By Margaret Ransom
For racing fans worldwide, Royal Ascot has always represented the most elite of racing seasons with each of the five days of the meet steeped in history and filled with the best horses, trainers and jockeys — not to mention fashion, tradition and royal pageantry.
Things this year will return to some semblance of normalcy after a 2020 meet with no spectators due to COVID-19, and 4,000 fans a day will be allowed through the gates at Royal Ascot.
Though no official word has been given from Buckingham Palace on whether Queen Elizabeth II will attend, royal watchers in Great Britain say an appearance is highly likely for the monarch.
And once again, top-notch runners from around the globe will be on site to contest the 35 races, of which eight are Group 1, beginning on Tuesday (June 15) and concluding Saturday (June 19). NBC Sports will present daily live coverage of Royal Ascot on NBCSN from 8:30 to noon ET. TVG will also have live coverage of the races.
Also, four of the races at Royal Ascot are Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win & You’re In” events meaning the winners will receive an automatic berth and all-expenses-paid journey to Del Mar for the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 5-6.
Champion trainer Aidan O’Brien is the meet’s top active trainer, having saddled 74 winners since he sent out his first more than two decades ago. He trails only the legendary conditioner Sir Michael Stoute by seven victories heading into the 2021 meeting. Europe’s top jockey Frankie Dettori, who is 50 this year, seeks to continue his Royal Ascot domination heading into the meet with a record 73 winners.
Also, prize money for Royal Ascot is a record £6 million ($7.13 million) over the week, which is a 66% increase over the £3.61 million ($4.21 million) offered in 2020.
The weather in Berkshire this week is expected to start out beautiful and sunny, with highs hovering in the lower 70s, providing what will likely be a firmer turf course, but by Thursday conditions may be very wet, so the turf will likely go from good to softer going.
Tuesday full of Group 1 action
The £400,000 ($564,240) Queen Anne Stakes on Tuesday is a “Win & You’re In” qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1). Named in honor of the founder of Ascot Racecourse and for the meet’s inaugural running in 1840, the race boasts an amazing list of winners over the history of the 1-mile event, including the legendary runners Ribchester, Declaration of War, Frankel, Goldikova, Cape Cross, Kalanisi, Intikhab, Barathea and Warning. American-based Hall of Fame trainer Mark Casse sent champion and Breeders’ Cup heroine Tepin over to England in 2017 to take the victory.
In 2020, Circus Maximus won the Queen Anne for his only win of the year and 4 ½ months later capped of his career with a second-place finish in the BC Mile at Keeneland. He currently is finishing up his first season at stud at Coolmore Stud in Ireland.
Last year’s St. James’s Palace Stakes (G1) winner Palace Pier, who will carry Dettori for the 1-mile distance, is set to square off against 11 others in the Queen Anne, including last year’s BC Mile winner Order Of Australia. Palace Pier, who is a son of Kingman and the winner of seven of his eight career starts, has also won his only two starts this year – the Sandown Stakes (G2) at Sandown and Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes (G1) at Newbury last out. He is owned by Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Al Maktoum and is trained by John Gosden.
“He is a lovely horse who has done everything right in his life,” Gosden said. “He only missed the autumn of his 2-year-old career. He prepped in a Newcastle race last year and came out and won the St James’s Palace Stakes. He did everything right last year until the end when he ran on very soft autumn ground (in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot). He hated that, lost a shoe and got left.
“He’s come back well this year. We are back there. It will be different ground again, but we are happy with him.”
Coolmore’s Order of Australia, who is trained by Brien, will be ridden by Ryan Moore for the first time and makes his 2021 debut, which is his first start since a sixth-place finish in December’s Hong Kong Mile (G1) at Sha Tin. He is making his Royal Ascot debut.
Lope Y Fernandez, who was third in the 2020 BC Mile, also turns up here as does last year’s Queen Anne winner Lord Glitters off a fourth-place finish behind Palace Pier in the Lockinge Stakes.
“He ran fine in the Lockinge,” trainer David O’Meara. “There were a few younger horses ahead of him and Palace Pier looked unbeatable, but Lord Glitters likes the straight track at Ascot so hopefully he runs his race again. He is better at Ascot than at Newbury.”
The £350,000 ($493,710) St. James’s Palace Stakes is also on tap for the initial day. The event is named after St. James Palace, which used to serve as a royal residence during the Tudor period (1485-1603 in England and Wales). It was contested for the first time in 1834 and was initially given group status in 1971.
Big names to be acknowledged as previous winners include Kris, Marju, Kingmambo, Grand Lodge, Dr. Fong, Giant’s Causeway, Black Minnalouche, Shamardal, Henrythenavigator, Frankel, Gleneagles, Without Parole, Circus Maximus and Palace Pier a year ago.
The St. James’s Palace Stakes usually features horses who have previously run in the 2000 Guineas (G1), the Poule d’Essai des Poulains (G1) (French 2000 Guineas) or the Irish 2000 Guineas (G1) and Poetic Flare fits the bill having contested all three.
Poetic Flare is a son of Dawn Approach and won the 2000 Guineas, was second in the Irish Guineas and sixth in the Poule d’Essai des Poulains this year. He seeks to duplicate his sire’s win in this race from 2013. Poetic Flare is trained by Jim Bolger, who also trained his sire, and will be ridden by Kevin Manning.
Shadwell Stable’s Mostahdaf, who is trained by John and Thady Gosden, puts his undefeated record on the line, but takes a big step up in class into group stakes company for the first time. The son of Frankel will be ridden by Jim Crowley.
Coolmore’s BC Juvenile Turf runner-up Battleground, who is a beautifully bred son of Frankel and the BC Turf (G1) winner and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) winner Found (by Galileo), returns to action after a dismal and uncharacteristic 13th-place finish in the 2000 Guineas last out. Ryan Moore gets the mount back after that last race for O’Brien.
The other Group 1 on the opening-day card is the King’s Stand Stakes (G1) at 5 furlongs. Like all Royal Ascot stakes events, the King’s Stand is deeply rooted in history and boasts several global champions as previous winners since it was first run in 1860, including two-time winner Sole Power, as well as Scenic Blast, Takeover Target, Choisir, Pivotal, Sheikh Albadou, Last Tycoon and Irish Horse of the Year Sole Power. Last year’s Cartier champion sprinter, Battaash, took home the victory in this event, which is worth £350,000 ($493,710) this year.
American filly Lady Aurelia was victorious in 2017 for trainer Wesley Ward, who has had the most success of all foreign trainers at Royal Ascot recently having saddled 11 winners since 2009 and this year sends out the winning 4-year-old American Pharoah filly Maven off a Keeneland allowance win back in mid-April.
Prince of Wales’s Stakes is Wednesday feature
The main event on the second day of the meet is the £700,000 ($987,420) Prince of Wales’s Stakes (GI), a 1 ¼-mile event named in 1892 for the Prince of Wales and now contested in honor of the current titleholder, Charles. There was no race during World War II when there was no Prince of Wales, but was resurrected in 1968, a year before Charles was given the title. This year it is a Breeders’ Cup Challenge race for the BC Turf (G1) at Del Mar.
Some of the more notable winners of the feature for older distance runners include Dubai Millennium, Bosra Sham, Fantastic Light, Rakti, Ouiji Board, Duke of Marmalade, So You Think, The Fugue, Highland Reel, Poet’s Voice, Crystal Ocean and Lord North a year ago.
Lord North, as well as runner-up Addeybb, are both back in this year’s Prince of Wales’s Stakes. However, trainer William Haggas indicated Addeybb was not certain to start if the course remains firm and if withdrawn the horse could turn up in the Eclipse Stakes next month.
Coolmore’s talented 4-year-old Galileo filly Love is set to make her 2021 debut and hasn’t raced since stringing together three Group 1 wins last summer, remaining undefeated as a sophomore, culminating with the Darley Yorkshire Oaks (G1) at York in August. As one who prefers firmer ground, trainer Aidan O’Brien is one who is welcoming the dry weather conditions for the second day of the season.
Gold Cup takes center stage on Thursday
The nearly 2 ½-mile Gold Cup (G1), worth £350,000 ($493,710), is the main attraction on Thursday and the lone Group 1 on the day. The race, which used to be known as the “Ascot Gold Cup” but was renamed “Gold Cup” in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday in 2016, is probably Europe’s most prestigious event for “stayers” or horses who like to run the marathon distances. Since U.S. racing doesn’t support distance races like the Gold Cup outside of steeplechasing, it’s a bit of a foreign event and a rare treat for American racing fans.
The great French-raced Sagaro won the Gold Cup three times in succession in the 1970s and is one of the many standout names to have captured the event throughout its lengthy history, which began in 1807. Le Moss, Ardross, Gildoran, Sadeem, Drum Taps and Royal Rebel were two-time winners in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, while other famous runners like Kayf Tara, Leading Light, Order of St. George and Big Orange made for exciting runnings over the last decade. But it is the Aidan O’Brien-trained and fan-favorite Yeats who holds the record for Gold Cup wins, having strung together four from 2006-2009.
A year ago, the John Gosden-trained Stradivarius won his third consecutive Gold Cup for owner Bjorn Nielsen and the son of Arc winner Sea The Stars, who is a four-time Cartier champion stayer, is back to seek a fourth win in the prestigious event. The 7-year-old is coming off a win over this course in the Longines Sagaro Stakes (G3) on April 21. Frankie Dettori will ride again against 13 other stayers.
The co-feature Thursday is the 5-furlong Norfolk Stakes (G2), the first major race for juveniles on the European racing card. It’s a Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win & You’re In” event, which earns the winner a spot in the starting gate for the BC Juvenile Turf Sprint (G2).
Some well-known names globally have visited the Royal Ascot winner’s circle after a Norfolk score since the race was first run in 1843 as the New Stakes, including Hyperion, Turtle Creek, Lucky Lionel, Johannesburg, No Nay Never, Shang and The Lir Jet a year ago. It was renamed in 1973 in honor of the Duke of Norfolk and has been a third-day staple for the meeting since.
American trainer Wesley Ward seeks his third win in the Norfolk Stakes and this year sends out Andrew Farm, For the People Racing LLC and Windmill Manor Farm’s Lucci, who won his debut at Belmont Park five weeks ago. The Not This Time colt is the early favorite over 31 runners in the race, which carries a purse of £80,000 ($112,848).
Sophomore sprinters in Friday spotlight
On Friday is the £350,000 ($493,710) Commonwealth Cup (G1), which a 6-furlong dash for sophomores. The race is the only Group 1 flat race in Britain for 3-year-olds that permits geldings and is the first age-restricted Group 1 open to geldings in Europe overall. The race was created for the 2015 Royal Ascot season to attract sprint horses based in Europe, a division many deemed previously underappreciated.
Last year’s Queen Mary (G1) winner Campanelle, who is trained by Wesley Ward, returns in her first start of 2021 after a fourth-place finish in last year’s BC Juvenile Fillies Turf. Stonestreet Stables LLS owns the daughter of Kodiak, who will be ridden by Frankie Dettori.
Other fillies in the race include unbeaten French shipper Suesa, last year’s Queen Mary runner-up Sacred, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf third-place finisher Miss Amulet, Albany Stakes winner Dandalla and recent Polonia Stakes winner Measure of Magic.
Some of the better colts set to race in the Commonwealth Cup include Middle Park S. (G1) winner Supremacy; Dragon Symbol, who was second in the Sandy Lane S. (G2) last out; and all-weather specialist Diligent Harry.
Diamond Jubilee is the centerpiece to close Royal Ascot on Saturday
The final day’s feature is the 6-furlong Diamond Jubilee Stakes (G1), a race for 4-year-olds and up. The race was first run in 1868 as the All-Aged Stakes before morphing into the Cork and Orry Stakes in the late 1920s in honor of the Earl of Cork and then the Golden Jubilee in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s 50th anniversary of her ascension to the throne. Nine years ago, it was renamed again to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s reign the name remains today.
Some of the most outstanding European sprinters have won the race over the many decades of its existence, but none so prominent as 2012 winner and worldwide fan favorite Black Caviar, who shipped in from Australia to claim a narrow victory.
Australian and European champion Blue Point won this race in 2019, four days after taking the King’s Stand Stakes and becoming the first runner since Choisir in 2003 to win both of Royal Ascot’s two big sprint races for older horses.
This year the race is a Breeder’s Cup Challenge “Win & You’re In” qualifier for the BC Turf Sprint and of the 16 set to race in the £700,000 ($987,420) event, which is set at 6 furlongs, Duke of York Stakes winner Starman is the one to beat. The son of Dutch Art, who is trained by Ed Walker, has won four of his five career starts overall and is the early 11-4 favorite.
The Sir Michael Stoute-trained Dream of Dreams seeks to improve on his second in this race a year ago and enters off a win in his only 2021 start in the Weatherbys Epassport Leisure Stakes at Royal Windsor last month. Ryan Moore rides. Jockey Hollie Doyle will be back her first Group 1 winner in Glen Shiel for trainer Archie Watson in the sprint test.