Bookie-busting accas, the Queen's hat and more: what to look for
Next week is the week we usually use as the basis for the opinion that British racing is the best in the world. Five days of pageantry and prize-money, horses and hats, bookie-busting accas and barbecues in the car park – here are ten things to keep an eye on.
At time of writing, the topweight in the Royal Hunt Cup is Tabarrak, set to carry 9st 11lb. Beyond the safety limit, down at no.38, is Briardale, the last of those on 8st 11lb. It seems likely, then, that the weight range for the race will be no more than a stone – an ongoing process of ratings-related reduction that has changed many big handicaps for ever. Was it that long ago that Pontenuovo won off 7st 7lb, or Colour Sergeant off 7st 8lb, or Refuse To Lose off 7st 11lb? No, not really. Never again; the race's character has changed, probably for the worse, and now you need a Pattern-class horse to have any chance. O tempora, o mores, as they say all the time in Car Park no.1.
Representation of women
Last year only one female jockey had only one ride over five days –and that was for her brother. Since then enough ink has been spilled on the subject to float a battleship, but suffice to say this year there will be more for the valet in the ladies' changing room to do. Josephine Gordon should be prominent, Michelle Payne will be a very rare female participant in a British Group 1, Ana O'Brien – for it was she 12 months ago – may well be back and perhaps Hollie Doyle, Georgia Cox and Megan Nicholls may get a chance too.
Those five white-hot favourites
Turf accountants everywhere are already running scared of the intimidatingly massive 24-1 fivefolds that are being placed from St Ives to St Andrew's – 24-1, with only five opportunities for it all to go wrong, quick nurse, the smelling salts – but are they really all good things? Ribchester looks a monster in a weakish division and the race is falling apart around Order Of St George, although he does have Big Orange to worry about as well as his own propensity to turn in a poor effort. But Caravaggio is no lock to see off Harry Angel, and Churchill and Winter have high-quality rivals coming off easier preparations to overcome. Don't bookmakers call accumulators a 'mug's bet'? They won't all win, will they?
The colour of the Queen's hat
Light blue, yellow, orangey, pink, a different shade of blue – in that order. Well, that's what I'd wear.
Going Lady gaga
Can she do it again? Lady Aurelia provided arguably the most memorable moment of last year's meeting when blitzing her rivals in the Queen Mary, and there must be every chance – with fast ground in her favour – that she'll do it again in the King's Stand.
Yes, there is Marsha, and we all know about lightning not striking twice, but Wesley Ward's filly is the nearest thing to lightning we've seen at Royal Ascot in more than a quarter of a century and a repeat performance is a thrilling prospect.
Blue is the colour
Godolphin's recent major upheaval may have weakened their internal structure but it will have strengthened their resolve to make an impact on the stage where they once regularly stole the show. Ribchester ought to give them a flying start and Barney Roy and Laugh Aloud may well continue in the same vein before Benbatl, Harry Angel and Frontiersman pick up the baton later in the week. It will need to be a stout effort to wrest the leading owners' prize from the Ballydoyle triumvirate but it wouldn't be the biggest surprise.
Bouquets for the Vase?
The reduction in distance of the Queen's Vase, from 2m to 1m6f, lends heightened interest to what was often a low-light of the card. The change was made as part of an enhanced programme for stayers, to encourage strength and depth in the division, although there were voices wondering what help a reduction in distance was supposed to provide. The intention was no doubt fuelled by the perception that two miles was a long way to go for three-year-olds at that stage of their career, although that didn't prevent two winners in the last five years going on to take the Gold Cup. There must be a concern that the new format will not distinguish it sufficiently from the King Edward VII Stakes, and instead provide ploddy middle-distance types with an unwanted advantage over true stayers.
ITV has made a strong start to its coverage of racing and with less than six months under its collective belt there is ample provision to get better yet. This will be the first Royal Ascot for the new team and comparisons will be inevitable. It would be hard to do the royal meeting badly, given the half-hourly brilliance on-course, so as long as the team are deployed to their strengths and don't get too locked into the champagne early then the viewers will certainly reap the benefit. And considering that trophy presentations are the most boring three minutes in the sport, and taking into account the tendency to be unduly reverential given the surroundings, why not let Matt Chapman be Matt Chapman and let him get on with the town-crier act? It was Epsom that looked silly, not Chapman, when they pulled him off at half-time – a spot of the old Johnny G revels does no-one any harm.
Taking a lot of stick
No-one wants to see it happen, but it is likely that at some point during the week a jockey will break the whip rules in his/her fervour to win, and just as likely that the jockey on the runner-up will stick to the rules and, in so doing, be left at a disadvantage. It may not occur in the most prestigious races – the BHA notes that only two Group/Grade 1 races in 2016 featured a whip offence, and overall offences are in decline year on year – but every race at Ascot is a prize worth winning and in the heat of battle it can become win at all costs. If that happens, expect renewed calls for disqualification in these circumstances, for why should the end justify the means?
It may be June, and there may be racing at Stratford, Uttoxeter and Market Rasen, but there will still be more than a quorum of winter warriors in the owners' and trainers' car park, emptying the boot of the 4x4 of champagne bottles so as to make room for a nice trophy to go home with. Alan King, Nicky Henderson, Gordon Elliott, Paul Nicholls, Willie Mullins, Jessica Harrington – between them they had 19 winners at the Cheltenham Festival, and it would be a surprise if they all left Berkshire with nothing but empties in the back of the car. Alpha Centauri, trained by Harrington, could be a real star (sorry).
Tom Kerr and Lee Mottershead have already remarked on the topic in their columns, but the ongoing 'blockading' of Qatar by its Gulf neighbours cannot fail to have a substantial effect on racing.
Given the level of ill-feeling towards the country, it would be no surprise to see both Sheikh Mohammed and Khalid Abdullah declining to compete for Qatar-sponsored races, with the policy also stretching to those bearing the Qipco appellation – despite assurances that Qipco is a private business venture, it is nevertheless backed by members of the Qatari royal family.
It might be very difficult – potentially impossible – for Dubaian interests to be seen on a presentation podium, smiling and shaking hands with the sponsoring Qatari royal family with the ubiquitous advertising plastered all over the background. So where would that leave the Champions Series, or Glorious Goodwood, both in regard to sponsorship and to competition?
The big races without the biggest owners will inevitably lose their lustre – Ribchester unable to run in the Sussex Stakes, Shutter Speed a non-starter for the Nassau. Ballydoyle may end up as the chief beneficiary of any action taken by those cutting ties with Qatar, but the rest of the industry from betting ring to boardroom will be losing out.
We have long wondered how the landscape would look should the enduring relationship between the leading Arab owners and the sport they have patronised for decades break down – this episode might be an unwelcome opportunity to find out.