July 5, 2020

Top 10 storylines for Royal Ascot 2020

Stradivarius bids for a three-peat in the 2020 Gold Cup (Photo courtesy of Ascot Racecourse)

Just two weeks after British racing resumed from its COVID-19 cocoon, Royal Ascot goes on as scheduled with its five-day run Tuesday through Saturday.

Here are the principal storylines:

1. Royal Ascot in the time of coronavirus.

The global pandemic did not derail the meeting, but it did force some significant alterations. Aside from the obvious precaution of racing behind closed doors, without spectators, and the necessity of reducing purses, the running order has been changed to suit the radically shifted racing calendar. Several marquee events have switched days, and six races (all handicaps) have been added.

The result is stakes-laden bookends on Tuesday and Saturday, leaving the Wednesday/Thursday cards lighter on Group fare than normal. More on the reasoning for the transfers, as well as the complete list of races in order by day, can be found here.

2. Breeders’ Cup implications abound.

Four major races retain their status as Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” events. Three of them stick to their customary days – Tuesday’s Queen Anne (G1) offers a berth to the Mile (G1), Wednesday’s Prince of Wales’s (G1) is a Challenge race for the Turf (G1), and Saturday’s Diamond Jubilee (G1) furnishes a ticket to the Turf Sprint (G1). The one that moved is the Norfolk (G2), now on Friday but still a “Win and You’re In” for the Juvenile Turf Sprint (G2).

3. Proper chances of an American winner.

Graham Motion has yet to train a Royal Ascot winner, but the British expat might have his best opportunity with Sharing in Saturday’s Coronation (G1). The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1) heroine has a better profile than Motion’s Miss Temple City, who was fourth to the likes of Ervedya, Found, and Lucida in the 2015 Coronation.

Ten-time Royal Ascot winner Wesley Ward has reasonable claims of increasing his total. The most notable of his seven-strong team, Kimari, lines up versus males in Friday’s Commonwealth Cup (G1) for sophomore sprinters. Ward’s juvenile hopes include Golden Pal in the Norfolk and Sheriff Bianco in Wednesday’s Windsor Castle.

4. Aidan O’Brien bids for his 11th Royal Ascot training title.

The master of Ballydoyle has ranked as the meet’s champion trainer for the past five years in a row, and since 2011, only John Gosden (2012) and Sir Michael Stoute (2014) have interrupted his reign. O’Brien’s career tally of 70 winners is second among current trainers to Stoute’s record 81, and he shares the record of seven winners during a Royal meeting (2016) with the late Sir Henry Cecil.

Despite the cessation of Irish racing between late March and June 8, O’Brien has come out firing. That could bode well for his hot favorites who are making seasonal reappearances this week – Circus Maximus in the Queen Anne against some stealthy types; Mogul, odds-on in the King Edward VII (G2) that now serves as a prep for the rescheduled July 4 Derby (G1) at Epsom; and Japan, also odds-on ahead of the Prince of Wales’s, where he’ll face Godolphin’s resurgent Barney Roy and possibly Addeybb if the ground is soft enough.

Ballydoyle’s go-to rider, Ryan Moore, had won five straight riding titles at Royal Ascot, and eight overall, until Frankie Dettori bested him in 2019. Moore owns the postwar record of nine winners during a Royal meeting (2015), and with the extra races on the menu this summer, that may be within reach. His career tally of 58 Royal Ascot winners is second only to Dettori’s 67 among active jockeys.

5. Three-peat threat Stradivarius has Gold Cup history in his grasp.

Stradivarius would become a Royal Ascot legend if capturing Thursday’s Gold Cup (G1) for the third time in succession. The antepost market says he’ll accomplish it, putting himself alongside 1970s stayer Sagaro in the record book, and just below Yeats’ incredible four. Gosden’s star beat France’s Vazirabad on his preferred good-to-firm here in 2018, and overcame soft going to pass Mark Johnston’s Dee Ex Bee last summer. There’s no French invader this time, but Johnston offers a new challenger in Nayef Road, and Godolphin’s Cross Counter tries again after his fourth last year. Stradivarius’ biggest danger could be the forecast, which appears to help soft-ground aficionado Technician.

Although Stradivarius aims to provide the meeting highlight, Gosden has other leading players set to shine. The yard could get off to a fast start Tuesday with Oaks (G1) contender Frankly Darling all the rage for the Ribblesdale (G2), and Nazeef well backed to continue her progress in the Duke of Cambridge (G2).

6. Pinatubo is at a crossroads in the St James’s Palace.

The beaten 2000 Guineas (G1) favorite looks to regain the winning thread in Saturday’s St James’s Palace (G1), and chances are his performance will dictate his future program. Godolphin trainer Charlie Appleby had sounded all the right notes as the hitherto undefeated juvenile champion headed to Newmarket, and Pinatubo did a lot right except win.

His close third could be read two ways: either as a pleasing comeback that portends more to come at a mile, or as a doubt about his optimal trip at the top level. If Pinatubo blasts away here, he’ll not only prove himself at a mile but retain his options of stretching out. If he’s vulnerable again, a cutback to 6 or 7 furlongs could be in the cards.

7. Battaash represents the old guard as up-and-coming sprinters arrive on stage.

Tuesday’s King’s Stand (G1) revolves around Battaash, second to Blue Point in the past two editions and now the odds-on favorite to go one better. Yet there are improvers who could make the 5-furlong dash interesting, like fillies Glass Slippers and Liberty Beach, and Battaash’s own stablemate from the Charlie Hills yard, Equilateral.

The freshest face on the scene, surprise package Sceptical, preferred to await Saturday’s Diamond Jubilee at 6 furlongs. The son of Exceed and Excel and Jealous Again, Ward’s 2009 Queen Mary (G2) winner, was purchased for a mere £2,800 as an unraced Godolphin castoff last August. Since then he’s rocketed to the top of the Irish sprint ratings, and Diamond Jubilee favoritism, for trainer Denis Hogan.

The aforementioned Commonwealth Cup could launch a new sprint sensation among the 3-year-olds. Aside from Kimari, Pierre Lapin, a half-brother to Harry Angel, stamped himself a serious prospect last fall and hopes to follow through off the bench. Golden Horde boasts gilt-edged juvenile form, and a few could shorten up from losses in mile classics including O’Brien’s Lope Y Fernandez.

8. Several impressive juveniles look to take the next step.

O’Brien predictably has a few of them, like Saxon Warrior’s half-sister by War Front, More Beautiful, in the Albany (G3); the strong-finishing Kingman colt Admiral Nelson; and speed merchant Chief Little Hawk, by freshman sire Air Force Blue. But British trainers have unveiled several 2-year-olds who shaped with potential. Eye of Heaven and Sands of Time (the first winner for Bobby’s Kitten) are among a prolific group for Mark Johnston. Sacred was arguably the most captivating of William Haggas’ winners, while Tom Dascombe’s Lauded is also on the short-list.

9. The impact of the compressed schedule.

The juveniles aren’t the only ones facing rapid turnarounds, but their learning curves offer greater scope for form reversals. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see a once-raced O’Brien maiden – e.g., Battleground, Found’s first foal by War Front – take a leap forward second time out in a stakes. Unexposed sophomores are also eligible to develop quickly, while older horses may have past patterns to telegraph how they’d handle wheeling back.

In other respects, the past is not prologue in the novel circumstances of the coronavirus. All horsemen had to call audibles and adjust on the fly as the lockdown was implemented, the initial program was shelved, dates became uncertain, and targets in flux. Patterns of how trainers have tended to fare off layoffs might not be as applicable if they’d had runners further along pre-lockdown, and hence fitter by this point with the extra time.

10. Weather always plays a role.

As alluded to above for Stradivarius, rain is likely to be a factor to varying degrees during the first three days of the meeting. At this writing, Wednesday has the greatest chance of adverse weather compared to Tuesday and Thursday. The forecast calls for better conditions Friday and Saturday. Before diving into handicapping, check the latest weather guidance.

Watch this space for selections and analysis of the major races throughout the meeting, plus additional coverage at TwinSpires.com where you can wager.