Thursday is Ladies Day at Royal Ascot, and four of the stoutest staying mares in Europe will be among the 14 participating in the beloved 2 1/2-mile Gold Cup before what is typically the biggest crowd of the week. Before that, we have three highly competitive group events we hope to have a good handle on.
1ST RACE, NORFOLK STAKES (G2) is discussed at the TwinSpires.com blog.
2ND RACE, HAMPTON COURT STAKES (G3)
1. #16 TAMLEEK (10-1), third in his debut last October, returned to action April 20 at Newmarket over 1 1/4 miles. Despite drifting in a bit a furlong or so out, he separated himself readily in the final yards to win by four lengths. It was a win regarded enough to get the public behind him at odds of 5-2 for the Chester Vase (G3). Hemmed in by eventual Epsom Derby (G1) winner Wings of Eagles on the turn, he eventually found himself on the inside of the track and did not make significant headway late. He wound up fourth behind the Coolmore-owned trio of Venice Beach, Wings of Eagles, and The Anvil, losing by 2 1/4 lengths. Unlike those colts, he passed on the Epsom classic and thus enters this test relatively fresh and with the potential to improve at a square price.
2. #9 MIRAGE DANCER (7-2) is another with tremendous upside. Winning on debut at Doncaster in October, he reappeared in the May 12 Dee Stakes at Chester. Near the back to the final turn and temporarily without room entering the straight, he found his way to the rail like Tamleek did 24 hours earlier and finished about as modestly. The final margin of defeat was 3 1/2 lengths to eventual Epsom Derby runner-up Cliffs of Moher, with #2 BAY OF POETS (12-1) second. Perhaps his most appealing asset is his pedigree: he’s by Frankel and out of multiple Grade 1 winner Heat Haze, one of several champions and Group 1 winners produced by the blue hen Hasili. Mirage Dancer’s half-brother Forge was Royal Ascot-placed in the Jersey (G3).
3. #11 ORDEROFTHEGARTER (7-1) easily won his first two outings of the year, including a 3 3/4-length score over yard mate #15 TAJ MAHAL (#10-1) in the Leopardstown 2000 Guineas Trial. He failed to place in either of the first two French classics, but didn’t have a clear path when attempting to slide in between Taj Mahal and another horse in the stretch of the Prix du Jockey Club (G1). He wound up sixth, beaten less then three lengths. Appeared to stay well enough in that first step up beyond a mile, and with better luck figures for a share or more with his best.
#3 BENBATL (4-1) will be the more highly backed of the Godolphin trio (the others are Tamleek and Bay of Poets) off his closing fifth in the Epsom Derby. Typically shows more stalking speed than he did at the Downs and previously placed in both the Craven (G3) and Dante (G2), the former in behind eventual Derby fourth Eminent.
3RD RACE, RIBBLESDALE STAKES (G2)
1. #6 GRACIOUS DIANA (15-1) is one of four here trained by John Gosden, who has just a single win in his race (Michita, 2009). Beaten a long way in her debut at Nottingham last November against males, including top two Crowned Eagle and Zumurudee (both next out winners), the daughter of Foxwedge rebounded very well in her seasonal reappearance at Newbury on April 21. Over 1 1/4 miles against fillies, she ranged up four wide to bid with a quarter-mile to go and kicked home powerfully to win by 3 1/2 lengths over next out winner Star Rock. Finishing fifth that day in her debut was #8 MORI (3-1), the early second choice for this race who we’ll discuss more in detail below. As good as that effort was by Gracious Diana, connections were surely disappointed with her follow up in an Oaks trial over the same course and distance on May 20 at odds of 2-1. It was a below-par effort as she was beaten 19 lengths by Natavia, but the soft conditions of the course might have played a role in her non-effort. Although by an Australian sprinter, her dam is by Derby winner Generous and has reared Dandino, who won the American St Leger at Arlington and placed worldwide over 1 1/2 miles in the Caulfield Cup (G1), Canadian International (G1), and Hardwicke (G2), the latter at Royal Ascot. If dryer conditions exist on Thursday, I’m willing to take a price on a physically big filly with loads of potential and upside.
2. #1 ALLURINGLY (5-2) makes all the sense in the world. She was actually my top selection for the Epsom Oaks (G1) earlier this month, but found Enable and and fellow Aidan O’Brien yard mate Rhododendron far too good in a race run in a downpour. Eleven lengths behind Enable at the finish, she had run that division leader much closer in the Cheshire Oaks in their previous start, finishing only 1 3/4 lengths behind the Juddmonte filly. Alluringly’s pedigree is as blue as can be: her second dam is All Beautiful, an Oaks runner-up and sibling to Galileo and Sea the Stars. Why so tepid on a filly that should enjoy the class relief? Besides the price, fillies that placed in the Oaks don’t necessarily do that well in this race. Indeed, the last Oaks starter to win the Ribblesdale was the aforementioned Michita nine years ago. In Alluringly’s favor, the Ribblesdale falls nearly three weeks after the Oaks this year when it’s often only two weeks. She’s the one to beat, but perhaps no stickout.
3. #8 MORI (3-1) will be a lot of punters’ alternative to Alluringly. After her aforementioned fifth in the Newbury debut, she returned three weeks later to land a 1 1/4-mile maiden by 1 3/4 lengths here at Ascot, and last time ran down #4 COCONUT CREME (20-1) in the Height of Fashion Stakes at Goodwood, also at 10 furlongs. Trained by three-time Ribblesdale winner Sir Michael Stoute, she is by other-worldly superstar Frankel and out of Midday, who American fans will remember as the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1) winner. Perhaps a little better at 1 1/4 miles as a three-time winner of the Nassau (G1), Midday did win the Prix Vermeille (G1) at 12 furlongs and also narrowly missed in the Oaks. Enters at the top of her game and is logical enough.
#5 CORONET (5-1) is another of the Gosden quartet that could rebound. She beat males, including Cunco and Permian, in the Zetland Stakes at Newmarket last October, and this year finished third in the Prix Saint-Alary (G1) and a distant fifth in the Oaks downpour. #9 NAUGHTY OR NICE (12-1) beat next out winners in both of her spring victories in Ireland, including eventual stakes-winning colt Grandee in the Yeats Stakes at Navan. She’ll be tested for class here and hails from the classy John Oxx yard.
4TH RACE, GOLD CUP (G1)
1. I can see the argument that defending titlist #3 ORDER OF ST GEORGE (4-5) is potentially vulnerable here at miserly odds. Instead of riding a four-race win streak into this 2 1/2-mile event as he did a year ago, the five-year-old only recently snapped a four-race losing skid in the Saval Beg Stakes, which also served as his final prep a season ago. Keep in mind, however, he had valid excuses for most of those losses. He had absolutely no pace to run at in the Irish St Leger (G1) yet still managed to get within a half-length of long-time leader Wicklow Brave. A somewhat surprising third in Europe’s best middle-distance test in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1), he wheeled back just 13 days later and failed to muster a rally in the British Champions Long Distance Cup (G2) over two miles here, finishing fourth. In his season opener, he caught an in-form and improving #6 TORCEDOR (15-1) (who we were tempted a bit to place on top here) in a race he likely needed. But the son of Galileo seemed to be back to his old self when taking the Saval Beg at Leopardstown by 2 1/4 lengths late last month. There appears to be sufficient pace here to set up a rally, and frankly when he won here last time at the tender age of four he had the look of a horse that could potentially dominate this race for several seasons. We won’t give up on that still occurring, though the margin for error appears to be less this go around.
2. Inherited by Jessica Harrington from the retiring David Wachman at the end of last year, #6 TORCEDOR (15-1) appears to have really stepped up his game this term. An 8-1 outsider when taking a low-level Leopardstown event by 5 1/2 lengths over 1 3/4 miles on April 5, he led throughout in the April 23 Vintage Crop (G3) at Navan while holding the returning Order of St George fairly safe by 1 1/2 lengths. The presence of other speed and his dull try in the Buckhounds Stakes a year ago in May in his only other Ascot try tempers our enthusiasm a bit, but worth noting his dam is a full sister to Yeats, who won the Gold Cup four consecutive years (2006-09).
3. Third in last year’s Gold Cup at 40-1, #5 SHEIKHZAYEDROAD (10-1) appears to be as good as ever at the age of eight. Subsequently third to #1 BIG ORANGE (7-1) in the Goodwood Cup (G2), he later won the Doncaster Cup (G2) in a photo and dug in for the 11-1 upset of the British Champions Long Distance Cup. His two attempts in Dubai were also strong. Although he failed to defend his title in the Nad Al Sheba Trophy, he was a solid third (beaten 1 1/2 lengths) to the high-class stayer Vazirabad (who would have been one of the favorites if he had showed up here) in the Dubai Gold Cup (G2). Has a big chance to hit the frame with a continuation of his recent form, though the three-month spell since his last appearance perhaps might leave him a touch short of taking it all.
The mare #14 SWEET SELECTION (12-1) is going very well at the moment off back-to-back wins in the 2 1/4-mile Cesarewitch Handicap and the two-mile Sagaro (G3). #1 BIG ORANGE (7-1) is a neat horse that has won up to two miles. He figures to race prominently on or near the lead, but it remains to be seen how well he’ll handle the extra half-mile in this supreme test of stamina. #4 QUEST FOR MORE (15-1) won the Prix du Cadran (G1) and Lonsdale Cup (G2) last year and also missed by a half-length in the Long Distance Cup. Obviously below par when last against Big Orange at Sandown in his May 25 comeback. Can threaten at nice odds with a more representative effort.