2017 Royal Ascot: impressions from a star-studded week
Blessed with fair weather and quick summer ground, Royal Ascot’s 2017 meeting could be summarized in one phrase: the cream rose to the top. The star performers, for the most part, lived up to billing, and the results were logical.
Here are my lasting impressions from the week.
The historical stature of Lady Aurelia
Going into Tuesday’s King’s Stand (G1), my enthusiasm for Lady Aurelia was tempered by the daunting historical task she faced. Three-year-olds usually have a tough time versus older sprinters in Europe, particularly this early in the season, and that’s only magnified if the young speedster in question had also been a precocious juvenile. No Queen Mary (G2) winner had ever come back to take the King’s Stand, and no Royal Ascot two-year-old stakes victress captured this race at three since the Aga Khan’s Palariva (1956). By demolishing by far the deepest field she’s ever faced, Lady Aurelia put herself in a rare category – a dazzling early juvenile who’s every bit as much a flying machine at three. We might not see another able to pull off this double for years, if ever. Her performance was extraordinary from a form perspective, and her time stacks up as well. Lady Aurelia would have broken Miss Andretti’s :57.44 course record if anyone had been near enough to push her, and she breezed across the wire just .01 outside of the mark. If she maintains this form, who can beat her? As a footnote, how about her fellow Wesley Ward sophomores? Workmate Bound for Nowhere finished fourth in his stakes debut in the Commonwealth Cup (G1), and Con Te Partiro upset the one-mile Sandringham. And if it didn’t work out for the rest of Team USA, I say nothing ventured, nothing gained. What career-building opportunities are they foregoing stateside anyway?
The generosity of Big Orange – and Frankie Dettori
The 2 1/2-mile Gold Cup (G1), historically the centerpiece of the meeting before shorter races became fashionable, served up the best finish of all as big-hearted Big Orange refused to let defending champion Order of St George pass. As the odds-on favorite gained late, all the momentum appeared to favor Order of St George, not longtime leader Big Orange. Yet an invisible barrier, a force field of will, rose up to halt Order of St George’s progress. Big Orange, after being in front for awfully long, would not yield, and he somehow kept his nose in front. Jockey James Doyle, certain of the result before anyone else could be, brandished his whip in triumph. He’d picked up the mount after Frankie Dettori was sidelined by an ill-timed injury. You had to feel gutted for Dettori, who missed out on a fine book of Royal Ascot rides that included Lady Aurelia and Big Orange. Indeed, Dettori called it “soul-destroying.” But in the midst of his misfortune, Dettori generously took the time to give Doyle pointers on how to ride Big Orange, the key being to let him bowl along at his own pace and not get in his way. Doyle followed the advice to perfection. Dettori wasn’t in the saddle, but Big Orange probably couldn’t have won without him. Winning trainer Michael Bell had issued a polite British equivalent of smack talk by doubting whether Order of St George was another Yeats, referring to O’Brien’s four-time Gold Cup legend. He was right.
The resurgence of Godolphin
In the wake of recent tumult culminating in the resignation of John Ferguson as chief executive, Sheikh Mohammed’s premier operation roared back. Godolphin captured a total of six races and nearly took the owner’s title, only to miss in a photo with archrival Coolmore (which also had six winners but won the “tiebreak” by having one more runner-up finish than Godolphin). Particularly meaningful were the two Group 1s as part of the blue triple on Tuesday. Ribchester (pictured) fired the opening salvo by confirming himself as the top older miler in a course record-setting Queen Anne (G1). Barney Roy turned the tables on Coolmore’s odds-on Churchill in the St James’s Palace (G1), stating his case for three-year-old miler supremacy in record time on the round course. As an extra, Godolphin’s Thunder Snow finished third, one spot ahead of his nemesis Churchill. Benbatl repelled Coolmore’s Orderofthegarter in the Hampton Court (G3), made sweeter by the fact he’s by Darley pride and joy Dubawi. And Godolphin has an up-and-coming sophomore to follow in Atty Persse, who scoffed at post 22 when running out a convincing winner of the King George V, and promoting himself right out of handicap company. Add in a one-two in the Windsor Castle for juveniles, courtesy of Sound and Silence and Roussel, and the Duke of Edinburgh winner Rare Rhythm, and it was quite a week. But for the ill-timed setback to morning-line favorite Laugh Aloud in the Duke of Cambridge (G2), Godolphin might have had a magnificent seven.
Churchill was so far below form in the St. James’s Palace that he couldn’t even pass Lancaster Bomber and Thunder Snow – both of whom he’d owned previously – and O’Brien reported that his dual Guineas hero didn’t finish his dinner. Thus Barney Roy’s upsurge wasn’t decisive in my mind (and at the risk of being churlish, he beat Lancaster Bomber the same margin as he did at Newmarket). We need a proper rubber match between Barney Roy and Churchill, so talk of Barney Roy’s stepping up to 1 1/4 miles for the Eclipse (G1) is curious. The more logical step would be a “Duel on the Downs” with Churchill in Goodwood’s Sussex (G1). But if Barney Roy swerves the Sussex, it may be in part due to tensions between Qatar, which sponsors the festival formerly known as Glorious Goodwood, and the Saudis/Emiratis (as reported by The Guardian's Greg Wood). Sheikh Mohammed as ruler of Dubai and UAE Vice President has high reasons of state to consider, and if Godolphin does decide to skip Qatar’s Goodwood fete, it would send an unmistakable signal. But as a racing fan who wants the Churchill vs Barney Roy case settled, it’s disappointing.
The strength in depth of Ballydoyle
If you’d have told me in advance that both Churchill and Order of St George would be upset, I’d have had some qualms about whether Aidan O’Brien could win his eighth training title. As it turned out, the master of Ballydoyle didn’t need them, such was the depth of his arsenal across multiple categories. Highland Reel (pictured) has now earned himself legendary status by wheeling right back from the Coronation Cup (G1), and dropping down a quarter-mile, to take the richest race of the five-day stand, the £750,000 Prince of Wales’s (G1). Nor did he steal it; when 10-furlong specialists Decorated Knight and Ulysses drew alongside, he simply outkicked them. Full brother Idaho then completed an historic sibling double by capturing the Hardwicke (G2). (Plaudits to their blueblood dam, Australian Group 1-placed Hveger, a full sister to the mighty Elvstroem.) Among the sophomores, sprint machine Caravaggio remained unbeaten when overhauling Godolphin’s dynamic duo of Harry Angel and Barney Roy in the Commonwealth Cup (G1). Coolmore’s future shuttle stallion will likely try to advertise himself in Australia’s inaugural A$10 million Everest (G1) October 14, but first he’ll likely have a clash with Diamond Jubilee (G1) hero The Tin Man. Dual Guineas victress Winter succeeded where Churchill could not by adding the Coronation (G1). Aside from cementing her status as the queen of her division, Winter is now poised to challenge her elders. The Ballydoyle juvenile squad was underwhelming until later in the week, when Sioux Nation sprang a 14-1 upset in the Norfolk (G2), and screaming Leopardstown debut winner September officially became a celebrity in the Chesham.
September the juvenile star
While Rajasinghe (from the yard of rookie Richard Spencer) set a juvenile course record when edging Headway in the Coventry (G2), French longshot Different League inflicted a first defeat upon Alpha Centauri in the Albany (G3), and Clive Cox’s Heartache had too much speed for Ward’s Happy Like a Fool in the Queen Mary, they didn’t immediately spur thoughts of “future classic winner.” Neither did the aforementioned juvenile winners Sioux Nation or Sound and Silence. So it’s not overstating the case to proclaim that September (pictured) put them all in the shade. Deep Impact and Peeping Fawn’s daughter doesn’t fill the eye, but she commands attention on the racecourse. Despite a bump at the start that put her farther behind than expected in the Chesham, she was the only runner to get involved from off the pace when steamrolling Mark Johnston’s bold front runner Nyaleti. Bookmakers couldn’t respond fast enough to make September the antepost favorite for the 1000 Guineas (G1) and Oaks (G1) in 2018. I can’t wait.
Questionable tactics department
The most frustrating moment of the entire meeting for me was when William Buick mystifyingly reserved Jack Hobbs at the tail of the field in the Prince of Wales’s. Here you have a 12-furlong performer, cutting back a quarter-mile like Highland Reel, but opting right out of the gate to cede an insuperable tactical advantage to his most lethal opponent. For days, I’d been anticipating a cat-and-mouse thriller between these two. From any sensible tactical standpoint, Jack Hobbs should have been lapped onto Highland Reel the whole way. Instead he was never put into the race, and therefore set an impossible task for a horse of his profile, not only physically but mentally too. Trainer John Gosden blamed the ground, although Jack Hobbs won the 2015 Irish Derby (G1) on good-to-firm. Indeed, French shipper Mekhtaal loves it firm, and he made no impression from further back either. This was a race where it paid to be handy, and Queen’s Trust deserves immense credit for getting as close as she did in fourth. Maybe Jack Hobbs just wasn’t in the mood regardless, but the point is we’ll never know, and the stargazer might have lost interest from there.
Armchair (social media) critics were all over Ryan Moore for his failure to litigate the case for beaten Diamond Jubilee favorite Limato (green silks) during the stewards’ inquiry, but I think he was perfectly right. Thanks to the televised testimony of the jockeys concerned in the messy finish, fans around the world could see Moore matter-of-factly saying he’d have finished third anyway. And indeed, Limato ran like a horse off a layoff who needed the race to bring him on. The Tin Man drifted out, and runner-up Tasleet lugged in, but Limato didn’t have the gears to outfinish the top two on this occasion. If he’d been his usual dashing self, he’s too quick to get caught in the sandwich. Perhaps Tasleet was unluckiest, if you can call self-sabotage bad luck. In any event, it will be a treat to see the older sprinters attempt to contain Caravaggio down the road.
The Gold Cup is the pinnacle for the stayers, but the Royal meeting affords other chances in this division. Thomas Hobson almost turned the amazing Ascot Stakes/Queen Alexandra double. A six-length romper in the former going 2 1/2 miles on opening day, he beat all bar past winner Oriental Fox in the two-mile, 5 1/2-furlong Queen Alexandra four days later on the finale. Thomas Hobson’s trainer, Willie Mullins, who famously sent out Simenon to achieve the feat in 2012, is contemplating the Melbourne Cup (G1). Among the three-year-olds, Stradivarius forwarded his candidacy for the St Leger (G1) with a relentless swoop in the Queen’s Vase (G2). The Gosden charge has yet to meet the best of his generation, but he’s going the right way.
Epsom form on display
It usually pays to oppose Derby (G1) and Oaks (G1) alums on the quick turnaround here, but an extra week between Epsom and Royal Ascot this year may have helped the classic performers. Alternately, the Derby and Oaks form may be that strong. Benbatl, a closing fifth in the Derby, successfully cut back in trip to land the Hampton Court over French Derby (G1) sixth Orderofthegarter. Permian (pictured), who had beaten Benbatl two back in the Dante (G2) but was only 10th in the Derby, rebounded in the King Edward VII (G2) over fellow Epsom also-ran Khalidi. Among the fillies, Oaks fifth Coronet benefited from an insane pace set-up to get up in the Ribblesdale (G2). Epsom third Alluringly, on the other hand, couldn’t duplicate that effort in sixth here.
We can imagine dual French classic winner Brametot, lounging in his chateau, checking the results to see how his form held up at Royal Ascot. While it’s too hazardous to draw French vs Epsom Derby form conclusions from the Hampton Court, his French 2000 Guineas (G1) was given a boost by Le Brivido’s strong closing kick to lift the Jersey (G3). The Andre Fabre pupil, who had barely missed to Brametot, came out on top of a field with a few Irish/English Guineas competitors and the usual gaggle of class climbers. The most accomplished French shipper, Jean-Claude Rouget’s multiple Group 1 vixen Qemah, flaunted her status by annexing the Duke of Cambridge, although compatriot and defending champion Usherette (a sneaky third) could feel aggrieved by the lack of any pace set-up. And aforementioned juvenile filly Different League, whose only two starts had come in the French provinces, looked anything but provincial in the Albany. Still, you’ve got to wonder how that result might look by the end of the summer, never mind the fall.
Patriarchs to the fore
Both Different League and September descend from the male line of Sunday Silence, a name you don’t associate with Royal Ascot. It’s fantastic that the late, great Japanese game-changer is exerting such a reach. The tragic loss of Scat Daddy is felt all the more after the exploits of his progeny Caravaggio and Lady Aurelia, and his 2017 trophy haul was brought up to four by Sioux Nation and Con Te Partiro. I almost take Galileo for granted, so often does his name resound in the sire field, but he furnished the trifecta in the Prince of Wales’s with Highland Reel, Decorated Knight, and Ulysses, and Idaho and Winter did him proud as well. Perhaps the most pleasant development was seeing the progeny of Galileo’s greatest son, Frankel, perform well on this stage. Upwardly mobile Atty Persse (pictured) was his first and only winner, but he almost had three. Mori, the daughter of Frankel and Midday, was mugged late in the Ribblesdale, and Count Octave, a three-quarter brother to Treasure Beach, went down by a neck in the Queen’s Vase. Mirage Dancer, out of Heat Haze, gave his sire another placing when third in the Hampton Court.
To relive the concluding stages of all 30 races during the five days of Royal Ascot, here are highlight reels courtesy of the racecourse’s YouTube channel.
There’s plenty of style and ambience footage too, if you’d like to live vicariously, or you can always fast forward straight to the racing action.
Tuesday (Ribchester, Lady Aurelia, Barney Roy, Rajasinghe)
Wednesday (Highland Reel, Qemah, Heartache, Le Brivido)
Thursday (Big Orange, Coronet, Benbatl, Sioux Nation)
Friday (Caravaggio, Winter, Permian, Different League, Stradivarius)
Saturday (The Tin Man, Idaho)
Lady Aurelia courtesy Ascot via Twitter
Big Orange by Frank Sorge/Horsephotos.com
Ribchester courtesy Getty Images via GBI Racing
Barney Roy courtesy Getty Images via GBI Racing
Highland Reel courtesy of Ascot via Twitter
September courtesy of Ascot via Twitter
The Tin Man courtesy of Ascot via Twitter
Permian courtesy of Ascot via Twitter
Atty Persse courtesy of Ascot via Facebook