Although Wednesday’s card has “just the one Group 1,” it’s a dandy. We’ll focus on that, and its Group 2 warm-up act, in this space.
So without further ado…
3RD RACE, THE DUKE OF CAMBRIDGE (G2)
#12 SMART CALL (10-1) might be just that in a tricky renewal of this straight mile affair wherein each of the principals has a question to answer. The South African champion was the top horse in her homeland in early 2016, and would have shipped for the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1) but for an injury. After capturing the “Win & You’re In” Paddock S. (G1) in her own division, the Mauritzfontein homebred pummeled South Africa’s best males in the coveted J&B Met (G1). That explains her lofty international rating. Smart Call was to prep in England for the Breeders’ Cup, but once she was sidelined last fall, connections decided to keep her in the Northern Hemisphere for a 2017 campaign hopefully culminating in the Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar. Transferred to Sir Michael Stoute in her new base of operations, she made an encouraging debut, off a nearly 16-month layoff, when a closing third in the Middleton (G2) at York. Stablemate Queen’s Trust (who had robbed Lady Eli in the Filly & Mare Turf at Santa Anita) was last of the four on unsuitably rain-slowed ground. Smart Call promises to come on a bundle for that, and the better going will be in her favor. The one potential wrinkle is the trip. Arguably more suited to nine or 10 furlongs, she’ll face a couple of sharp types at a mile. Indeed, earlier in her career, she deferred to Same Jurisdiction. Yet Smart Call has developed since then, and she won the Ipi Tombe (G2) over a mile at home before stretching out to international glory. This stiff mile, as her second start off the bench, could be ideal. Stoute, the race’s leading trainer with four wins from just 13 runnings, would know. Also, it’s intriguing that ace rider Ryan Moore was already booked for Smart Call, while Aidan O’Brien still had Somehow engaged. Perhaps Moore knew Somehow would come out, or perhaps he knew something about Smart Call…
#7 LAUGH ALOUD (2-1) enters in career-best form for John Gosden, in the wake of two brilliant victories in the Conqueror at Goodwood and the Princess Elizabeth (G3) at Epsom. The Godolphin homebred turned in fast times in both, but bossed lesser rivals. Now she lines up in her first Group 2, and finds herself facing Group 1 performers. Another point to consider is that her last two wins have come over turning, sharp tracks that fit her to a tee – reminiscent of half-brother Debussy, who stunned Gio Ponti in the 2010 Arlington Million (G1). The broader expanse of Ascot’s straight might leave her more vulnerable to high-caliber opponents. On the other hand, Laugh Aloud did win the Rosemary down Newmarket’s Rowley Mile last September, so she can go well on a demanding straight course, if she can cope with the class hike. With her tactical speed and electric burst, the Dubawi filly is eligible to justify favoritism, but she’d be easier to endorse at a better price.
#10 QEMAH (7-2) is the obvious alternative to Laugh Aloud. Successful in the Coronation (G1) (on the round course) here last summer, the Jean-Claude Rouget trainee arguably capitalized on the bad luck of Nemoralia and Alice Springs. She added another Group 1 laurel in the Prix Rothschild (G1) at Deauville, but with Alice Springs throwing in a clunker, it wasn’t a vintage renewal. In their rematch in the Matron (G1) on Irish Champions Weekend, it was no contest as Alice Springs routed Qemah into third. The French shipper was not seen again until the May 13 Chartwell Fillies’ S. (G3) at Lingfield, where she was overturned as the odds-on favorite by Mix and Mingle. While clearly Qemah can improve off her tightener, there is a whiff of opportunism about her resume, and she might find one too good here.
#15 USHERETTE (9-2), the defending champion, is trying to become the first two-time winner of this race. But conditions are different this time around for the Godolphin runner. Last year, the Andre Fabre mare entered on the crest of a winning streak, and benefited from soft ground that compromised some of her rivals. Usherette was favored to keep the momentum going in the Falmouth (G1) during Newmarket’s July Festival, only to come up empty, and turned out to have bled. Was it in any way related to coming under pressure on a surface much firmer than she’d previously encountered? On the comeback trail this term, the daughter of Shamardal has posted a pair of thirds versus males, in the Prix du Muguet (G2) and a stronger placing in the Prix d’Ispahan (G1) to Mekhtaal (see below). If Usherette doesn’t find the ground too lively, she can put up a bold title defense. Note that she was originally in Tuesday’s Queen Anne (G1), and Fabre supplemented her to this race.
#14 TURRET ROCKS (30-1) is far better than that price, and the Fastnet Rock filly could make the frame on her day. Long well regarded by trainer (and breeder) Jim Bolger, she scored her most significant win going a straight mile in the May Hill (G2) at two. Second to Ballydoyle in the Prix Marcel Boussac (G1), in which Qemah was third, Turret Rocks unfortunately had her sophomore season ruined by a case of ringworm. She worked her way back this season to capture the Blue Wind (G3), but found the yielding ground against her when a distant third in the Lanwades Stud (G2). She’ll love the quick conditions here.
4TH RACE, THE PRINCE OF WALES’S (G1)
#3 JACK HOBBS (5-2) versus Highland Reel is the clash of the meeting for me, on the objective merits and subjectively as a longtime, card-carrying fan of both. If I have to choose one, Jack Hobbs gets the nod because he can claim the best form at 1 1/4 miles, and at Ascot too. Although, like Highland Reel, he’s a marquee performer at 1 1/2 miles, the John Gosden trainee has assured his effectiveness over this shorter distance in elite company. It would be going too far back into the archives to tout his second to Derby (G1) and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1)-winning stablemate Golden Horn in the 2015 Dante (G2). Of greater relevance is the fact that Jack Hobbs has turned in top-flight placings in the past two runnings of the Champion S. (G1) at this track and trip. Sent off the even-money favorite in the 2015 edition, despite being handed the unsavory 12 post, he launched an early bid and wound up third. Gosden had long characterized him as still a big, raw baby at that stage, and as a son of Halling, was certain to strengthen up as an older horse. It testifies to his natural talent that he was able to win the Irish Derby (G1) and place second at Epsom while yet an unfurnished prospect. His 2016 plans were put on hold by a pelvic stress fracture sustained in the Jockey Club (G2). Jack Hobbs returned six months later for last October’s Champion, and rolled from well back to take third to French superstar Almanzor and Arc heroine Found. He’s run once in the interim, cruising in the 1 1/2-mile Dubai Sheema Classic (G1) on World Cup night, and Gosden set him for Royal Ascot. This is the same time frame he employed with The Fugue, who flopped in the 2014 Dubai Turf (G1) but reappeared to upset Treve in the Prince of Wales’s in course-record time. Gosden could have taken the relatively easier option of Saturday’s Hardwicke (G2) for Jack Hobbs, so I’m taking his presence here as a vote of sound judgment if not confidence.
#2 HIGHLAND REEL (5-2) is well known on these shores, first as a sensational winner of the 1 1/4-mile Secretariat (G1) at Arlington in 2015 and then for his tour de force in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1). Both came in front-running fashion, as did his victories in last summer’s King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1) at Ascot and his tough display in the June 2 Coronation Cup (G1) in his latest at Epsom. That early speed, and ability to wind it up over 1 1/2 miles, make him dangerous on the cutback. You can envision Ryan Moore trying to break the race open rounding the final turn and trusting the Galileo colt’s stamina, and grit, to take it from there. Still, a fit-and-cranked Jack Hobbs, pretty tactical himself, won’t let him slip away. Although Highland Reel has been unlucky that several of his tries at 1 1/4 miles have come on unsuitably soft ground, he shaped as one more in need of 1 1/2 miles when staying on for second to Postponed in the Juddmonte International (G1). To be fair, the race shape may have played a role in that as well, since he didn’t get to play his pace card as he’d have liked. But the final suspicion involves some reading of the Ballydoyle tea leaves: after the Coronation Cup, O’Brien announced he’d go for a title defense in the King George, with a possible prep in the Hardwicke as he did a year ago. The Prince of Wales’s, on the other hand, was the intended target for his champion filly Minding. With Minding sidelined until the fall, the chessboard was now suddenly missing a key piece. I’m tempted to view this as a case of Highland Reel stepping into the breach. That’s not to say he can’t still pull it off as a super-sub, but it didn’t sound like Plan A.
#5 MEKHTAAL (10-1) is likely to be the best value as an overlooked French raider. Although he hasn’t done anything spectacular enough (yet) to suggest he’d upset the big two, the Rouget pupil promises to deliver a run for the money. The Sea the Stars colt was on the French classic trail last season, and loomed a major player after his six-length wire job in the Prix Hocquart (G2). It just didn’t pan out for him thereafter, but he’s another who’s reached a new level with maturity. Mekhtaal was just denied in his reappearance in the Prix d’Harcourt (G2) by Godolphin’s fast-improving Cloth of Stars, who would have been vying for favoritism here if Fabre hadn’t opted to rest him. The time for 2,000 meters – about this distance – was a Chantilly course-record 1:58.77. Cloth of Stars had the benefit of a tightener, and Mekhtaal didn’t, making his near-miss all the more honorable. Mekhtaal came back to capture the Prix d’Ispahan, perhaps not the greatest renewal, but still a race that has produced three Prince of Wales’s winners in the past decade. As a true 10-furlong type who needs a fast surface, he’ll get his prerequisites.
#9 QUEEN’S TRUST (15-1) actually has more appeal than her well-touted stablemate #7 ULYSSES (3-1). Ulysses has always had his share of admirers as the son of Galileo and Light Shift. Now that he kicked off 2017 with a good-looking score over Deauville in the Gordon Richards (G3), he can be branded as the latest “Sir Michael Stoute improver” at four. Yet he’s got six lengths to make up on Highland Reel, based on his fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, and I’m not sure that an extra seven months, or a shorter trip, can erase it. Ulysses’ price isn’t consonant with his bare form. Queen’s Trust, in contrast, has two outstanding efforts on her resume in conditions quite like this – 1 1/4 miles on firmish ground. Her up-in-time heroics in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf will resonate with American fans, but I’m also thinking of her strong second to Minding in last July’s Nassau (G1). As discussed in the write-up on Smart Call in the Duke of Cambridge above, Queen’s Trust floundered on the softish ground at York in her tune-up. Stoute could have run her in the July 2 Pretty Polly (G1) at the Curragh, in her own division, but she’s here. And she has early entries in several additional Group 1s versus males, so it’s not exactly a whim. Jockey Olivier Peslier, who rode Dartmouth to a 10-1 Hardwicke victory for Stoute last year, picks up the mount.