The temperature's rising as Flat's finest prepare to strut their stuff
Lee Mottershead sets the scene for a glorious week
No matter where you go in the world, there is nothing like it, nor anything to match it.
Royal Ascot is quite gloriously unique, a vignette of England as it once was and as it seemingly remains. It is about pomp and pageantry, the Queen and her carriages, popping corks, remarkable frocks and communal singing around a bandstand that brings together them, us and everyone in between.
More than anything, though, it is about the racing.
In sweltering temperatures that might nudge 30C, men made taller by ancient top hats and dressed in tailcoats that will work like foil around a chicken are set to provide the customary human backdrop to a sporting sight like no other.
For over the next five days, thoroughbreds of the very highest order will compete on the most famous of all racecourses, one that opens its signature show with a trio of mouthwatering Group 1 prizes.
Ribchester bids to give Godolphin a boost
Once you have had a slice of Royal Ascot, you invariably want more.
That is very much true of the horses likely to start favourite for the opening-day highlights.
Ribchester, Lady Aurelia and Churchill all return to a particularly plush part of Berkshire in the hope of adding to victories achieved at the fixture 12 months ago.
First up, and seeking to become the first Royal Ascot winner ever televised by ITV, is Ribchester, successful in last year's Jersey Stakes but now swimming in the much deeper and classier waters of the Queen Anne Stakes.
Over the very same straight mile that will have been covered by the royal procession less than half an hour earlier, Yorkshire's number-one racehorse is tasked with providing a much-needed boost to Sheikh Mohammed's recently beleaguered Godolphin operation, one from which chief executive John Ferguson departed this month in difficult circumstances.
Ultimately, though, Godolphin must be measured by the performances of their horses. In Ribchester they have an extremely good one.
He surged to odds-on favouritism thanks to a decisive triumph in the Lockinge Stakes. This time, however, he has 15 rivals to beat, including Newbury runner-up Lightning Spear, whose owners, Qatar Racing, have paid £50,000 to supplement a pacemaker, aimed at ensuring Ribchester and William Buick cannot tactically outfox the opposition, as happened in the Lockinge.
Will the Lady go whoosh for a second time?
As we approach the royal meeting, one wonders who will travel the fastest – Lady Aurelia in the King's Stand Stakes or Her Majesty as she dashes to Ascot from the Palace of Westminster after Wednesday's state opening of Parliament.
The greatest speed achievement seen last year, and indeed one of the most astonishing racing performances of the modern era, belonged to Stateside sweetheart Lady Aurelia. The manner in which she changed gear at the two-furlong pole of the Queen Mary Stakes before surging clear had onlookers rubbing eyes in disbelief.
But she can do it again?
Wesley Ward, whose own American dreams have come true with seven Royal Ascot wins, believes his flying filly is in the sort of form that will produce an encore every bit as mesmerising as last season's diva demolition.
Yet if Frankie Dettori is to steer her to further glory he will need to fend off a marvellous band of opponents headed by the Sir Mark Prescott-trained Marsha, owned by the mass membership of the £199-per-year Elite Racing Club.
A rather bigger sum awaits Alan Spence, who bagged last year's King's Stand with Profitable but has since sold him to Godolphin. This time his colours are carried by Clive Cox-trained stablemate Priceless, but despite the King's Stand's £226,840 first prize his wealth rating would be most enhanced by the 2016 hero scoring again.
"I'm financially better off if Profitable wins," said Spence, explaining: "I'm on a bonus – and it's a big bonus as well!"
Churchill chases his latest finest hour
Showdowns will be a theme of the week. The St James's Palace showdown should be a humdinger.
There is no greater rivalry in racing than that between Coolmore/Ballydoyle and Godolphin. Their first major clash of the week will occur when 2,000 Guineas one-two Churchill and Barney Roy lock horns again.
At Newmarket some thought Barney Roy had been unfortunate not to win, given he stumbled entering the Dip. Yet Churchill does only as much as Churchill needs to do. At the Curragh last month he completed a Classic double and is clear favourite to continue his winning spree for Aidan O'Brien and Ryan Moore.
O'Brien, chasing his eighth St James's Palace memento, will earlier bid for his ninth success in the Coventry Stakes, principally with Murillo.
Godolphin and Ward will be among those trying to stop him, as they will at the card's end when those same combatants clash with more charging juveniles in the Windsor Castle Stakes.
Those big guns, however, all sit out the marathon Ascot Stakes, in which fancied runners represent top jumps trainers Willie Mullins, Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls.
Ward, sad to report, has yet to find in Florida a two-and-a-half-mile handicapper.