As I write, the rain is pounding down and threatening to dampen the spirits at York’s ever-popular May meeting. But little can cloud the fact that this is one of the most exciting times of the racing year.
The first Classics at Newmarket have whetted the appetite. After York comes Newbury’s beautifully beefed-up Al Shaqab Lockinge Day on Saturday, featuring seven superb races, backed by £750,000 in prize money. And then we turn into the straight ahead of Epsom’s two-day Investec Derby Festival (June 2 and 3) and the daddy of all meetings on the Flat, Royal Ascot (June 20 to June 24).
In the coming days, I will bring you a full review of Newbury, followed by my thoughts on both the Derby and the Oaks. But for now, let’s start setting the scene for Royal Ascot where the unbeatable quality of racing has been considerably enhanced in recent years by the international flavour the week has assumed.
We are well used to raiders from Europe, particularly Ireland, France and Germany, gracing the cards, but now interest from the USA and Australia is booming, thanks largely to the hard work of Ascot’s director of racing and communications, Nick Smith, and his team in trying to entice overseas stars to give the royal shindig a crack.
Last year, of course, the meeting got off to a spectacular start when the brilliant US-trained mare Tepin landed the opening race, the Group One Queen Anne Stakes over the Berkshire course’s famous straight mile. And although she is now retired, two of her compatriots, AMERICAN PATRIOT and MISS TEMPLE CITY, could be lining up in a bid to emulate her feat.
Leading US trainer Todd Pletcher has revealed that he is “seriously considering” the £600,000 Queen Anne for American Patriot, a 4yo War Front colt who landed the biggest victory of his career last time out when getting up close home for a neck success in the Grade One Maker’s 46 Mile on turf back home at Keeneland.
American Patriot was also a smart performer in 2016, scoring in the Grade Three Kent Stakes over 9f at Del Mar in July and finishing a close third in the ten-furlong Grade One Secretariat Stakes at Arlington in August. He is owned by Kentucky-based WinStar Farm, one of North America’s leading thoroughbred racing and breeding operations.
Pletcher, a seven-time recipient of the Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer, said: “The horse is in great form and came out of his win at Keeneland really well. It seems he is in career-best form at the moment.
“I feel American Patriot has made a step forward this year. He was a bit unlucky last year in the Secretariat Stakes and has come on well over the winter. He has matured into a big, strong beautiful horse. He has a nice turn of foot and a great disposition to go along with it, so we feel he is a good candidate to take a look at travelling over to England.”
Pletcher saddled his first Royal Ascot runners in 2011, with sprinter Bridgetown finishing 12th in the Grade One King’s Stand Stakes and More Than Real coming home 11th in the Grade One Coronation Stakes.
He continued: “Royal Ascot is unbelievable. We hope to do a little better than we did with our runners before but it was still a great experience.
“I have been a few times to Royal Ascot when I haven’t had runners. It is a fantastic event and we look forward to coming back, hopefully with some success this time.”
Miss Temple City, who is trained by Graham Motion, may line up at her third Royal Ascot after fourths in both the Coronation Stakes in 2015 and last year’s Group Two Duke of Cambridge Stakes.
Now a 5yo, she went on to win Grade One contests at Keeneland (Shadwell Turf Mile) and Del Mar (Matriarch Stakes), adding to her previous top-level success in the Maker’s 46 Mile Stakes at Keeneland in the spring of last year.
As well as the Queen Anne, the mare holds an entry again in the £175,000 Duke of Cambridge Stakes on the second day of Royal Ascot
Motion said: “Miss Temple City had a little setback over the winter when she got loose one day. She got some inflammation in a leg which caused me to back off her for two to three weeks. But she is now close to being ready to run again.
“Looking back to her two previous runs at Ascot, we tried to ride her in the European style, whereas Tepin’s connections were smart in that they just let her run her race.
“I think it is best to let horses run their races and try not to get too fancy in trying to adapt to a European style.
“I thought Miss Temple City’s effort as a 3yo in the Coronation Stakes was a really good performance. Last year, she perhaps got a bit too far back but still ran very well.
“She handled the travelling very well and her owners have wanted to come back for a third shot. She is physically a bigger, stronger mare this year.”
Other American handlers to have Royal Ascot in their sights this year are Wesley Ward, who has turned the meeting into an annual pilgrimage and saddled seven winners, Mark Casse, who trained Tepin, Bill Mott, Peter Miller and Mike Machowsky.
Ward’s team is likely to be spearheaded by the speedy LADY AURELIA, who was a sensational seven-length winner of the Group Two Queen Mary Stakes for 2yo fillies at the 2016 meeting, prior to annexing the Group One Prix Morny at Deauville in France.
She returned to action at Keeneland last month with an impressive success in the Listed Giant’s Causeway Stakes, and Ward reported: “Lady Aurelia is doing fantastic. She had a real good rest after her unfortunate defeat at Newmarket at the end of last season and ran a very exciting comeback race at Keeneland. I am excited to get back over to Royal Ascot with her. We are leaning towards the King’s Stand Stakes as she is most effective at 5f.
“I also have the colt BOUND FOR NOWHERE, who is nominated for the Commonwealth Cup over 6f. He is undefeated and I am excited about him.
“The 2yos are looking good too. We have had a couple of winners and we are heading in the right direction.
“We also had a really, really nice comeback with UNDRAFTED, who won the 2015 Grade One Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot. He won an allowance race at Keeneland on April 21 and we could look at trying to get him into the Wokingham Handicap this year. He is a 7yo now but his comeback win at Keeneland was good and the Wokingham could be a possibility for him.”
Reflecting on his success, Ward continued: “Royal Ascot has been so kind to me. It is a point in the calendar that I aim at every year and have been lucky enough to have had some joy. Everyone in Britain has always been so kind to us.”
RICHARD’S BOY, trained by Miller, and WHY TWO, trained by Machowsky, are two other possible starters from the USA in the King’s Stand. The former ran well in the Grade One 1 Al Quoz Sprint when fifth to The Right Man at Meydan in March, while the latter defeated Richard’s Boy in the Green Flash Handicap at Del Mar last summer.
Meanwhile Casse is is eyeing another Group One Royal Ascot success with LA CORONEL in the Coronation Stakes over 1m for 3yo fillies. She has won four of her six career starts on turf and produced impressive displays in the Grade Three Appalachian Stakes at Keeneland on April 13, staying on strongly to win by three-and-a-quarter lengths, and then in the Grade Three Edgewood Stakes at Churchill Downs earlier this month.
Casse commented: “La Coronel is doing great. I’ve been very happy with her races this year, and there is a very good chance she will come to Royal Ascot.
“She enjoys a little give in the ground and is a very smart filly, I think she will handle Ascot fine. Tepin’s success at Ascot has definitely given us more confidence and a better understanding of English racing.”
Meanwhile Mott is lining up exciting sprinter LONG ON VALUE for a crack at the Diamond Jubilee Stakes on the final day of the royal meeting after his narrow defeat in the aforementioned Al Quoz at Meydan.
US Hall of Fame trainer Mott, 63, most famous for his handling of the incomparable Cigar, is yet to saddle a runner at Royal Ascot. But he said: “Long On Value travelled very well from Dubai and is back in training. We haven’t given him a breeze yet, but he is cantering. He looks like he held his weight well and seems to be doing good after his trip.
“He has been nominated for the Diamond Jubilee, and it is very exciting as I have never been to Royal Ascot before.
“Long On Value has held his form for a long time and has been a very useful horse. He is an interesting horse as he has won at multiple distances, from 5f to 9f. He has done all his winning in decent company and some of his very best performances have come at sprint distances. We are excited just to be able to participate.”