Things We Learned » Royal Ascot match-ups

Royal Ascot match-ups

There will be speed match-ups at Royal Ascot this week, Battaash and Lady Aurelia in the King’s Stand, Harry Angel and Merchant Navy in the Diamond Jubilee.  Blink twice and you will miss both. 

The match-up between Order Of St George and Stradivarius in the Gold Cup is a match-up of a different kind, but it is no less intriguing for all that.  Indeed, you can argue that it is the match of the week.  2/1 each of two, most bookmakers are calling. 

It is the proven stamina and class against the young up-and-comer.  Order Of St George is an Ascot Gold Cup winner, who would be going for a hat-trick in the race next week if the bob of the (short) head had gone the other way last year.  Aidan O’Brien’s horse has won two Irish St Legers and he has finished third and fourth in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.  He has proven his stamina and he has proven his class and he has proven that he can operate at Ascot.  And he has looked as good as ever in his two runs this year.

Stradivarius is classy all right and he is proven at Ascot, he won the Queen’s Vase at the Royal meeting last year, but he hasn’t proven that he has Order Of St George’s talent yet.  He did beat Big Orange in the Goodwood Cup last year, the same Big Orange who had just got home by a short head from Order Of St George at Ascot five weeks earlier, but he was only third in the St Leger last year.  He may not have the class to finish placed in an Arc.

Also, while John Gosden’s horse shapes as if he stays well, he has never been beyond two miles in his life.  The step up to two and a half is a step into the unknown.  He may well improve, he is only four, but he does have to progress to get up to Order Of St George’s level, and the older horse should probably be clear favourite.

Ascot statscot 

It is always interesting to peruse the Royal Ascot statistics in advance of the big meeting.  You can usually unearth a statistic or two that surprises you, that you didn’t really know, or that you may have known last year but just forgot, or didn’t really realise that you knew.  (Like the capital city of Ivory Coast.) 

Like, how many times has Aidan O’Brien been leading trainer at Royal Ascot?  Eight.  Including every year for the last three years and for five of the last seven.  And how many times has Ryan Moore claimed the leading rider accolade?  Seven times.  Seven times in the last eight years. 

How many runners has Wesley Ward had at Royal Ascot?  44.  And how many winners?  Nine.  Two in 2009, when he first had runners, and at least one every year since and including 2013.

Other Irish trainers have fantastic Royal Ascot records.  Dermot Weld has had 17 Royal Ascot winners, the first Klairvimy in the King Edward VII Stakes in 1973.  Jim Bolger has had eight, instigated by Flame Of Tara in the Coronation Stakes in 1983.  John Oxx has had seven, one in each of seven different races, the first Ridgewood Pearl in the Coronation Stakes in 1995.

Noel Meade has had one, David Marnane has had one, Jarlath Fahey has had one, Michael Halford has had one, Ger Lyons has had one.  Michael Grassick has had two, San Sebastian in 1998 and San Sebastian in 1999.  Kevin Prendergast has had four, from Ore to Oscar Schindler, and Eddie Lynam has also had four, three in one glorious week in 2014, Sole Power and Slade Power and Anthem Alexander. 

Gordon Elliott has had one, Commissioned in the Queen Alexandra Stakes in 2016, Charles Byrnes has had one, Domination in the Ascot Handicap in 2014, Michael Cunningham has had one, Cairn Rouge in the Coronation Stakes in 1980.  Willie Mullins has had five, two in the Queen Alexandra and three in the Ascot Handicap, and nearly one in the Gold Cup.  Tony Martin has had two, both in the Ascot Handicap.

It’s Yamoussoukro, by the way.  Not Abidjan.  Tough luck if you answered Abidjan in your sixth class geography test.

Triple Crown sourced in history 

Justify put up another superb performance under Mike Smith to win the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park on Saturday night, and gain his place in history.  The 13th winner of the American Triple Crown.  Significantly, the Bob Baffert-trained colt was the first to do it without having run as a juvenile and, less significantly perhaps, he was also the first to complete the Triple Crown with his rider sporting a different set of colours (China Horse Club’s) in the final leg to the set that he had worn (WinStar Farm’s) in the first two legs. 

It is understandable that there have been lots of comparisons made between the American Triple Crown and the British Triple Crown.  After one leg of each this year, there was big talk of both on both continents.  In that context, it is a real pity that Saxon Warrior didn’t win the Derby.  There was a momentum building behind Aidan O’Brien’s horse that would surely have reached something of a crescendo by the time the St Leger rolled around in September.

Those 13 American Triple Crowns have all been completed in the last 100 years, since 1919.  In the same time in Britain, there have been just two: Bahram and Nijinsky.  Although if you go back four years, you get three more.  So five since 1915.  But still none since 1970.

That said, the Triple Crown is still massive.  There was talk of changing it, to be more reflective of the ‘modern’ era.  Shorter space between races, shorter distances.  More like the American one.  The Guineas, the Derby and the Eclipse, for example. 

But the Triple Crown as it stands is embedded in the history of horse racing.  And the history of it is a key component of the tapestry that makes horse racing the sport and the industry that it is.  The Triple Crown is so important, not only because it is so difficult to complete, but also because it has been in place for so long.  You can’t change the goalposts just because it looks like you can’t score.  You can’t change history.

Camelot went mighty close to winning it in 2012, and you can be sure that if the odds-on favourite had won the Derby this year, there would be no talk of change.  All the talk would be of Saxon Warrior’s prospects of completing it.  

The American Triple Crown went un-won for a while too.  There were 37 years between Affirmed and American Pharoah.  If it was easy, it wouldn’t be an extraordinary achievement.  

Murtagh flying

Johnny Murtagh’s horses are in top form these days, as exemplified in the first treble of his training career at Leopardstown on Thursday evening: Parkers Hill in the two-year-old maiden, Circling Moon in the one-mile-seven-furlong handicap, who is now two for two since joining Murtagh, and True Valour in the feature race, the Group 3 Ballycorus Stakes. 

The Kodiac colt was building on his excellent third in a competitive handicap at Epsom on Derby day and, racing in first-time cheekpieces, he probably put up a career-best.  He could progress again, and he stays a mile, so he has plenty of options. 

Interestingly, all three winners were ridden by different riders and all three were owned by different people.  Indeed, the trainer had five runners at Leopardstown on the evening, and all five were owned by different owners and ridden by different riders. 

That’s five winners and three seconds that the trainer has had now in the last week, since last Saturday, from just 11 runners.  He obviously has his team in exceptional form.

Big evening at Auteuil

Saturday evening was a big evening for Ireland and for Paul Townend at Auteuil, with the Willie Mullins-trained Bapaume winning the Prix la Barka and the Ross O’Sullivan-trained Baie Des Iles winning the Prix des Drags, both horses ridden by Paul Townend.

Willie Mullins having winners in France is nothing new (Willie Mullins having winners anywhere is really not new), and the Irish champion trainer had five of the 12 runners in the Prix la Barka, a race that he had won four times since 2012.  But you still have to get them there at concert pitch, and it was a fine performance by Bapaume, who had finished second in the French Champion Hurdle three weeks previously over a distance that probably stretched his stamina.

It was a superb training performance too by Ross O’Sullivan to go to France with Baie Des Iles and win a Grade 2 chase with her, eight weeks after she had finished 12th in the Aintree Grand National.  The trainer was undoubtedly assisted by his wife Katie Walsh, who has plenty of local knowledge, having won the Prix la Barka on Thousand Stars in 2014, and ridden him to finish second in the French Champion Hurdle in 2015. 

Baie Des Iles won over hurdles and fences at Auteuil as a three-year-old when she was trained by Arnaud Chaille-Chaille, and it makes sense that O’Sullivan is already thinking about a return to Auteuil next May for the Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris.

© The Irish Field, 16th June 2018