Features

Alpha Centauri provides much needed star power

There is a general consensus that the current crop of milers, both amongst the three-year-olds and older horses, is an ordinary one and while Alpha Centauri produced an admirable performance when winning the Irish 1,000 Guineas (Gr 1, 1m) at the Curragh last month, she elevated her form into a different bracket with a six-length success on Friday, shattering the course record and comprehensively asserting her superiority over fellow Classic winners Billesdon Brook (Champs Elysees) and Teppal (Camacho), who won the 1,000 Guineas (Gr 1, 1m) and Poule d’Essai des Pouliches (Gr 1, 1600m) respectively but could only muster fourth and ninth here.

 

The Racing Post Rating of 122 achieved by Alpha Centauri is 2lb higher than the mark awarded to any other winner of this contest in the last ten years, while the utterly dominant manner of her success – travelling powerfully for Colm O’Donoghue and quickening away in a matter of strides passing the two-furlong marker – suggests she will be very difficult to beat for the rest of the season when encountering her preferred quick ground. As such, the generous weight-for-age and sex allowances afforded to three-year-old fillies might encourage connections to pitch her into open company at some stage soon, given she has shown superior form to any of the older males currently running over this trip.

 

Calyx and Expert Eye cap good week for Abdullah

Prince Khalid Abdullah’s Juddmonte Farms operation enjoyed a fruitful week and while his unbeaten two-year-old Calyx (Kingman) was a little fractious in the preliminaries, he showed professionalism beyond his experience when coming home a length superior to Advertise (Showcasing) in the Coventry Stakes (Gr 2, 6f) on Tuesday, faring much the best of the group who raced towards the stands-side having run most of the last two furlongs without company. He was awarded an RPR of 116 for this win and is already a high-class juvenile with the prospect of better to come.

 

Sir Michael Stoute’s Expert Eye (Acclamation) fell into a similar bracket when he blitzed his rivals in the Vintage Stakes (Gr 2, 7f) at Goodwood last season and while his subsequent three runs have been far removed from that level of form, the three-year-old recaptured his brilliance with a resounding success in the Jersey Stakes (Gr 3, 7f) on Wednesday, confirming the impression that he is a Group 1 winner in waiting and providing jockey James McDonald with a first Royal Ascot victory.

 

Held-up off a strong early gallop, Expert Eye was racing in a similar position to the eventual runner-up Society Power (Society Rock) approaching the final quarter mile, but he had put four and a half lengths over that progressive rival at the line and an RPR of 120 possibly underestimates the quality of this performance. He, too, might remain capable of better still.

 

Plenty of Australian interest

This year’s meeting also produced a number of significant developments from an Australian perspective, spearheaded by the tenacious success of Merchant Navy (Fastnet Rock) in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes (Gr 1, 6f) on Saturday.

 

Formerly trained by Ciaron Maher and latterly Aaron Purcell in Australia, Merchant Navy made a successful switch to the care of Aidan O’Brien when winning the Greenlands Stakes (Gr 2, 6f) at the Curragh last month and he only needed to improve marginally on that form to secure a second top-tier win, prevailing by a short-head over French challenger City Light (Siyouni).

 

This was a contest filled with drama as the favourite Harry Angel (Dark Angel) fell out of the stalls, having had his near-hind leg caught on the running board as the field was released, while Redkirk Warrior (Notnowcato) failed to give his running under Frankie Dettori, proving first off the bridle and weakening quickly in the closing stages.

 

The first four home were separated by just over a length and the proximity of the 110-rated Projection (Acclamation) in fifth anchors this form to a degree, but Merchant Navy showed a good attitude racing against battled-hardened elders and he could head for a tilt at the July Cup (Gr 1, 6f) next month before returning to Australia to take up stud duties.

 

Meanwhile, the European challenge bound for this year’s Melbourne Cup (Gr 1, 3200m) gained greater definition as Red Verdon (Lemon Drop Kid) secured a place in the line-up when producing a career-best performance to finish second in the Hardwicke Stakes (Gr 2, 1m4f) on Saturday. Although no match for the Sir Michael Stoute-trained Crystal Ocean (Sea The Stars), the five-year-old kept on determinedly under James Doyle, running to a mark in the region of 115, and trainer Ed Dunlop immediately nominated an Australian spring campaign as the long-term target for the entire, for which he has a very obvious profile.

 

The centrepiece of the meeting, the Gold Cup (Gr 1, 2m4f), once again produced a thrilling finish with the John Gosden-trained Stradivarius (Sea The Stars) battling back tenaciously to deny Alain De Royer-Dupre’s Vazirabad (Manduro) by three quarters of a length as joint-favourite Order Of St George (Galileo) came under pressure a long way from home and looked increasingly recalcitrant with his finishing effort.

 

Gosden did not rule out a tilt at Flemington for the improving winner, who is able to travel and quicken off a solid gallop – although he did express some reservations about the potentially lofty handicap mark he is likely to be allocated in the wake of this success – while the third-placed Torcedor (Fastnet Rock) ran a personal best, deserving extra credit having raced on the speed throughout. The six-year-old is owned by Te Akau Racing and he, too, could be bound for the Melbourne Cup, particularly as this run dispelled any fears that he needs give in the ground to show his best form.

 

Willie Mullins continued his excellent record in staying contests at the meeting when saddling four of the first five home in the Ascot Stakes (2m4f) on Tuesday, including the OTI Racing-owned Chelkar (Azamour), who ran a promising race to finish fourth under Ryan Moore. Formerly trained by Jean-Claude Rouget in France, Chelkar was purchased for €160,000 by Harold Kirk at the Arqana Autumn Mixed Sale in 2016 and on the back of a long break and stepped significantly up in trip, he made an encouraging start for these connections, showing stamina in abundance having raced keenly towards the rear in the early stages. He will be an interesting proposition when switched to the southern hemisphere in time.

 

OTI Racing were also represented by the Joseph O’Brien-trained Downdraft (Camelot) in the King George V Stakes (1m4f) and he was not disgraced in finishing sixth having raced wide throughout and been caught further back than ideal from a pace perspective. He saw the trip out fine on his first start over a mile and a half, although he might prove at his very best on easier ground.

 

Kew Gardens has similar profile to Cup hero Rekindling

Four winners were enough to secure Aidan O’Brien the honours of leading trainer at the meeting and while he did not dominate the week with the vigour he has done in recent seasons, the O’Brien contingent proved far superior to their rivals in the Queen’s Vase (Gr 2, 1m6f) as Kew Gardens (Galileo) led home a one-two-three for the trainer. In beating stable companions Southern France (Galileo) and Nelson (Frankel) by four and a half lengths and a neck, Kew Gardens left behind a couple of laboured efforts on his first start over the trip, looking well suited by the greater emphasis on stamina and shaping like he will stay two miles in time.

 

At virtually the same stage of the season last year, Melbourne Cup winner Rekindling (High Chaparral) had achieved a similar level of form to Kew Gardens and while the former is probably a classier operator having shown the speed to win a Group 3 over a mile and a quarter, Kew Gardens looks just the type to continue to improve over the course of the summer and he could be a potential candidate for Australia further down the line.

 

Queen Anne would not have been so straightforward for Winx

Finally, the opening race of the meeting produced a surprise result as the 109-rated Accidental Agent (Delegator) arrived with a sustained late challenge to fend off the 107-rated Lord Glitters (Whipper) in the Queen Anne Stakes (Gr 1, 1m) as market leaders Benbatl (Dubawi) and Rhododendron (Galileo) weakened in the closing stages.

 

Despite the relatively modest early gallop, the 15-strong field increased the tempo over three furlongs from home and this was eventually left open to the closers as the pace collapsed, with the patiently ridden front two proving best-placed to pounce in a piece of form that is easy to pick holes in for the level.

 

However, the suggestion from some southern hemisphere quarters that this would have been a penalty kick for Winx (Street Cry) had she made the journey to Europe fails to acknowledge the idiosyncratic test posed by the straight, stiff, undulating mile at Ascot and it would be folly to think her undoubted superiority in terms of latent ability would have automatically translated to victory in this contest.

 

This race has, after all, produced similar scenarios in recent seasons as foreign challengers Animal Kingdom (Leriodesanimaux) and Able Friend (Shamardal) pitched up in 2013 and 2015 respectively with the best form in the book only to be undone by this unique set of circumstances. Winx has never raced under conditions remotely resembling those posed by the Queen Anne and it now looks like she never will, which is something of a shame given this unique test of her unquestionably huge engine would have been a sight to savour.

 

However, this is not a meeting whereby any result is a foregone conclusion and this can only be filed under the ‘what might have been’ banner, rather than anything more concrete.