Trainers in the North have every right to be optimistic about plundering some of Flat racing’s most prestigious prizes when they unleash their considerable collective firepower on Flat racing’s greatest stage, Royal Ascot.
Whilst the dominant yards of Mark Johnston and Richard Fahey send strength in numbers, some of the lower profile operators are sensing their moment of glory at Berkshire’s very own theatre of dreams.
Here, Simon Mapletoft spotlights some of the North’s key contenders, beginning with the horse who will bid to cement his position as Europe’s top miler.
Queen Anne Stakes (2.30 Tuesday)
Richard Fahey’s RIBCHESTER sets a demanding standard in the opening day’s Group 1 feature, the Queen Anne Stakes over a mile. The Godolphin colt fulfilled last year’s undoubted potential by dominating the Group 1 Lockinge Stakes at Newbury last month when he also displayed new-found adaptability.
Robin O’Ryan, Fahey’s trusty assistant, tells me: “We’re very happy with him. He came out of the Newbury race well and has been working nicely ever since. We’ve always said he would get better with age and that’s exactly what he’s done.
“He was very raw and backward at two, and to some extent last year, but he really has become a racehorse now. He showed in the Lockinge that he’s mentally mature when he found himself in front after the pacemaker missed the break. He relaxed and was very professional.”
Ribchester will again be accompanied by pacemaker Toscanini but his tactical versatility suggests he has all bases covered as he bids to confirm Lockinge form with runner-up Lightning Spear.
That rival is entitled to come on for his re-appearance run but was beaten hands down. Indeed, Lightning Spear’s position as clear second favourite in the ante-post markets illustrates Ribchester’s superiority.
King’s Stand Stakes (3.40 Tuesday)
Bryan Smart’s record with top-class sprinters is impeccable and signs are that the late-developing ALPHA DELPHINI can live up to the achievements of his Group 1 winning half-brother Tangerine Trees and the trainer’s other A-Listers Moviesta, Monsieur Bond, Hellvelyn and his sire Captain Gerrard.
The six-year-old comes into his first Group 1 in top form, having posted a career best in the Group 2 Temple Stakes at Haydock last month. Alpha Delphini finished a close third, beaten only three parts of a length, yet didn’t enjoy the best of runs.
Squeezed for room at a vital stage, he only just lost out on second place to proven top rank performer Goldream, convincing Smart there’s still more to come. “He’s like his brother in that he’s improved as he’s got older,” he says. “Tangerine Trees won the Abbaye as a six-year-old and this fellow’s still getting better at the same age.”
Alpha Delphini is ideally suited by a stiff 5f, which bodes well. He won last year’s Listed Beverley Bullet on the back of another notable success in a 5f handicap at Ascot last July.
Now rated 110, and equipped to enjoy the likely fast ground, Smart’s star looks great value to make his presence felt at a whopping 25-1 with several firms.
Windsor Castle Stakes (5.35 Tuesday)
Richard Fahey boasts considerable strength-in-depth in his juvenile battalions but puts his faith principally in twice-raced SIMMY’S COPSHOP in this Listed finale.
The merits of his debut win in a Nottingham novice stakes in April have since become apparent, with runner-up Havana Grey going on to land an Ayr novice by five lengths as well as the Listed National Stakes for Karl Burke.
Simmy’s Copshop built on that when third in Listed company on unsuitably holding ground at Naas in Ireland last month, doing best of those that cut out the early pace. A return to a sounder surface looks sure to play to his strengths.
Tom Paling, of owners Middleham Park Racing, tells me: “He’s a very smart colt whose form is there for all to see. He did very well under the circumstances in Ireland and Richard is pleased with his work since. Along with our Coventry runner De Bruyne Horse, he goes to Ascot with a great chance.”
Norfolk Stakes (2.30 Thursday)
Malton handler Declan Carroll has been dreaming of popping the champagne corks at the Royal Meeting ever since his exciting juvenile SANTRY won a hot novice stakes at York’s Dante Festival in May.
There was no fluke about the Harbour Watch colt’s success on the Knavesmire, when he defied a penalty in beating subsequent winners. He dominated his rivals in the style of a class horse, having already won a division of the Brocklesby Stakes at Doncaster on his debut.
The Coventry Stakes, over an additional furlong, was under strong consideration but Carroll has opted to keep his starlet at the minimum trip for the time being and believes he has the quality to win the Norfolk.
“It was obvious at a very early stage that we had something pretty special,” he tells me. “I didn’t train him for the Brocklesby but he told me he was ready for a run. He just did everything so easily at home. He didn’t surprise me at all at Doncaster, and I was equally confident going to York.
“He’s thrived for his latest run and I really can’t wait for next week,” adds Carroll. “He’s been working with my older sprinters as none of the two-year-olds can go with him. He’s a very straightforward horse with a great temperament and I’m happy he will cope with what looks certain to be quicker ground.”
Carroll is “95 per cent certain” that champion jockey Jim Crowley will be able to keep the York partnership intact on a colt who, come Thursday, could become a seriously valuable asset to his three owners who paid only 24,000 euros for him at Goffs Sales in Ireland.
HAVANA GREY looks sure to give Karl Burke and his owners a memorable day out. This colt was close behind the smart Simmy’s Copshop on debut before beating another Windsor Castle contender Frozen Angel in the Listed National Stakes at Sandown last month.
This speedy son of Prix Jean Prat winner Havana Gold has pace to burn and promises to relish the test that Ascot presents, with the forecast fast ground very much in his favour.
King George V Handicap (5.35 Thursday)
I feel a greater test of stamina could bring the best out of Mark Johnston’s talented young stayer SOFIA’S ROCK, who holds an entry in Friday’s Group 2 Queen’s Vase, but the fact the Middleham trainer appears to favour the 12f handicap 24 hours earlier suggests he is primed for another prominent display at his proven trip.
The son of Rock Of Gibraltar made a mockery of a mark of 85 when bolting up over 12f at Leicester in April and looked better than ever when defying a 9lb higher mark in a similar race at Haydock late last month.
He can be forgiven his blip in the Listed Derby Trial at Lingfield in between, when the undulating track didn’t appear to play to his strengths.
As Johnston’s wife and assistant Deirdre explains: “He’s a horse who has grown a lot and has got such a big stride on him that front running really suits.”
Wokingham Stakes (5.00 Saturday)
As the old adage goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. That’s the dilemma facing Malton trainer Nigel Tinkler, who is hoping for a big run from Wokingham contender NORMANDY BARRIERE on Saturday.
The improving five-year-old has a real penchant for Ascot, but as Tinkler explains: “He’s got a habit of not drinking when he’s away from home, unlike his trainer. For that reason, we’ll travel him on the day rather than take him overnight. It’s a four-hour journey but he’s done it before and won there.”
Normandy Barriere posted his best ever performance at the Berkshire venue last time, winning a warm handicap with considerable ease, and gets into the race at the bottom of the handicap. He’s won twice over course and distance on fast ground and has improved a whopping 20lb since the first of those victories just over a year ago.
“He’s a 6.5f horse really. The stiffish finish suits him perfectly, as he finds 5f too sharp and doesn’t really see out seven,” adds the trainer, whose previous best result from around 10 runners at the Royal Meeting was Sugarfoot’s fourth in the Royal Hunt Cup almost two decades ago.
William Buick, who has been in the saddle for both the horse’s Ascot wins, is keen to ride him if commitments permit, confirms Tinkler, whose gelding clearly has the credentials to defy ante-post odds as big as 25-1.
SIMON’S ROYAL ASCOT SELECTIONS:TUESDAY
2.30 RIBCHESTER (NAP)
3.40 ALPHA DELPHINI (EW)
5.35 SIMMY'S COPSHOP (EW)
2.30 SANTRY (EW)
2.30 HAVANA GREY (EW)
5.35 SOFIA'S ROCK (EW)
5.00 NORMANDY BARRIERE (EW)