Royal Ascot - At The Races

Class of 2017

    Two-year-old expert David Lawrence gives his verdict on the feature juvenile events at the 2017 Royal Meeting with exclusive ratings for the top colts and fillies seen out so far this season.

THE COLTS

Punters hoping to profit from betting in Royal Ascot’s two-year-old races open to colts and geldings would almost certainly be wise to make a note of any runners representing stables that have already established decent records in the Coventry, Norfolk and Windsor Castle Stakes.

Top of anyone’s list when trying to find the winner of the COVENTRY STAKES, for instance, surely has to be Aidan O’Brien’s yard, which has sent out eight successful candidates in this 6f Group 2 contest, getting off the mark in 1997 and collecting last season with the potentially-brilliant Caravaggio.

O’Brien has four entries in this term’s Coventry, which is due to be staged on Tuesday, 20 June, that quartet being DECLARATIONOFPEACE (rated 91), MURILLO (86), SIOUX NATION (85) and US NAVY FLAG (85) - and, as must be clear from my mathematics (see list below), the first-named has the most obvious prospects of landing the prize.

Declarationofpeace strolled to victory last time out, cruising away from his rivals in the closing stages to score by six lengths over 5f at Dundalk, which was, interestingly, the course at which Caravaggio broke his duck prior to heading for Royal Ascot a year ago.

O’Brien’s hopeful(s) will need to improve in order to score, however, as, according to my ratings, they currently fall short of the standard achieved by the Jessica Harrington-trained BROTHER BEAR (99) and Richard Hannon’s DE BRUYNE HORSE (95).

Brother Bear is unbeaten in two starts, the more recent of his victories being registered by three lengths in a Listed event over the Coventry trip at the Curragh on 27 May. The son of Kodiac was impressive that day, when beating Would Be King (90), and has scope for further progress.

De Bruyne Horse has also notched a couple of successes, following a debut maiden defeat, and his last outing, resulting in a two-length win in Epsom’s 6f Woodcote Stakes, was achieved despite his apparent unease on the Surrey venue’s unique cambers.

His closest victim that afternoon, Mark Johnston’s CARDSHARP (89), has since taken Beverley’s Brian Yeardley Continental Two Year Old Trophy by two and a quarter lengths, so the Woodcote form is difficult to knock and Hannon’s colt, a handsome son of Showcasing, may still be on the up.

Hannon, whose father won the Coventry twice (with Canford Cliffs in 2009 and Strong Suit in 2010) looks set to be doubly represented as he attempts to uphold his family’s tradition. His other colt for the race, DENAAR (87), may not have shown quite as much - so far - as De Bruyne Horse, but he is certainly worth a place in the line-up. 

The same is true of the Clive Cox-trained PRINCE OF THE DARK (85). Cox, a shrewd judge of juveniles, lifted the trophy for the Norfolk Stakes with Reckless Abandon in 2012 and, while Prince Of The Dark cannot be said to be in that one’s class just yet, his decisive debut victory at Bath hinted at a great deal more to come.

Other British and Irish-trained Coventry possibles with plausible claims include Charlie Hills’s NEBO (81), the Jim Bolger-trained VERBAL DEXTERITY (90), impressive on his only start to date, and TRUE BLUE MOON (87) from Joseph O’Brien’s stable. But they will need to step up markedly on their current form in order to win an event in which my records show the first three regularly earn ratings in three figures.

They may face a stubborn stumbling-block, too, in the shape of ARAWAK, trained by US-based Wesley Ward, now a regular visitor to Royal Ascot and serial winner of two-year-old races at the meeting, courtesy of victories by the likes of Jealous Again (2009), No Nay Never (2013), Hootenanny (2014), Acapulco (2015) and Lady Aurelia (2016).

Ward is also targeting the NORFOLK STAKES this term and, according to reports from Newmarket, where his challengers are being prepared for the big Berkshire fixture, MCERIN, his intended runner in the 5f Group 2 on Thursday, 22 June, looks a million dollars.

He could be worth all of that - possibly more - if he comes home in front, but he will not get an easy ride against a ‘home’ defence that, according to my maths, is presently headed by Tom Dascombe’s FROZEN ANGEL (97) and the Karl Burke-trained HAVANA GREY (93).

Both last ran at Listed level, in Sandown’s 5f National Stakes, and, although Frozen Angel could manage no better than second to Havana Grey, he did not have the best of luck in running and, if my figures are an accurate guide, performed below the standard of his previous success over the Norfolk course and distance.

There is probably no more than a length between the pair, both of whom handle quick ground.

Ward’s previous victories in the WINDSOR CASTLE STAKES - he took the 5f Listed contest in 2009 and 2014 - ought to alert punters to his penchant for taking the prize money back to America and his two possibles this season, the fillies ELIZABETH DARCY and NOOTKA SOUND, each with a wide-margin victory on their CV, are likely to be primed to the minute if they go to post on Tuesday, 20 June.

Britain and Ireland, meanwhile, have the capacity to muster staunch resistance, thanks to such as CARDSHARP, James Tate’s National Stakes third HADDAF (88), Archie Watson’s CORINTHIA KNIGHT (86), twice successful before finding Frozen Angel too good at Ascot in May, and SIOUX NATION, a 6f winner at Cork subsequently bogged down in testing conditions behind Brother Bear.

Royal Ascot’s final event in which juvenile colts can participate, the CHESHAM STAKES, run this year on Saturday, 24 June, is restricted to runners by stallions who won over 9f or more, which, given that his yard houses a host of Galileo’s progeny, makes it an obvious target for O’Brien snr.

Several of his potential starters this season are fillies - dealt with in the second section of this feature - but it would be no surprise if the once-raced GUSTAV KLIMT (72) takes his chance and few racing fans will have forgotten that O’Brien landed last year’s Chesham with a Galileo colt named Churchill.

Ever wondered what happened to him?

Leading two-year-old males raced in Britain and Ireland this season (ratings as of 15 June)

Name (Trainer) (Country) Rating
Brother Bear (J Harrington) (IRE) 99
Frozen Angel (T Dascombe) (GB) 97
De Bruyne Horse (R Hannon) (GB) 95
Havana Grey (K Burke) (GB) 93
Ardenode (gelding) (E O'Neill) (FRA) 92
Declarationofpeace (A O'Brien) (IRE) 91
It Dont Come Easy (R Fahey) (GB) 91
Unfortunately (K Burke) (GB) 91
Verbal Dexterity (J Bolger) (IRE) 90
Would Be King (G Lyons) (IRE) 89
Cardsharp (M Johnston) (GB) 89
Haddaf (J Tate) (GB) 88
Denaar (R Hannon) (GB) 87
Nine Below Zero (R Beckett) (GB) 87
True Blue Moon (J O'Brien) (IRE) 87
Corinthia Knight (A Watson) (GB) 86
Ghost Serge (A Watson) (GB) 86
Murillo (A O'Brien) (IRE) 86
Santry (D Carroll ) (GB) 86

THE FILLIES

Given his remarkable (and seemingly ever-growing) list of victories in other events at Royal Ascot, it is perhaps surprising that Aidan O’Brien has found the fixture’s Pattern races confined to juvenile fillies - the Group 2 Queen Mary Stakes and the Group 3 Albany Stakes - so difficult to crack.

O’Brien has never won the Queen Mary - honestly! - and his first strike in the Albany, with 16-1 shot Brave Anna - his 2-1 favourite Cuff, ridden by Ryan Moore was fifth - occurred just last season.

That does not mean the Ballydoyle-based trainer’s runners should be disregarded, of course, especially now he has broken his two-year-old female duck, but the statistic do suggest other stables deserve to be considered at least the equal of the most famous - and extravagantly successful - equine establishment in Ireland.

In the QUEEN MARY STAKES, for instance, punters would be unwise not to take a long look at any youngster sent over from America by Wesley Ward, who has already landed the 5f contest three times, with Jealous Again (2009), Acapulco (2015) and the blindingly-fast Lady Aurelia (2016).

His most likely challenger for the event this term - it is due to be staged on Wednesday, 21 June - appears to be HAPPY LIKE A FOOL, a typically-precocious Ward-trained juvenile filly, with a powerful frame to match what her handler describes as “great natural speed and a beautiful mind”.

She will certainly need to be quick to see off Mick Channon’s NEOLA (rated 90 on my scale), whose second in York’s 5f Listed Marygate Stakes in mid-May earned a figure surpassed only by the injured Main Desire among juvenile fillies based in Britain so far this season.

Neola’s present mark is not up to the standard normally registered by Queen Mary winners, however - my records from the last ten years indicate at least 100 will be required to secure the prize - so Channon’s charge will almost certainly need to improve in order to beat Ward’s runner(s).

That is entirely possible, obviously, as Neola has raced just three times to date, and she is not the only member of the ‘European team’ to have given notice that she can play a leading role at Royal Ascot.

Johnny Murtagh has a possible, for example, his TOO FAMILIAR (87) having scored twice, in two starts, over the minimum trip at Navan and the Curragh. Murtagh is tempted to try her over another furlong, making the Albany Stakes an interesting alternative, but, if she went for the Queen Mary, it would be less-than-clever to dismiss her chance.

Discounting the prospects of Tom Dascombe’s FORMIDABLE KITT (80) might be equally unwise, as anyone with an interest in Royal Ascot history would be able to vouchsafe. Formidable Kitt’s dam, Ceiling Kitty, took the Queen Mary in 2012 and Dascombe’s 2017 once-raced challenger won nicely on her debut at Newmarket in April.  

Two more of racing’s increasingly-influential training talents, Clive Cox and Richard Hannon, both of whom have taken Royal Ascot prizes with two-year-olds in recent seasons, are intent, respectively, on saddling HEARTACHE (85) and OUT OF THE FLAMES (81), each successful on their most recent start and both undeniably speedy.

Whether they possess the pace necessary to beat Ward’s Happy Like A Fool remains to be seen, but neither of their trainers is a mug when it comes to assessing young fillies and both appear to believe a prominent display is on the cards.

Hannon has a serious contender for the ALBANY STAKES, too. Her name is NATURAL and, after her striking debut victory at Doncaster early this month, some observers apparently indicated that she should already be favourite for next year’s 1000 Guineas.

I have my doubts about that - she is, after all, a daughter of Kodiac - but she did look - how can I put it? - a ‘natural’ on Town Moor and the first-time-out rating of 84 I awarded her, with the promise of a great deal more to come, was enormously encouraging.

Few renewals of the Albany go ahead without an Aidan O’Brien challenger, despite the belated success referred to above, and, although Ballydoyle plans are invariably tricky to predict, his two most likely starters in 2017 appear to be ACTRESS and SEPTEMBER (both 81).

September is of particular interest for the future, I think, as she is by Deep Impact out of the multiple Group 1 heroine Peeping Fawn, and is therefore also qualified to tackle the 7f Chesham Stakes. If she goes for the Albany on Friday, 23 June, however, perhaps we should take the hint.

Not allowing for the possibility of another Wesley Ward winner would, of course, be very remiss and it seems America’s biggest Royal Ascot fan is considering the Albany for both FAIRYLAND and PRINCESS PEGGY. I do not compile ratings for US races - no time! - but I understand each has the commanding physical presence normally associated with their trainer’s Berkshire raiders.

However big they prove to be up close, though, I doubt they will dwarf the Jessica Harrington-trained ALPHA CENTAURI, a genuinely impressive looker who not only heads my current two-year-old fillies’ ratings with a mark of 96, but has also demonstrated by collecting twice, including at Listed level on easy ground, that she handles a variety of underfoot conditions.

A daughter of Mastercraftsman, Alpha Centauri is likely to stay at least 7f in time and that is surely also the case with a number of Aidan O’Brien’s possible female starters in the CHESHAM STAKES, to be run over that trip on Saturday, 24 June.

September has already been mentioned, as she could line up for the furlong shorter Albany Stakes, and another worth noting is CLEMMIE, a sister to this season’s dual 2000 Guineas hero Churchill.

She could manage no better than third on her sole start to date - earning a rating on my scale of just 75 - but that 6f Curragh event was too short for her and connections have made no secret of the fact that they are expecting marked improvement when this daughter of Galileo heads for Royal Ascot.

Leading two-year-old fillies raced in Britain and Ireland this season (ratings as of 15 June)

Name (Trainer) (Country) Rating
Alpha Centauri (J Harrington) (IRE) 96
Main Desire (M Bell) (GB) 92*
Neola (M Channon) (GB) 90
Rebel Assault (M Johnston) (GB) 89
Too Familiar (J Murtagh) (IRE) 87
Gasta (J Bolger) (IRE) 85
Heartache (Clive Cox ) (GB) 85
Mistress Of Venice (J Given) (GB) 85
Natural (R Hannon) (GB) 84
One Minute (W Haggas) (GB) 82
Actress (A O'Brien) (IRE) 81
Out Of The Flames (R Hannon) (GB) 81
September (A O'Brien) (IRE) 81
Black Sails (G Lyons) (IRE) 80
Emilia James (M Johnston) (GB) 80
Formidable Kitt (T Dascombe) (GB) 80
Sirici (J Stack) (IRE) 80
Starlight Mystery (M Johnston) (GB) 80
* Ruled out of Royal Ascot due to a training setback
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