Royal Ascot on the horizon: Lady Aurelia, Yoshida tune up while European preps offer clues
If Memorial Day weekend marks the virtual beginning of summer, Royal Ascot isn’t far behind, and the meeting’s marquee events are beginning to take shape.
American-based performers will be in the spotlight on the June 19 opener. Defending champion LADY AURELIA and blue-collar BUCCHERO contest the King’s Stand (G1), and Old Forester Turf Classic (G1) hero YOSHIDA kicks off the action in the Queen Anne (G1). Reigning Eclipse Award winner Jose Ortiz will retain the ride on Yoshida and Bucchero.
Lady Aurelia qualifies as an Ascot regular after dominating her appearances the past two summers. A seven-length winner of the 2016 Queen Mary (G2) at two, the Scat Daddy filly smashed older males in the King’s Stand over the same five-furlong trip at three.
The Wesley Ward filly, who will be joined by the usual complement of stablemates on the journey, appeared to have lost a step in the interim. She was a disappointing 10th in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1) at Del Mar and most recently second in the Giant’s Causeway at Keeneland, the same prep she took handily last April on the way to Ascot.
But “appeared” is the operative word, for Ward believes that Lady Aurelia is showing her old zest in her works.
“Last year, working into the Breeders’ Cup, I thought she was getting complacent, kinda easy-going, taking things in stride,” the trainer told Keeneland publicity after Lady Aurelia’s bullet half-mile breeze in :48.80 May 15.
“For whatever reason, she went out to Del Mar and didn’t fire and maybe that was a telltale sign that she wasn’t relaxed and doing things on her own.
“Now she’s really aggressive like she has been in the past. That’s what you want to see going to where we’ve been a couple of times before.”
Lady Aurelia came back on May 25 to breeze five furlongs in 1:00.40 in company with HEMP HEMP HURRAY. Her three-year-old workmate, who clocked 1:01.00, is possible for the June 20 Jersey (G3) or June 22 Commonwealth Cup (G1) (more on that below).
Indiana-bred star Bucchero’s signature win came in last fall’s Woodford (G2) at Keeneland. The Tim Glyshaw charge has been running well in defeat ever since, including a close fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint and a troubled third in the TwinSpires Turf Sprint (G3) on Derby Day. Bucchero was not helped by a bumping match in upper stretch that day, but he’s already been back on the worktab, touring a grassy half at Churchill in :51.00 on May 20.
The top European in the King’s Stand, the Charlie Hills-trained BATTAASH, made a winning return in the May 26 Temple (G2) at Haydock. Although he just got up by a head over Aidan O’Brien’s fast-finishing WASHINGTON DC and the speedball KACHY, his performance had more merit than the margin indicates. In light of his Group 1 score in the Prix de l’Abbaye (G1) on Arc Day, Battaash had to carry top weight of 135 pounds, spotting upwards of five pounds all around. He reportedly became the first to cope successfully with a Group 1 “penalty” in the Temple since Airwave in 2003 (when it was held at Sandown).
Queen Anne hopeful Yoshida can claim rooting interests from all over as a Japanese-bred, based in the U.S. with Hall of Famer Bill Mott, and owned by the consortium of China Horse Club, WinStar Farm, and Head of Plains Partners.
Entitled to thrive with maturity, befitting a son of Heart’s Cry, Yoshida validated that hypothesis by upstaging Beach Patrol in his four-year-old bow in the Old Forester. He got back to work promptly at Saratoga May 18, covering a half-mile in :49.32 in company with Belmont S. (G1) contender Hofburg, and ramped it up May 26 by clocking :48.69, both on the Oklahoma training track.
The Queen Anne, now a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1), will help to establish clarity in a division looking for a leader.
O’Brien’s filly RHODODENDRON (remember her eye-catching second to Wuheida in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf [G1]?) shortened up to a mile versus males in the oft key prep, the May 19 Lockinge (G1), and edged LIGHTNING SPEAR. Frequent Group 1 bridesmaid LANCASTER BOMBER, third to stablemate Rhododendron in the Lockinge, wheeled back eight days later to wire Sunday’s Tattersalls Gold Cup (G1) when stretching out to 10 1/2 furlongs. Likewise influencing the Queen Anne picture on Sunday was the Prix d’Ispahan (G1) at ParisLongchamp, where RECOLETOS remained perfect from two outings this season with a good-looking rally.
O’Brien reiterated Sunday that the plan was for Lancaster Bomber to revert to a mile for the Queen Anne, but he has a 1 1/4-mile option in the June 20 Prince of Wales’s (G1), now a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1). As ever, the “lads” will dictate their preferences for the Ballydoyle brigade, Rhododendron included.
Archrival Godolphin is in a somewhat similar position with Dubai World Cup (G1) romper THUNDER SNOW and Dubai Turf (G1) victor BENBATL. Unraced since their Dubai heroics, either one of the Saeed bin Suroor pair could go for the Queen Anne or Prince of Wales’s. Sir Michael Stoute’s POET’S WORD, who cut back in distance to take the 1 1/4-mile Brigadier Gerard (G3) on May 24, may try the Prince of Wales’s or step back up to 1 1/2 miles for the June 23 Hardwicke (G2). Stablemate CRYSTAL OCEAN is currently all the rage for that closing day prize, after opening 2018 with scores in the April 27 Gordon Richards (G3) and May 19 Aston Park (G3).
The clearest fact (so far) about the Prince of Wales’s is that it has a red-hot antepost favorite, European champion CRACKSMAN, who picked up right where he left off last fall with a commanding display in the April 29 Prix Ganay (G1) at ParisLongchamp. The John Gosden star is currently trading at odds of 4-5 for the Prince of Wales’s with several firms, and at even-money with a couple of others.
Initially expected to use Sunday’s Tattersalls Gold Cup as his stepping stone to Royal Ascot, Cracksman was rerouted to this upcoming Friday’s Coronation Cup (G1) after all-conquering stablemate Enable was sidelined. Might the detour to Epsom end up affecting his Royal Ascot date? Rival connections probably want to let the dust settle from the Coronation Cup – where Cracksman will likely meet Godolphin’s Dubai Sheema Classic (G1) winner HAWKBILL and O’Brien’s recent Ormonde (G3) romper IDAHO – before deciding which way to go.
The St James’s Palace (G1) typically gauges the relative merits of the colts’ mile classics, but the opening day feature looks ripe for the taking by a fresh face. Partly that’s because two of the Guineas winners are stepping up for the next classic in their respective countries. O’Brien’s unbeaten Saxon Warrior fanned Triple Crown flames when landing Newmarket’s 2000 Guineas (G1), and now has Saturday’s Derby (G1) at Epsom in his sights. French-based Olmedo won the equivalent at ParisLongchamp, setting himself up for the French Derby (G1).
The May 26 Irish 2000 Guineas (G1) could have neatly decided whether the English or French Guineas form were stronger, only the 25-1 longshot ROMANISED improved off a trial loss and sprang the upset at the Curragh. Finishing second and third, respectively, were O’Brien’s duo of U S NAVY FLAG (fifth to Olmedo) and GUSTAV KLIMT (sixth to Saxon Warrior).
One who missed the Newmarket classic due to a foot abscess, undefeated WITHOUT PAROLE, catapulted into antepost favoritism for the St James’s Palace with a solid score in the May 24 Heron S. at Sandown. Trained by Gosden for John Gunther – yes, the very same Gunther who bred Triple Crown hopeful Justify – the homebred son of Frankel was short on fitness, but got the prep out of the way and should be at his peak for Royal Ascot.
The June 21 Gold Cup (G1) promises to be a vintage renewal. Although Big Orange is unable to defend his crown after sustaining a season-ending injury, 2016 hero and last year’s near-misser ORDER OF ST GEORGE is raring to regain the title. O’Brien’s star stayer has warmed up with victories in the April 22 Vintage Crop (G3) and May 25 Saval Beg (the latter being a three-peat).
But several high-class challengers are set to take him on in the 2 1/2-mile feature. French supremo VAZIRABAD, fresh off a three-peat in the Dubai Gold Cup (G2) on World Cup night, just turned another on Sunday when garnering the Prix Vicomtesse Vigier (G2) for the third straight year. Gosden’s STRADIVARIUS, eligible to be stronger now at four, was a stylish winner of the May 18 Yorkshire Cup (G2). TORCEDOR, fifth in last year’s Gold Cup, may be a different proposition this time around, and stated his intent with a five-length wire job in the May 2 Sagaro (G3) at Ascot. MAGIC CIRCLE would be another strong opponent in the form of his life at present, but trainer Ian Williams is unlikely to supplement the Henry II (G3) and Chester Cup hero whose agenda revolves around the Melbourne Cup (G1).
The June 22 card offers a pair of Group 1s, both potentially with American interests.
The Coronation S. (G1), the fillies’ counterpart to the St James’s Palace, could attract Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1) vixen RUSHING FALL. Yet I wouldn’t be surprised if trainer Chad Brown keeps her on a domestic path, and she’s just been given fresh nominations to the $500,000 Penn Mile (G2) and $200,000 Penn Oaks.
This might be a good year for an American runner to give it a whirl, however, since the fillies’ Guineas have produced big-priced winners. BILLESDON BROOK pulled a 66-1 shocker in the 1000 Guineas (G1) at Newmarket, the 12-1 TEPPAL came out on top of a bunched finish in the French equivalent, and ALPHA CENTAURI was a 12-1 overlay in Sunday’s Irish 1000 Guineas (G1). O’Brien’s CLEMMIE, just returning after a setback ruled her out of Newmarket, has every right to turn the page from her ninth behind Alpha Centauri.
The other Group 1 on that Royal Ascot Friday, the six-furlong Commonwealth Cup for three-year-olds, has more American interests in the mix. That’s one option for Ward’s aforementioned Hemp Hemp Hooray, while BECKFORD and GIDU are expected to turn up. Beckford, a classy operator last season for Gordon Elliott, capped 2017 with a fifth to Mendelssohn in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1). In his debut for Brendan Walsh, he blazed home to get up in the April 28 William Walker at Churchill. The Todd Pletcher-trained Gidu, an Irish-bred son of Frankel, punched his ticket in the May 26 Paradise Creek at Belmont.
Until any of the Guineas principals decides to revert to sprinting, the top European contenders include SANDS OF MALI and INVINCIBLE ARMY, separated by a nose in the May 26 Sandy Lane (G2) at Haydock, and O’Brien’s SIOUX NATION, who regained the winning thread in the May 20 Lacken (G3) at Naas. I’ll be very curious to see if once-vaunted EXPERT EYE can redeem his reputation back down in trip.
Ward has BOUND FOR NOWHERE set for the June 23 Diamond Jubilee (G1), now a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. Fourth in an audacious stakes debut in last summer’s Commonwealth Cup, the son of The Factor will bring more experience to bear in this visit. Bound for Nowhere has won both 2018 starts, a Turfway allowance and a four-length victory over Bucchero in the April 7 Shakertown (G2) at Keeneland.
Like stable star Lady Aurelia, Bound for Nowhere has been working on the Keeneland turf to prepare. His latest drill on May 25 was a five-furlong bullet in 1:00.00 in company with Delectation (1:00.20).
Multiple Group 1 winner HARRY ANGEL rates as the antepost favorite in the wake of his comeback score in the May 16 Duke of York (G2), while defending Diamond Jubilee champion THE TIN MAN just won first up in the May 21 Leisure S. at Windsor.
O’Brien’s new Group 1-winning recruit from Australia, MERCHANT NAVY, fired a warning shot in the May 26 Greenlands (G2) at the Curragh. Not cranked yet, toting the top weight of 130 pounds, and a late Southern Hemisphere-bred three-year-old who’s reckoned as a four-year-old in the Northern Hemisphere, the Fastnet Rock colt had ready-made excuses. But Merchant Navy didn’t need them, for he still mowed his rivals down in a taking effort. He’ll retire to stud at Coolmore Australia after his smash-and-grab mission here.
In a fascinating subplot, Merchant Warrior is likely to get a rematch in the Diamond Jubilee with the horse who beat him in his Australian finale, REDKIRK WARRIOR. The Hayes/Dabernig trainee was last seen repeating in the six-furlong Newmarket H. (G1), as the 127-pound highweight at Flemington, with Merchant Navy a rallying, near-miss third. Redkirk Warrior previously captured the five-furlong Lightning (G1), and if the ground is rain-affected at Royal Ascot, connections have mentioned a possible switch to the King’s Stand. Redkirk Warrior tuned up with an easy romp in a Werribee trial on May 28 (it’s Monday in Australia already).
The one “Win and You’re In” not covered above is the June 21 Norfolk (G2), a five-furlong dash that offers a berth to the newly minted Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint. Ward has Keeneland debut winner SHANG SHANG SHANG penciled in, but we don’t know the whole list of possibles yet since the Norfolk is not among the early-closing races.
Other Ward two-year-olds eyeing Royal Ascot are CHELSEA CLOISTERS, a Keeneland debut romper in the June 20 Queen Mary (G2), and STILLWATER COVE, who scored in a photo at Keeneland and aims for the June 22 Albany (G3). Veteran UNDRAFTED, the 2015 Diamond Jubilee winner, is relegated to handicap company on the undercard in the June 23 Wokingham, and MASTER MERION is in line for the June 20 Royal Hunt Cup.
Watch this space, and the Brisnet.com Royal Ascot news section, for more coverage as we get closer to the meeting.
Lady Aurelia photo by Frank Sorge/Horsephotos.com