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Royal Ascot

It is unlikely that, when Queen Anne founded Ascot racecourse in 1711, she had any inkling that there would come a time when the track’s Royal meeting would be compared with a jumps racing festival that wouldn’t be inaugurated for another 200 years, but if there is a Cheltenham Festival on the flat, Royal Ascot is it.

In one sense, the two meetings could hardly be more different. Top hat instead of tweeds, urban elegance instead of rural simplicity, a glass of Pimms instead of a pint of Guinness. But in terms of quality, a depth of top class racing where the best take on the best over a variety of distances, the two meetings are identical. The Olympics of flat racing, the Olympics of National Hunt racing. And just like Cheltenham, Royal Ascot starts with an explosion rather than a whimper.

Queen Anne Stakes – Tuesday

It is something of a peculiarity of Royal Ascot that the Queen Anne Stakes, usually one of the best race of the entire meeting, is the first race on the first day. No appetiser, no build-up, get stuck in traffic and you miss it. This year’s renewal is shaping up to be the best for some time, and is probably the most anticipated race of the entire week.

Paco Boy is back to defend the title that he claimed so emphatically last year. Remarkably, no horse has won back-to-back runnings of the Queen Anne since Dean Swift did so in 1906 and 1907, but Paco Boy is in the form of his life. Whereas last year he came into the race on the back of a disappointing fourth in the Lockinge Stakes at Newbury, this time he ran out an emphatic winner of that contest, and he is zinging.

In an ordinary year, the Richard Hannon-trained colt would be a warm favourite, but this is no ordinary year. In Goldikova and Rip Van Winkle, Paco Boy faces two truly top class milers. Goldikova is one of the best fillies that we have seen race in Europe in a long time. She has now won eight Group/Grade 1 contests, including two Breeders’ Cup Miles and an emphatic six-length victory over Aqlaam in last year’s Prix Jacques le Marois.

She usually takes a while to get rolling, she is often not at her best in the early part of the season, but her win in the Prix d’Ispahan on her seasonal debut three weeks ago, a race in which she was well beaten last year, proved that she should be as far forward as trainer Freddie Head wants her to be. She has never been to Ascot before, but she brightens up the week.

Rip Van Winkle was the horse who got closest to Sea The Stars last season when he gave the champ a bit of a fright in the Eclipse. Dropped down to a mile after that, he ran out a really impressive winner of the Sussex Stakes, when he had Paco Boy two and a half lengths behind him in second place.

The Aidan O’Brien-trained colt followed up by winning the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes over the round mile at Ascot in September, before he finished off the season by running down the field in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita, a run that you can easily forgive. The fact that he stays in training this season suggests that connections feel that there is more to come, and his strength in the ante post market in recent days suggests that he is pleasing his trainer at home. This is probably the most fascinating race of the season so far.

St James’s Palace Stakes – Tuesday

Just over an hour after the Queen Anne winner has been hosed down and is safely back in his or her box, the Irish and English 2000 Guineas winners go head to head in the St James’s Palace Stakes in another thriller.

If Makfi’s victory in the Newmarket Classic came as a 33/1 shock to punters, it came as an even bigger one to his erstwhile owner. Bred by Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum’s Shadwell Estate, the son of Dubawi made the journey from Marcus Tregoning’s yard in Lambourn to the Tattersalls sales ring at Newmarket last October, where he was allowed slip through for 23,000gns, almost exactly 10% of the prize money that his new owner collected for victory in the first colts’ Classic.

Makfi is now unbeaten in three runs for his highly capable young trainer Mikel Delzangles, and there was no fluke about his Guineas win, despite his odds. He travelled like a good horse through the race, and he quickened well out of the dip to win well, probably with more in hand than the one-length winning margin.

Canford Cliffs could finish only third at Newmarket, but he raced freely in the early stages of the race, and he didn’t come out of the dip as well as the winner. Since then, however, the Richard Hannon-trained colt put in a scintillating performance to win the Irish 2000 Guineas, quickening up really impressively to come clear. It was at this meeting last year that Canford Cliffs first manoeuvred his way into the general public’s consciousness with a six-length demolition of his rivals in the Coventry Stakes, and he is favourite to add another Royal Ascot trophy to his cabinet exactly 12 months on.

There is a chance that the Guineas heroes won’t have it all to themselves, with last year’s Dewhurst Stakes fourth Steinbeck and Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere winner Siyouni set to line up as well in a contest that should determine the pecking order of this year’s Classic generation of European milers.

Gold Cup – Thursday

The Gold Cup is going to have a strange feel about it this year without the institution that was Yeats, winner of the last four, but in Age Of Aquarius, Aidan O’Brien has found another contender for the stayers’ crown. The four-year-old won the Lingfield Derby Trial last year and finished second behind Cavalryman in the Group 1 Grand Prix de Paris but, as a son of Galileo out of a Top Ville mare, it was always likely that stamina was going to be his forte. He lost no caste in going down by a half a length to the top class mare Profound Beauty in the Saval Beg Stakes at Leopardstown on his latest run, and there is every chance that he will improve for stepping up in trip again.

He faces a worthy adversary in Manifest, another progressive four-year-old who is also bred for stamina. The son of Rainbow Quest was really impressive in winning the Yorkshire Cup over a mile and six furlongs last month, appearing to get stronger as the race developed. His trainer Henry Cecil made this race his own in the early 1980s with Le Moss and Ardross, and victory for Manifest, 23 years after Cecil last won the race with Paean, would probably be the most popular result of the week.

Let the games begin.

© The Sunday Times, 13th June 2010