Royal Ascot day one – Stars on show as crowds return to summer showpiece

The true splendour of Royal Ascot is about to return in 2021 as the course prepares for a crowd of up to 12,000 each day to witness and acclaim its equine and human heroes and heroines.

There will be no royal processions this year, but the showpiece meeting can in any case at least approach its accustomed ceremony again, after being largely silent and bereft at the height of coronavirus restrictions last year.

As the traditional sounds and sights make their comeback, a throng of rising and returning stars will bid for top billing on the opening day – with three Group One crowns there to be won in the first four races.

The curtain-raising Queen Anne Stakes has long appeared at the mercy of Palace Pier and Frankie Dettori. John and Thady Gosden’s colt has been beaten just once in his eight career starts – at this course on British Champions Day last year – and has twice been imperious again so far this year.

Ascot’s running order then showcases the juvenile potential of the Group Two Coventry Stakes – before Battaash, making his first start of the campaign after an injury-delayed preparation, bids for a second successive King’s Stand Stakes, and then the best three-year-old milers complete the top-level action in the St James’s Palace Stakes.

Two of the toughest handicaps on the calendar, over varying distances, and the Listed Wolferton Stakes close out a card full of depth and quality which extends to seven races and until after 6pm.

Palace Pier just superior in mile mission?

Palace Pier and Frankie Dettori were a class apart in last month's Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes at Newbury
Palace Pier and Frankie Dettori were a class apart in last month’s Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes at Newbury (John Walton/PA)

The Gosdens’ Palace Pier has looked a cut above his opponents on every rise in class, apart from his sole defeat in very deep ground in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes here last October. The son of Kingman was far too good again on both starts this year, in Sandown’s bet365 Mile and then when taking his Group One tally to four in the Lockinge at Newbury last month. It is hard to envisage anything other than a fourth top-level win in the Queen Anne Stakes, and second in succession at this meeting – on the straight course this time – following last year’s St James’s Palace.

Battaash is back …

The late Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum with his mighty sprinter Battaash after victory in the 2019 Coolmore Nunthorpe at York
The late Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum with his mighty sprinter Battaash after victory in the 2019 Coolmore Nunthorpe Stakes at York (PA)

Trainer Charlie Hills has always appeared to be quietly confident Battaash would return in time to defend his King’s Stand Stakes crown, despite the injury discovered during his winter at Shadwell Stud. It was the most rewarding of sights to see the brilliant sprinter finally win at Ascot last year, after twice being outdone by Blue Point in this Group One. It will be an admirable effort if he manages to follow up, on his first start since last August, adding yet another major win to his stellar CV – and poignant too, of course, following the death of his owner Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum three months ago.

Like father like son – Poetic Flare out to uphold Bolger dynasty

Poetic Flare and Kevin Manning won the Qipco 2000 Guineas at Newmarket last month
Poetic Flare and Kevin Manning won the Qipco 2000 Guineas at Newmarket last month (David Davies/Jockey Club)

Veteran Irish trainer Jim Bolger is renowned for his expert handling over many years of a succession of superstar performers. Poetic Flare is, of course, already a case in point for his exploits last month – battling hard to win the Qipco 2000 Guineas at Newmarket, struggling when beaten into a close sixth in the French equivalent two weeks later and then, just another six days on, going down by a short head to stablemate Mac Swiney in the Irish Guineas at the Curragh. His brilliant sire Dawn Approach won the Guineas at Newmarket and the St James’s Palace for Bolger in 2013 – and Poetic Flare is sure to give it a good go too, despite the usual high-profile opposition from the Gosden, Ballydoyle and Godolphin powerhouses.

Watch out for Ballydoyle in the Coventry

Aidan O’Brien's two-year-olds are always a threat to all
Aidan O’Brien’s two-year-olds are always a threat to all (John Walton/PA)

The Coventry Stakes is an obvious launchpad for future champions, and Aidan O’Brien is chief among the foremost who nurture such prodigious talent. It is no surprise to note the Tipperary trainer has won four of the last 10 editions – and this year he relies on improving Listowel winner The Acropolis. American filly Kaufymaker, trained by serial Ascot raider Wesley Ward, has caught the attention of bookmakers and punters too – and several other usual suspects are well represented by their latest speedy two-year-olds too, in a race sure to signpost the cream of the crop again.

Staying power is a must

Willie Mullins has won four of the last nine editions of the Ascot Stakes
Willie Mullins is a prolific winner of the Ascot Stakes (Niall Carson/PA)

Stamina will be much in evidence in the culmination of the Ascot Stakes, and will be a handy asset for spectators as well as participants by the time the fifth race of seven reaches its conclusion over two and a half miles. Punters hoping to stay the course all the way through to the getting-out Copper Horse Stakes at 6.10 may do worse than keep an eye on Willie Mullins’ contenders in both races. The record-breaking Cheltenham Festival trainer has already conquered one unlikely outpost on the Flat this year – when True Self won a huge prize in the Neom Turf Cup in Riyadh in February. Mullins has won four of the last nine runnings of the Ascot Stakes too.