It’s here, less than a week away from the longest day of the year, Royal Ascot begins tomorrow with a trio of Friends Reunited races, writes Tony Stafford. I can’t wait to see Battaash, Blue Point and Mabs Cross going at it again in the King’s Stand Stakes, and Phoenix Of Spain and Too Darn Hot dusting off their Irish 2,000 Guineas rivalry in the St James’s Palace Stakes.
But the most intriguing of all for me is the opener, the Queen Anne Stakes, featuring not just the one-two-three from the recent Lockinge Stakes at Newbury, that’s Mustashry, Laurens and Accidental Agent, but also five of the also-rans, in finishing order, Romanised (fourth), Le Brivido (fifth), Sharja Bridge, Beat The Bank, Mythical Magic and Lord Glitters.
It’s as if none of the seven beaten trainers could accept that the Sir Michael Stoute-trained and Hamdan Al Maktoum-owned Mustashry had been a feasible winner. Yet here was a gelded six-year-old who has won eight of his 18 career starts and, since last summer when he beat Spark Plug half a length in a Sandown ten-furlong Listed race, has improved markedly winning twice at Group 2 level before Newbury.
Laurens, runner-up on that Newbury comeback, was the glamour element to that race having won four Group 1 races last year to add to her Fillies’ Mile win at the same level the previous autumn.
Then there’s Accidental Agent, 33-1 winner of this race a year ago, with all the attendant history of trainer Eve Johnson Houghton’s family. The horse was bred by Eve’s mother and named in honour of her maternal grandfather, John Goldsmith, a trainer either side of World War 2 in France and then after the War in England. He filled in nicely between the two parts of his equine career doing a little spying for MI5 behind enemy lines in Europe as Jamie Reid’s “Blown” so graphically describes.
I trust Jamie will not forget to send me a copy of his impending portrayal of Victor Chandler, whose intervention a decade and a half ago, asking me to go to Moscow and saying “this could change your life” had no idea just how right he was. As Eric Morecambe might have said, “not necessarily for the right reason!”
The Lockinge fifth, Le Brivido, earlier an eye-catcher on his debut for Ballydoyle after Michael Tabor bought a half-share from original owner Prince Faisal bin Khaled, is another interesting participant, given his 2017 Jersey Stakes win for the Andre Fabre stable. It’s a race of countless possibilities, but it’s equally likely that the Newbury form will be upheld as Mustashry did win it emphatically.
When you have as much success and as many good horses in your stable as John Gosden, you could probably afford to describe your 2019 handling of Too Darn Hot as appalling, or whatever term he actually used.
So far the colt has been second, after a spring setback, in the Dante, trying out for a possible tilt at the Derby, and when that plan was aborted, switched to The Curragh and the Irish 2,000 Guineas. Another second place, creditable enough but maybe a shade embarrassing for the master trainer after the unblemished two-year-old campaign, resulted there, and the second of the big three re-matches, against that surprise winner Phoenix of Spain, comes in the St James’s Palace Stakes.
In fact the pair had some previous ‘previous’. They were one and two, in reverse Curragh order in the Champagne Stakes, with Too Darn Hot a length and threequarters to the good, in the third of his four juvenile wins, rounded out in the Dewhurst.
Between those two runs Phoenix of Spain was runner-up to subsequent Newmarket 2,000 Guineas winner Magna Grecia in the Vertem Futurity at Doncaster and the Irish 2,000 was his comeback run. Magna Grecia, only fifth when attempting the 2,000 Guineas double misses the race and Derby sixth Circus Maximus drops back to a mile as the principal sub for the O’Brien team.
The third re-match which brings at least as much anticipation as the other two is the King’s Stand. Last year Blue Point comfortably beat Battaash and a strong-finishing Mabs Cross. He went on to dominate the major sprints over the winter in Dubai and returns freshened up for his repeat attempt.
Charlie Hills, who did such a good job to win the Irish 2,000 with Phoenix of Spain without a prep run, can be equally proud of the way in which Battaash, often uneasy before his races in the past, seems to have been calmed down as a five-year-old. He took advantage of favourable weight conditions to beat Mabs Cross in the Temple Stakes, but I have a feeling in the recesses of my mind, that the filly will come good, appreciating the slightly deeper test with the ground possibly riding on the soft side after last week’s rain. I think 9-1 about Michael Dods and the Armstrong family’s star is value, but then I thought Justin Rose at 7-4 was a gift last night!
Ryan Moore must have breathed a sigh of relief when the 48-hour acceptors for the Coventry Stakes did not include Visinari, the Mark Johnston colt who made such a superb debut under the former champion on the opening day on the Newmarket July Course.
I joked here last week that he was probably advising Mark (via son Charlie on course) Johnston to give him more time after that exceptional performance – which apparently did not over-excite the Racing Post’s experts – judged on his RPR’s at the entry stage compared with the rest of the Coventry field. Do they still sell Fudge?
Now with Visinari’s non-acceptance, and indeed if he is to appear at all at the Royal meeting it would have to be in Saturday’s Chesham which closes later today, Ryan’s Coventry mount Arizona, a son of No Nay Never who won by eight lengths second time out at The Curragh, heads the market. My advice, if you want to back him, is not to take the 9-4. With a full field, surely those odds will lengthen as the boys on the boards react to the Betfair-led market.
A couple of weeks ago coming back on the coach after the Derby I was talking about the day-to-day betting market with Alan Newman and he was aghast at the way apparent manipulation is an everyday occurrence.
In the old days, in a match race, if one horse was 4-6, by definition the other would be automatically 6-4 but understandably bookmakers need a margin, so maybe 4-6 and 11-10 would be more like a fair return in such instances.
If Alan had been at Doncaster yesterday I guarantee he would have been on the phone to a long-ago partner at the defuct Wembley greyhounds. In the days several decades before Michael Tabor became a vital cog in Coolmore, he was a bookmaker, but I can imagine what he and Alan would have thought of the betting on the third race of the afternoon up there.
Three of the five runners were no-hopers and priced up accordingly. Also there was a guaranteed favourite, Sea of Faith, trained by William Haggas and a 10-1 on shot, who duly beat the second favourite Bullion Boss by nine lengths. No 10-1 against though or anything near it for Bullion Boss. Just before the off, that gelding trained by Michael Dods and ridden by Paul Mulrennan, was shortened up from 4-1 to 7-2! Who says the betting world hasn’t gone mad?