since last sighted in public. Frankie rides.
Trying to project which of these will improve the most, and from what level of current ability they will do it, is as challenging as it sounds. The one with a good starting point in terms of talent, and bundles of upside for both the longer range and scope to progress is Eldar Eldarov and he's my idea of the best guess in the race.
3.40 Prince Of Wales's Stakes (1m2f, Group 1, 4yo+)
The highlight of day two is the Prince Of Wales's Stakes, first run in 1862. Fun fact: there was no Prince Of Wales's Stakes between 1946 and 1967 because there was no Prince Of Wales! The race resumed in 1968, a year prior to Prince Charles' investiture, at which point the distance was changed to its current 1m2f.
This year's renewal is a little light on numbers, perhaps, but it's fair overloaded with intrigue. Runners from France and Japan, as well as the expected Anglo-Irish entries - a couple of which are globe-trotters - make for a fascinating clash of the world order.
The market is headed by a rather more run of the mill horse - in terms of indigeneity at least. Bay Bridge was born and raised on these shores and has raced exclusively here, too; but let that not detract from his ascendant star, marked with panache in the Brigadier Gerard Stakes at the end of last month. There, in what looked a strong field, he sailed five lengths clear of Mostahdaf, himself a progressive chap, with aging rocker Addeybb a further length back.
The visual boys (and girls) were getting a juice on about that performance but one does need to try to pick holes when pondering a large play at a short price. So let's try and poop the party. It is tricky, in that Bay Bridge has now won his last five starts, progressing from novices through handicaps and Listed class to that seasonal bow in Group 3 company. But perhaps the runner up is not quite as good as we thought: after all, though he won a similar race over course and distance in April, that was a muddling three-runner affair; and his only try beyond G3 level was when just about last in the St James's Palace Stakes a year ago. He was only 10/1 that day so better was expected.
Addeybb may have been prepping for a bigger summer target on his first run for seven months, which all of a sudden - while not detracting from the visual performance - raises questions about the underlying substance.
I'm certainly not knocking Bay Bridge, and I hope he wins in style... if the horse I bet doesn't win; because I can't bet BB, who I feel is too short in a field stacked up with proven G1 performers.
Of those storied horses in opposition, perhaps the main interest is with the Japanese star, Shahryar. Winner of the Japan Derby this time last year, he was later third in the Japan Cup before winning the Group 1 Sheema Classic in Dubai. Those races were all over a mile and a half and in big fields, conditions which contrast with this small field ten furlong event: it will be interesting to see whether Shahryar has the dash for the job.
State Of Rest has been a superstar for connections, racking up the air miles with G1 victories in America (Saratoga Derby), Australia (Cox Plate) and France (Prix Ganay). Three Group or Grade 1's all at or around ten furlongs, all in smallish fields, and on a variety of going puts this Starspangledbanner colt in the mix; and he was a touch unlucky not to reel in Alenquer and the front-running High Definition in the G1 Tattersalls Gold Cup at the Curragh last time: he'd have probably won in another three strides. In spite of all that, he has a bit to find on ratings, with the short Ascot straight not necessarily playing to his strengths.
The 2020 Prince Of Wales's Stakes was won by Lord North, who missed the party last season but is back again now. Last seen when dead heating in the Group 1 Dubai Turf, a race he also won in 2021, he's failed to win in his five other races since that Royal triumph two years ago.
Another whose form is hard to accurately peg is French visitor, Grand Glory, Group 1 winner of the Prix Jean Romanet last August. She ran a cracker in the G1 Prix de l'Opera on Arc weekend, falling short by just a nostril on heavy turf. A trip to the Japan Cup elicited a fifth place finish, two spots behind Shahryar and, so far this season, she's beaten the same filly - Burgarita - in both Listed and Group 3 company. Ten furlongs is her trip, she seems versatile regarding ground as long as it's not very fast, and she has a gear change which may be the key requirement (as well as class) in this race.
It's a really tricky race to work out with the merit of so much overseas form hard to fathom. There is no obvious pace angle which further muddies the water. I have backed Shahryar but somewhat gone off his chance since striking the wager, and I'm really not inclined to go in again. There's a decent chance that Bay Bridge just wins, but he's fairly cramped odds given this first step up to G1, and it wouldn't be a total shocker whichever horse wins. In that context, it may be worth lobbing a shekel at either State Of Rest or Grand Glory. Or *takes deep breath* just watching the race uninvested.
4.20 Duke Of Cambridge Stakes (1m, Group 2, 4yo+ fillies and mares)
One of the newer races at Royal Ascot, the Duke Of Cambridge Stakes was inaugurated in 2004 as part of a programme designed to keep fillies and mares in training beyond their three-year-old season. It is run on the straight mile.
Aidan O'Brien hasn't pointed many fillies or mares in this direction and he's yet to fare better than I Can Fly's third placed finish in 2019 from four attempts. That may not stop Mother Earth, who when she's good is very, very good. Examples of that include her straight mile G1 score in the Prix Rothschild last August (soft), her straight track mile second in the Falmouth Stakes at Newmarket (G1, good to firm), and of course her straight track mile win in last year's 1000 Guineas (good to firm). She handles conditions well, then, but her overall form is hit and miss, as evidenced by down the field efforts in the Lockinge last time and the Breeders' Cup Mile four back. On a going day, she has the assets to contend.
Saffron Beach was bought for 55,000 guineas - not a snip but hardly a king's ransom in the context of these equine bluebloods either. She's since netter five grand shy of half a million for her lucky/shrewd (both, in fairness) owners and given them unforgettable days including a Group 1 win in the Sun Chariot Stakes at Newmarket last October. Fourth place in the Dubai Turf last time added another £185k to the kitty and she comes here fresh from the exertions of overseas travel and racing. She's the highest rated filly in the field.
The German filly, Novemba, ran a bold race from the front in last year's Coronation Cup, eventually finishing a two length fourth in that 3yo Group 1. She's not been in quite the same form since, but will probably lead the charge again, a run style not especially suited to this stiff straight mile.
Bashkirova is another Cheveley Park filly, trained by William Haggas this time, and she does have the winning habit: in just six lifetime starts, she's come home in front four times, the latest of which was in the Princess Margaret Stakes at Epsom only eleven days ago. If she's recovered sufficiently on this tight turnaround, she recorded a career best that day and is entitled to continue to improve. Moreover, her midfield run style might fit the race setup though she will probably need to break more alertly than at Epsom. She has a good bit to find strictly on the numbers but is progressing whereas others are largely treading water ability-wise.
The cheval noir (she's actually a bay but you know what I mean) in the field might be Sibila Spain, trained in France by Christopher Head. A winner of four of her eight races, including a Saint-Cloud Group 2 last time out, she stays a little further (has won over ten furlongs) and handles good ground. It's hard to know how she'll be ridden: historically she was a front-runner but she was smuggled into the race from the rear last time and that worked out very well, so I'd imagine she will again be waited with.
Also raiding from France is the Mickael Barzalona-ridden Kennella. She has form over seven furlongs and a mile, most of it on soft ground, including a third in the French 1000 Guineas last May. Her best runs were at a mile and she could conceivably improve for faster turf. In what might be a fairly well run race, her late running style and turn of pace could see her perform better than quotes of 25/1.
The Duke Of Cambridge Stakes is another very difficult race from a betting perspective. Saffron Beach and Mother Earth both have cases to be made for them but neither is particularly consistent. The rest need to bring more to the table, some of them having suggested they can. Given all the question marks, the French horses, Sibila Spain and Kennella, may be worth tiny bets at around 8/1 and 25/1 respectively. But this is really hard.
5.00 Royal Hunt Cup (1m, Class 2, 3yo+ Handicap)
Considered by many to be the toughest handicap puzzle of the entire flat season, the Royal Hunt Cup - first run in 1843, when there was a three way dead heat for second - is a 30-runner cavalry charge down the straight mile. Clearly, it's not a straightforward task to deconstruct a field like this, so perhaps some trendage will assist.
Four- and five-year-olds have dominated the top step of the podium, winning 22 of the last 25 Royal Hunt Cups, and winning all bar five renewals going back to 1971. It is therefore no shock to note that those age groups make up the bulk of the runners, yet they still outperform older horses two to one in terms of runners to winners, and roughly the same in the last 25 years in terms of placed horses to runners. Eleven of the last 15 winners were aged four: less in the book, more to come - you know the drill.
Since the race returned to Ascot in 2006 after its one year sojourn at York only one winner was rated outside of the 93-103 official figures zone. Again, that doesn't remove too many from consideration but it looks faintly material. Hold up horses have a great record in big fields over a mile on the straight track at Ascot, so let's use that to cut to the chase.
Dark Shift is anything but a dark horse, having headed the ante-post betting for some while; and that's because of the strength of his case, naturally. To wit, he has won three of his last four races, two of them here, one over a mile. Meanwhile, his defeat in that sequence was when drawn on the wrong side in the seven furlong Victoria Cup on the same straight piste as this.
Although only 11th of 27, he was fourth of those to race up the centre: held up early, sectionals tell us he made a big move between the two and one furlong poles and couldn't quite see it out under those circumstances. With an extra furlong to travel, the onus should be more on a gradual positional improvement rather than singular acceleration and, with his draw in 15 - bang centre - ought to at least make the extended places frame.
Astro King was second to Real World a year ago and has been largely nowhere since. There was a bronze medal in a big field York handicap at the Ebor meeting amidst the no shows and it doesn't take Einstein's intellect to work out that this has been the target for some time.
Fantastic Fox is less obvious. The son of Frankel won a couple of small field mile races as a three-year-old last term but was seemingly outclassed in the nine furlong Cambridgeshire at season end. Gelded over the winter, Roger Varian's charge has run reasonably well on both spins in 2022, first when midfield but not beaten far at Haydock and then when a staying on third of 15 over the fast nine at Epsom. He looks attractively handicapped off 98 and could be sitting on a big one: he'll be played late.
Varian also saddles the unexposed and impeccably bred Legend Of Dubai: he's a son of Dubawi out of a mare called Speedy Boarding, who was herself a dual Group 1 winner. Legend Of Dubai has had just five races to date, winning his last two, first over a mile and a half and then dropping all the way back to a mile seven weeks ago. In spite of being held up in a small field that day, he waltzed home by better than four lengths; he has class, stamina and more to come.
Irish trainers have won the Royal Hunt Cup twice since 2016, from just ten runners, and my eye is drawn to Bopedro, trained by Jessica Harrington. Winner by two and a half lengths of the 27-runner Irish Cambridgeshire over a mile (good) last summer, he fair surged clear of his field that day after which he seemed to run out of track over seven furlongs next time. Since then, it was a similar story in a couple of Listed contests before what looked like a prep for this in another mile Premier handicap at the Curragh. He's a strong traveller with a bit of class so, while the nine pound hike since his big win is unhelpful, he's priced (28/1) to take a swing at.
Nine of the last 14 winners were returned 16/1 or bigger - all 33/1 or shorter, too - so perhaps we should be tilting at a windmill or two. The Fantastic Fox fits this bracket, Bopedro, too, and so also does Rebel Territory, trained by Amanda Perrett. The trainer won the 2017 Royal Hunt Cup with Zhui Feng and this progressive four-year-old may not be done improving yet. He's prevailed in three of his last four races, including the two most recent, and has a nice knack of getting up late and thus hiding the extent of his ability from the handicapper somewhat. He is yet another interesting runner in a field full of 'em.
There are as many as eight places on offer with some firms. If that's the good news, you've still got to beat 22 runners to get paid on the place! Hold up horses have had the best of it in this straight mile cavalry charge and, with that front of mind, I'll try Bopedro with only six places in order to get the 28/1 top price. And I'm going to chance the Varian pair, 11/1 Legend Of Dubai and 33/1 Fantastic Fox, as well. The placepot is likely to have at least a dozen more numbers etched on the ticket!
5.35 Windsor Castle Stakes (5f, Listed, 2yo)
Inaugurated in 1839, the Windsor Castle Stakes is the five furlong two-year-old contest in which Wesley Ward first advertised his abilities with fast juveniles to the British racing crowd. It was Strike The Tiger, in 2009, who made us all ask, "Wesley who?" - there is no such uncertainty about the American now, of course, and he is again well represented across the two-year-old races.
Wesley has Seismic Spirit this time, ridden by the brilliant but untried at Ascot, Irad Ortiz, Jr. He's just about the best American rider right now and how he fares on the straight track sprinters this week will be fascinating. This Belardo colt was beaten on debut but must have been showing plenty since to have earned his plane ticket, with his sire faring much better than many expected: he has a couple of juvenile Group race winners on his roster already (Elysium and Isabella Giles) as well as Lullaby Moon, who won the Listed Two-Year-Old Trophy at Redcar in 2020. QED, Belardo can get fast two-year-olds. And so can Wes. A player, though I always wonder about Ward speedballs in the final 100 yards.
There are loads of rapid unexposed babies in opposition, as is the Windsor Castle wont. Let's rattle through a few of them, starting with Little Big Bear, the favourite. He didn't quite get home over six furlongs on debut and, with that experience behind him, was an emphatic three length scorer on his only subsequent run when dropped back to this range. By No Nay Never, he could end up being a very quick horse and is the right market leader.
Far Shot was a fast breezer who sold after his racecourse audition for £160,000. Turned out by Team Gosden and ridden by Frankie Dettori, he has the right connections, and he was a competent if not wow factor winner of his debut. That was on soft ground and it might be that this 'terra firmer' will suit much more. It will need to as he's behind plenty of his rivals on the clock at this very early stage. Like Far Shot, Bolt Action was also a £160,000 breeze up purchase, by first season sire Kessaar. Unlike Far Shot, he was impressive in hurtling four lengths away from a small field at Leicester a fortnight ago. Naturally, he'll step forward for the experience.
A third breezer, this time 'only' costing £90,000, is Chateau, who put a respectable midfield debut behind him when claiming the Beverley Two-Year-Old Trophy in good style. Though the margin of victory was just a neck, Chateau was hemmed in at a crucial stage and did very well to get up, having had to take back and circle most of the field with about a furlong to run. He's miles better than the bare wining distance, as is his trainer with Royal Ascot juveniles: since 2017, he's run eleven two-year-olds at the meeting, notching three winners, a 3rd, and a 4th (of 21).
The filly Union Court is two from two, both at this five furlong minimum, both by daylight and, most recently and under a penalty, by almost four lengths. Those were Class 5 races, however, due to her purchase price of a relative bargain 18,000 guineas (£18,900, a guinea being £1.05, in case you didn't know and were interested), and this is a quantum step up in grade. Who is to say she's not ready for it?
The joint-most experienced horse in the line up is Donnacha O'Brien's Wodao. As with most from the yard, he's taken a little time to figure out this racing lark and he probably wasn't helped by bumping into Norfolk fancy The Antarctic twice prior to seeing off Studio City last time. He's pretty quick but not as rapid as some of these, as well as perhaps not being so open to improvement.
It is quite likely that Little Big Bear 'just wins', and I have backed him to get my stake back - plus the price of a sticky bun. The stake I'll get back if the jolly wins, is on Chateau, who I'm chancing each way. It will not be sticky buns, but cream cakes if the latter prevails: Chateau for the gateaux, you might say (you might also say, "crowbarred lame gag", and I'd fully accept that!)
What else but Chateau could one back in the Windsor Castle?! Groan, let's move on, rapidement, to the nightcap...
6.10 Kensington Palace Stakes (1m, Class 2 Handicap, 4yo+)
A brand new race last year, The Kensington Palace Stakes is a round mile handicap for older fillies and mares. As with most of the handicaps at major festivals, it is likely to be the case over time that unexposed horses - those with fewer runs from which to reveal their ability to the handicapper - will prove advantaged. With that in mind I'm siding with the four-year-old brigade, mindful that such half-cooked folly may have jettisoned the entire podium without further consideration!
Last year's winner, Lola Showgirl, was out of trouble in front from start to finish - and, in a field of 18 or so, a trouble-free passage will be needed by all aspirants. One who got too far back was Roger Varian's Waliyak, eventually running on for third, and connections go again this time with Mobadra. Lightly raced after just five starts, including two second places and two wins, this Oasis Dream filly showed good speed over Kempton's seven furlong oval when last seen in November 2021. She's entitled to have improved for another winter break and, if fit enough on her annual bow, can be involved.
The Joseph O'Brien-trained Haziya is favoured at time of writing. She was last seen running on into third in a huge field Premier Handicap at the Curragh four weeks ago, and had previously won a big field Leopardstown handicap; both of those races were over a mile, the win achieved on a turning track. If she hasn't already used up her luck in running vouchers, she'll go close.
Ffion is 8lb higher than when second in the race last year primarily because she comes here off the back of a win on her 2022 debut. That was on soft ground over seven at Chester but it was good to firm at Ascot a year ago so she should handle any terrain. She's also versatile tactically, having won when held up at Chester but previously scored with a prominent run style and when making all. She's a super consistent filly - three wins, four seconds and two thirds from eleven races - and ought again to give it a good go. She's 16/1 and that, each way with five (or more if you can find them) places, will do.
Good luck if you're playing this one.
And that brings us to the two-fifths point of the week, but half way on the geegeez previews with yours true traditionally too cream crackered after going through 28 races to face the Saturday card. It could well be that that comes as a blessed relief by then!