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Royal Ascot

If you were a subscriber to the notion that the Queen did little between one Christmas Day and the next, then the last six weeks have blown that one out of the water. A grandson’s wedding to host, a small country to the west to visit, and all the while standing up to the media scrutiny that goes with owning the Derby favourite.

This week, one will perform one’s duties every day before racing at Royal Ascot, parade down the centre of the straight track in the horse-drawn carriage (middle to stands side for the better ground), before one immerses oneself in what is just about the best wall-to-wall week of flat racing on the global racing calendar.

Queen Anne Stakes (Tuesday)

It is a peculiarity of Royal Ascot that the best races are run early in the week and early in the day. Possibly the best race of the entire meeting last year was the very first one, the Queen Anne Stakes, when Goldikova met Paco Boy and you had Rip Van Winkle thrown in for good measure. This year, similar scenario.

Goldikova is back for more, Freddie Head’s supermare endeavouring to become the first horse since Dean Swift in 1906 and 1907 to win back-to-back runnings of the Queen Anne. It is an extraordinary statistic that she has to overcome, but Goldikova is no ordinary mare.

The daughter of Anabaa has now won 16 of her 22 races, 13 of them at the highest level. She has won the last three renewals of the Breeders’ Cup Mile, becoming the only horse ever to win three Breeders’ Cup races, and she was voted European Horse of the Year last year. On top of that, she looked as good as ever when she won the Group 1 Prix d’Ispahan at Longchamp on her debut this term, and her trainer reports her bang on track for Tuesday’s race.

In Canford Cliffs, however, she faces one of her most worthy adversaries since Zarkava beat her in the Prix de Diane in 2008. Winner of the Irish 2000 Guineas last season, Richard Hannon’s colt followed up by landing the St James’s Palace Stakes at the 2010 Royal jamboree, and confirmed that he was a miler of considerable talent when he beat the top class older horse Rip Van Winkle in the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood on what proved to be his final run last season.

He too has looked good in winning the Lockinge Stakes on his seasonal return at Newbury last month, and he apparently worked “super” at Kempton on Thursday morning.

Just like last year with Rip Van Winkle, Aidan O’Brien has added a touch of spice by confirming on Thursday that Cape Blanco was an intended runner. Now racing in the colours of Mrs Fitri Hay, last year’s Irish Derby winner proved that he didn’t lack pace when he made all to land the Irish Champion Stakes over 10 furlongs at Leopardstown last September. The drop down again in trip to a mile presents an even sterner test of speed, but the son of Galileo did win a Group 2 contest over seven furlongs as a juvenile.

Tactics will be fascinating. It is probable that Cape Blanco will race handily, as he did at Leopardstown last September, although he may have competition for the lead from Flash Dance, owned by Goldikova’s owners the Wertheimer Brothers, who set the pace in the Prix d’Ispahan. It will then be a case of whether the turn of foot that Goldikova and Canford Cliffs possess will be sufficient to quench Cape Blanco’s relentless gallop? And if it is, whose turn of foot will be the more potent?

St James’s Palace Stakes (Tuesday)

All the questions surrounding the St James’s Palace Stakes concern Frankel. Unbeaten now in six runs, the performance that the Henry Cecil-trained colt put up in winning the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket last month was simply astonishing. In leading from stall-burst, he set fractions over a mile that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Group 1 sprint, and he had all his rivals stone cold before they reached the two-furlong pole.

Dubawi Gold (second to Frankel in the Guineas) and Excelebration (second to Frankel in the Greenham Stakes and subsequently the winner of the German 2000 Guineas) are back for more, and Wootton Bassett might make things interesting up front, while Japanese raider, Grand Prix Boss, winner of the NHK Mile Cup at Tokyo last month, adds a fascinating international dimension.

However, if the real Frankel turns up, if Prince Khalid Abdullah’s colt has recovered sufficiently in the 45 days since he dug deep into his energy reserves in the Guineas, only one question remains: how far?

Prince of Wales’s Stakes (Wednesday)

It is a shame that last year’s Derby winner Workforce has nimbly side-stepped a clash with the Aidan O’Brien-trained So You Think in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes on Wednesday. Formerly with Cups King Bart Cummings in Australia, where he won five Group 1 contests, including two Cox Plates, So You Think has looked as monstrous in two runs since he joined Ballydoyle as he did when he raced a hemisphere away last term.

Last year’s St Leger favourite Rewilding, winner of the Dubai Sheema Classic at Meydan in March, and dual Champion Stakes hero Twice Over are both set to take on So You Think, but it is French raider Planteur who may give him most to do. Runner-up in the three premier French middle-distance races for the Classic generation last season, the Elie Lellouche-trained colt looks like an improved performer this season as a four-year-old, winning his only two races to date, and displaying an impressive turn of foot to come clear of his rivals in the Prix Ganay on his latest run to land his first Group 1 prize.

The form of that race was given a significant boost by the third-placed horse Cirrus Des Aigles, who got to within a neck of Goldikova in the Prix d’Ispahan on his next run, and by the sixth-placed horse Silver Pond, who beat Behkabad in the Grand Prix de Chantilly last Sunday. Two of the last three Prince of Wales’s Stakes winners, Duke Of Marmalade and Vision D’Etat, won the Prix Ganay on the way to Royal Ascot, while three of the last four were trained in France. Planteur is not going over just to make up the numbers.

Ascot Gold Cup (Thursday)

The Gold Cup was robbed of much of its lustre when Dermot Weld admitted on Friday that he had run out of time with last year’s winner Rite Of Passage.

Duncan and Holberg and Manighar all have chances, but it is the Aidan O’Brien-trained Fame And Glory who brings the class to the race. Winner of the Irish Derby in 2009 and the Coronation Cup last year, the big question about the son of Montjeu concerns his stamina: will he stay two and a half miles? He is out of a Shirley Heights mare and he is a half-brother to Grampian, who stayed a mile and six furlongs well, so he has every chance of so doing. However, just because his erstwhile stable companion Yeats – who went into the 2006 renewal with a similar profile – stayed two and a half miles well, and galloped himself into the Royal Ascot history books by winning four Gold Cups, it doesn’t automatically follow that Fame And Glory will.

Just one burning question remains then: what colour will the Queen’s hat be on Ladies’ Day?

© The Sunday Times, 12th June 2011