By Margaret Ransom
For racing fans worldwide, the Royal Ascot meeting has always represented the most elite of racing seasons with each of the five day’s races every year steeped in history and filled with the best horses, trainers and jockeys — not to mention fashion, traditions and royal pageantry.
This year, though, the event will have a decidedly different look due to the COVID-19 pandemic: No spectators; no owners; and no pomp and circumstance surrounding the attendance of loyal racing fan Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and her family.
The races are a go with top-notch runners from around the globe on site to contest the 30 stakes races, of which eight are Group 1, beginning Tuesday, June 16 and concluding Saturday, June 20.
NBC Sports will broadcast live coverage of Royal Ascot on NBCSN from 8:30 a.m. to noon ET. TVG will also have live coverage of the races. Four races are Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win & You’re In” events.
The weather in Berkshire this week is expected to be very wet, so soft going is more than likely. Afternoon highs will reach the mid- to upper-70s.
The $317,000 Queen Anne Stakes, on Tuesday, June 16, is a “Win & You’re In” qualifier for the TVG Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1). Named in honor of the founder of Ascot Racecourse for its inaugural running in 1840, the race boasts an amazing list of winners, including the Ribchester, Declaration of War, Frankel, Goldikova, Cape Cross, Kalanisi, Intikhab, Barathea and Warning.
Newly elected Hall of Fame trainer Mark Casse sent champion and Breeders’ Cup heroine Tepin over to England in 2017 to take the victory and Lord Glitters was the winner a year ago.
This year, 2019 Investec Derby (G1) hero Circus Maximus is one of 16 horses entered for the Queen Anne and returns to a track he has a fondness for, having won the St. James’s Palace Stakes (G1) a year ago. He also won the Prix du Moulin (G1) at Longchamp before finishing fourth in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) at Santa Anita in his last start. Eleven-time Royal Ascot champion trainer Aidan O’Brien trains the son of Galileo for the partnership of Coolmore and Flaxman Holdings.
“The plan is to run in the Queen Anne,” Alan Cooper, Flaxman Holdings’ racing manager said. “They say he is very well so we hope he can live up to his billing. He should run a nice race. As we know it will be his first start for seven months but Aidan is happy with him.
“I think he ran a good race at the Breeders’ Cup. There was a thought he might have finished third with a slightly clearer run but that’s history. We need to focus on going forward and hope he is going to have a good four-year-old career.”
The other Group 1 on the opening-day card is the King’s Stand Stakes (G1) for sprinters, 3-year-old and up. Like all Royal Ascot stakes events, the King’s Stand is deeply rooted in history and boasts a number of global champions as previous winners since it was first run in 1860, including two-time winner Sole Power, Scenic Blast, Takeover Target, Choisir, Pivotal, Sheikh Albadou, and Last Tycoon.
American filly Lady Aurelia was victorious in 2017 for trainer Wesley Ward, who has had the most success of all foreign trainers at Royal Ascot recently having saddled 10 winners since 2009. Cartier Award-winner Blue Point won the last two runnings of the race and is now retired and at his first season at stud at Dalham Hall.
Prince of Wales’s Stakes is Wednesday feature
The main event on the second day is the Prince of Wales’s Stakes (G1), a 1 ¼-mile event named in 1892 for the Prince of Wales and now run in honor of the current titleholder, Charles. There was no race during World War II when there was no Prince of Wales, but was resurrected in 1968, a year before Charles was given the title. This year it is a Breeders’ Cup Challenge race for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) at Keeneland.
Some of the more notable winners of the feature for older distance runners include Dubai Millennium, Bosra Sham, Fantastic Light, Rakti, Ouiji Board, Duke of Marmalade, So You Think, The Fugue, Highland Reel, Poet’s Voice and Crystal Ocean a year ago.
Sheikh Ahmed Al Maktoum’s 6-year-old international star Addeybb is the one to beat out of seven and while racing was suspended in Britain and most parts of the Northern Hemisphere due to the coronavirus outbreak, Addeybb was winning the Ranvet Stakes (G1) and Longines Queen Elizabeth Stakes (G1) in Sydney, Australia, during March and April.
“Addeybb will go if the word ‘soft’ appears in the going,” trainer William Haggas said. “He is on course to go but I am not going to run him on fastish ground. There is rain about so we will see where we are. The ground has been very dry for his training. He is fit and full of life and moving well.”
Likely rivals include last year’s Juddmonte International Stakes (G1) winner Japan, trained by Aidan O’Brien, and Godolphin’s Barney Roy, trained by Charlie Appleby.
Gold Cup takes center stage on Thursday
The nearly 2 ½-mile Gold Cup (G1) is the main attraction on Thursday and the lone Group 1 on the day. The race, which used to be known as the “Ascot Gold Cup” but was renamed to just “Gold Cup” in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday for 2016, is probably Europe’s most prestigious event for “stayers” or horses who like to run the marathon distances. Since U.S. racing doesn’t support distance races like the Gold Cup outside of steeplechasing, it’s a bit of a foreign event and a rare treat for American racing fans.
The great French-raced Sagaro won the Gold Cup three times in succession in the 1970s and is just one of the many standout names to have captured the event throughout its lengthy history, which began in 1807. Le Moss, Ardross, Gildoran, Sadeem, Drum Taps and Royal Rebel were two-time winners in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, while other famous runners like Kayf Tara, Leading Light, Order of St. George and Big Orange made for exciting runnings over the last decade. But it is the Aidan O’Brien-trained and fan-favored Yeats who holds the record for Gold Cup wins, having strung together four from 2006 to 2009.
This year, Bjorn Nielsen’s Stradivarius seeks a third consecutive win and is favored in a field of eight other 4-year-olds and up. The son of Arc winner Sea The Stars was most recently third in his prep for this race, the Hurwood Bloodstock Coronation Cup (G1) at Newmarket just more than a week ago. John Gosden trains and Frankie Dettori will ride.
Juveniles are the feature on Friday
The feature is the five-furlong Norfolk Stakes (GII), the first major race for juveniles on the European racing card. It is a Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win & You’re In” event, which earns the winner a spot in the starting gate for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint (GII) at Keeneland in November.
Some well-known names globally have visited the Royal Ascot winner’s circle after a Norfolk score since the race was first run in 1843 as the New Stakes. It was renamed in 1973 in honor of the Duke of Norfolk and has been a third-day staple for the meeting since. A long list of standout names grace the record books as winners of the five-furlong dash, including Hyperion, Turtle Creek, Lucky Lionel, Johannesburg, No Nay Never, Shang Shang Shang and A’Ali a year ago.
Ward seeks his 11th Royal Ascot victory and his third Norfolk Stakes. He sends out Ranlo Investments LLC’s Goden Pal, who finished second on dirt in his only start at Gulfstream Park in April. Ward has described Golden Pal as his best chance of the week. Ward will not travel to England to saddle any of his seven Royal Ascot runners due to the COVID-19 restrictions.
The Lir Jet, who is trained by Michael Bell, broke the all-aged 5-furlong track record at Yarmouth in his debut two weeks ago. The colt, from the first crop of 2016 Norfolk Stakes winner Prince Of Lir, is now owned by Qatar Racing after being purchased privately following his stunning win.
“The track record was a surprise, but it wasn’t a surprise that he won because he had been showing up well at home,” Bell said. “The conditions were very favorable that day, quickish ground and the wind was helping.
Twenty four other juveniles will contest this year’s Norfolk Stakes, which is Friday’s first race.
Also on Friday is the Commonwealth Stakes (G1), a 6-furlong dash for sophomores. The race is the only Group 1 flat race in Britain for 3-year-olds that permits geldings and is the first age-restricted Group 1 open to geldings in Europe overall. The race was created for the 2015 Royal Ascot season to attract sprint horses based in Europe, a division many deemed previously underappreciated.
Three Group 1s close Royal Ascot meet on Saturday
The final day’s feature is the 6-furlong Diamond Jubilee Stakes (G1), a race for all sexes aged 4 and up. The race was first run in 1868 as the All-Aged Stakes before morphing into the Cork and Orry Stakes in the late 1920s in honor of the Earl of Cork and then the Golden Jubilee in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s 50th anniversary of her ascension to the throne. Eight years ago it was renamed again to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s rise to lead the British monarchy and the name remains today.
Some of the most outstanding European sprinters have won the race over the many decades of its existence, but none so prominent as 2012 winner and worldwide fan favorite Black Caviar, who shipped in from Australia to claim a narrow victory. Coolmore and the Merchant Navy syndicate won with Merchant Navy two years ago and Coolmoore also won in 2010 with the Australian-bred and raced champion Starspangledbanner.
Australian and European champion Blue Point won this race last year, four days after taking the King’s Stand Stakes and becoming the first runner since Choisir in 2003 to win both of Royal Ascot’s two big sprint races for older horses.
This year the race is a Breeder’s Cup Challenge “Win & You’re In” qualifier for the Turf Sprint (G1) and of the runners expected, Irish sprint sensation Sceptical, a 4-year-old owned by James McAuley and trained by Denis Hogan, is considered the leading contender.
Sceptical is by Exceed And Excel and out of Ward’s 2009 Royal Ascot winner Jealous Again. He was bred by Godolphin but never went into training and was picked up at auction by McAuley at Goffs last August for just $3,500. He has now won four of his five career starts.
Frankie Dettori will ride.
“I suppose the Diamond Jubilee is the more suitable race without having to take on Battaash (favorite for the King’s Stand),” Hogan said. “The distance is ideal and it gives him nearly an extra week to get over Naas.
“With a long season ahead I think it would have been asking too much to run him back so quick. We had thought about going for both races but you can’t be too greedy.”
Other contenders include Haras d’Etreham and Cambridge Stud’s 4-year-old Hello Youmzain, who is trained by Kevin Ryan and won the Haydock Park Sprint (G1) last year; and Lael Stable’s 6-year-old mare One Master, who is trained by William Haggas and won the last two runnings of the 7-furlong Prix de la Foret (G1) in France.
The St. James’s Palace Stakes, which is named after St. James Palace, which used to serve as a royal residence during the Tudor period (1485 to 1603 in England and Wales). It ran for the first time in 1834 and was graded for the first time in 1971. Big names to be acknowledged as previous winners include Kris, Marju, Kingmambo, Grand Lodge, Dr. Fong, Giant’s Causeway, Black Minnalouche, Shamardal, Henrythenavigator, Frankel, Gleneagles. Without Parole and Circus Maximus a year ago.
Godolphin’s Pinatubo will return as the likely favorite off a loss as the favorite in the 2000 Guineas (G1) two weeks ago in what was his first career defeat after more than seven months away from action. Trainer Charlie Appleby has high hopes that the Shamardal colt will improve and handle the one-mile distance without trouble.
The third group race on the closing-day card is the Coronation Stakes, a 7-furlong event for 3-year-old fillies. The race was created in 1840 to celebrate the ascension to the throne of then Queen Victoria and has been a staple of the Royal Ascot meet, carrying the Group 1 status since 1988. Listing notable previous winners could take all day, so it’s safe to say just about every winner for the past two decades has proven to be a standout racehorse.
This year, American-based trainer Graham Motion returns with Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1) winner Sharing, who won the Tepin Stakes at Churchill Downs as her prep for Royal Ascot. The Speightstown filly is a daughter of 2010 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1) winner Shared Account, who was also trained by Motion.