A Different Kind of Royal Meeting

Royal Ascot begins on Tuesday without the traditional royal procession | Horsephotos

It's Royal Ascot once again, but not as we know it. No crowds, no fashion, no Queen. It is a case of “Royal Ascot At Home” for virtually everybody this year, even for the main players whose money makes it all possible. That said, at least there is still Frankie, Aidan O'Brien, Wesley Ward, Sir Michael Stoute and Battaash (Ire) (Dark Angel {Ire}) and all the other working equine and human cast and crew that make this week so special. One of Britain's most brilliant racehorses of recent years, Battaash deservedly hogs the limelight on Tuesday in the

G1 King's Stand S. on an opening card that has been reformed in light of the season's delay. In 2020, we have the unheard-of situation of Derby and Oaks contenders prepping for the Epsom Classics which are normally behind us at this stage. While the Group 2 races, the King Edward VII and Ribblesdale, are traditionally elaborate compensation prizes for those who missed out on glory in Surrey on the first Saturday of June, this time the likes of Frankly Darling (GB) (Frankel {GB}) and 'TDN Rising Star' Mogul (GB) (Galileo {Ire}) are being fine-tuned ahead of the mile-and-a-half monuments.

For Frankly Darling and Mogul, read Gosden and O'Brien. The following five days are set to provide the customary see-saw of success between these two master trainers and their respective distinctive riding talents Dettori and Moore. While there will be swings of fortune in other directions, the main core of the action will almost revolve around the now king of Newmarket and the peerless premier of Co. Tipperary. Between them, they have amassed a combined total of 119 winners at this meeting with 104 of those coming since O'Brien really clicked into gear with his first Group 1 in the millennium year.

Frankie Dettori, who requires six more Royal winners to tie with the legendary Pat Eddery on 73, will be without the buzz of the audience close-at-hand that spurned him on to his famous four-timer on Gold Cup last year, but he feels the importance of the stage just as keenly. “I don't think the standard of racing is any different. It is pure quality as always,” commented the six-times leading jockey at the meeting. “It is the Olympics of Flat racing, but it will be weird if you do win a race and there is only yourself and the trainer and not thousands cheering you on as you walk back. I thrive on a big crowd so I will miss it, but I can't change it.”

Day one sees the Italian ride two hot favourites in Anthony Oppenheimer's Frankly Darling in the Ribblesdale and Shadwell's Daarik (GB) (Tamayuz {GB}) in the opening Buckingham Palace H. Both are housed at Clarehaven Stables and the outcomes of their races will help to set the tone for the week. “With John everything he runs has got a chance,” he commented. “Ascot has never let me down before and though it will be different, I'm very excited.” Leading Ryan Moore by nine winners overall, he upset that rival's momentum when reclaiming the leading rider title in 2019. Nevertheless, he is fully respectful of Moore, who holds the post-war record of nine winners in a single Royal Ascot meeting and who had topped the table eight times in the last 10 years. “I think it will be a lot tougher this year,” Dettori added. “Ryan Moore always sets the standard, as he is guaranteed four or five winners and you have to match him or get more.”

It is impossible to focus on Ascot without honing in on Dettori and his rides on day one offer a real insight into his current status as the world's number one jockey. In the G1 Queen Anne S., he teams up with Godolphin on the strongly-fancied John Gosden-trained 4-year-old filly Terebellum (Ire) (Sea the Stars {Ire}) and if she is successful she will be his first Royal winner in the royal blue since Tha'ir (Ire) (New Approach {Ire}) in the 2012 Listed Chesham S. Just over an hour later, he dons the Michael Tabor silks on Ballydoyle's Arthur's Kingdom (Ire) (Camelot {GB}) in the King Edward VII. Commanding these two bookings harmoniously, he is the man in deserved demand at the very apex of his sport. He even sports the colours of one-time employer Al Shaqab Racing for the ride on Wasmya (Fr) (Toronado {Ire}) in the G2 Duke of Cambridge S.

The unexposed Daarik and Mutamaasik (GB) (Dubawi {Ire}) kick off a big day for Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum's operation in the Buckingham Palace, the seven-furlong handicap which was shed from the meeting in 2015 but is revived to cater for the category which has lost so many opportunities in recent weeks. The Queen Anne sees a trio racing in the royal blue-and-white headed by the Marcus Tregoning-trained 2019 G3 Greenham S. winner Mohaather (GB) (Showcasing {GB}), while in the Duke of Cambridge the Gosden-trained Nazeef (GB) (Invincible Spirit {Ire}) is looking likely to start favourite after her impressive June 3 Listed Snowdrop Fillies' S. success at Kempton. Of the latter, Gosden said, “She is back on grass, but she is a lovely, game filly that is improving all the time. I thought she was very impressive the other day. If she can transfer that level of form to the Duke of Cambridge, I expect her to run another big race.”

It is the King's Stand that those connected to Shadwell await with the keenest interest as, despite being twice denied by the now-retired Blue Point (Ire) (Shamardal) in the past two years, Battaash is the clear standard-setter this time. Again handed his favoured post position towards the extremes of the field, drawn 10 of 11, the 6-year-old fireball can enjoy relative racing freedom with all options open to Jim Crowley. Next door in nine is the high-class 3-year-old filly Liberty Beach (GB) (Cable Bay {Ire}), who looked like a true five-furlong specialist when just lasting the extra distance of the June 7 Listed Cecil Frail Fillies' S. at Haydock. Whether John Quinn's G3 Molecomb S. winner can keep tabs on the favourite is another matter, but she at least offers some opposition to the division leader alongside another Northern-based sprinting filly in Glass Slippers (GB) (Dream Ahead). Bearstone Stud's lightly-raced homebred may not have reached her ceiling and as the three-length winner of the G1 Prix de l'Abbaye in which Battaash was a notable flop, she commands respect.

Battaash's trainer Charlie Hills is relishing Tuesday's opportunity for the star of his stable. “We have a good team and they are very happy with him–we've had no hold-ups and I couldn't be more pleased with him,” he said. “I'm very excited with his work and he has definitely shown me he's as good as he was last year. He's put in some fantastic performances in his career and when he's on song he's fantastic to see. The Abbaye run was on bad ground and we had a really terrible draw, but otherwise he's been pretty much consistent throughout his career. He's run two great races at Ascot beaten for stamina by a very good horse and if Blue Point hadn't been there he'd already have won two of these.”

Glass Slippers's trainer Kevin Ryan is not daunted by the task ahead of the 4-year-old filly and said, “She's a high-class filly and has done fantastic from three to four. In a normal year, she'd have had a run before but I'm not worried that she hasn't. She travelled great in the Abbaye and put it to bed very quickly.” Liberty Beach's jockey Jason Hart, who is looking for a dream first Royal winner, said of the year-younger filly, “She won well at Haydock, but was a bit free early doors. She's got a lot of natural pace, so the boss has decided to drop her back to five.”

Ballydoyle's meeting gets underway with Circus Maximus (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}) in the Queen Anne, where he bids to emulate the 2010 winner Canford Cliffs (Ire) and the following year's hero Frankel (GB) in adding this to his G1 St James's Palace S. success a year previously. Also successful in the G1 Prix du Moulin de Longchamp in September, he will be bringing up Royal Ascot winner number 71 for his stable if proving as effective over this straight mile. “We're very happy with him,” O'Brien said. “We would have liked to have given him a run before, but he's in good form. He's a lazy worker who has physically done well and we think the tempo of mile races suits him better than further as he concentrates a bit more when running a bit stronger. We tried different things with him last season, but we are looking forward to keeping him at a mile this year.”

With a record eight successes in the Queen Anne behind them, it is safe to say that whatever Godolphin target at the contest has to be respected. It was therefore necessary to take extra heed last week when the decision was made by John Gosden to point the aforementioned Terebellum at the race following her success in the G2 Dahlia S. over 10 furlongs at Newmarket last Saturday. Campaigned solely at that trip so far, last year's G2 Prix de la Nonette winner is a perfect fit for this race which favours those who stay further than a mile. “Terebellum won well at Newmarket and has a lot of speed. I think a straight, stiff mile will suit her and she has been in great form since the Dahlia Stakes,” commented her trainer, who is looking to record a first winner at the meeting with one from this operation.

Sir Michael Stoute remains the winningmost trainer for this year at least, with his tally of 81 nigh-on impossible for Aidan O'Brien to equal in just five days. His best chances seem to come in the Duke of Cambridge, which he won in 2010 and 2014. Both 'TDN Rising Star' Jubiloso (GB) (Shamardal) and Queen Power (Ire) (Shamardal) have solid claims, with the former finishing third in the G1 Coronation S. here last year and the latter a promising second to Terebellum in the Dahlia.

Teddy Grimthorpe, racing manager for owner-breeder Khalid Abdullah, is looking forward to seeing Jubiloso back on the track. “She ran a super third in the Coronation and we thought we were set up for a real bumper year with her, but she had a few niggling little feet problems. She's come back and wintered well. She's a very strong-bodied filly and we're hopeful. Prince Khalid kept her in training in the hope of targeting these type of races. I think she will be competitive.”

For all the thrill of witnessing these great and potentially great thoroughbreds in flight once more, there is undeniably a shadow over the 2020 renewal. Trainer Mark Johnston, a perennial winner at the meeting over the past 25 years with 45 successes in total, feels it more than most as he actually contracted COVID-19 in the Spring and was one of the fortunates to come through the ordeal unscathed. “It is hard to feel it is as special this year,” he commented. “It is not the same. Weird is the word. My team will be depleted in numbers, as I am simply not going to throw darts at a board this year like I might do when it is the usual Royal Ascot.”

Nick Smith, director of racing and public affairs at the track, is putting the situation in a historical context. “We've had Black Ascot [in 1910], the year of Foot and Mouth and all the challenges that presented, as well as moving the Royal meeting to York, but it's fair to see we've never seen anything quite like this,” he said. “It's certainly a bit strange, but we're now embracing the situation we're in and getting excited about the week ahead.”

There will be no pre-racing parade and no flag-waving and hat-lifting. What there will be is an enhanced global watching audience in their homes due to the new partnership with HBA Media. As soon as the stalls burst open for the Buckingham Palace at 1:15 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time, that familiar outpouring of magic will still be there for the ultimate five-day-long distraction for all.

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