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Monday, 17 December, 2018

Stars of the saddle set to shine on a day with riders in the spotlight

Stuart Riley on a contest in which the horses play second fiddle

Hayley Turner (right) celebrates last year's Shergar Cup victory with Sammy Jo Bell (left) and Emma-Jayne Wilson
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Racing, it's all about horses, right? Well, not on Saturday.

Yes, there are good horses running for very good prize-money at Ascot, but it is the riders who take centre stage this afternoon with four teams compiled by some of the leading jockeys from around the world taking each other on in a competition that seems proof of the, 'If you build it they will come' mantra.

If most racing weekends have the feel of a school sports day, with their organised and regimented competition, then the Shergar Cup feels more like a lunchtime kickabout.

Boys versus girls, Britain and Ireland versus Europe and the Rest of the World – it's a chance for racing to let it's hair down and have some fun. There's even music from Craig David and All Saints to bring back memories of yesteryear, and occasionally there's the odd expletive as someone tries to change the rules.

That's not to say the world's biggest international jockeys' competition is not taken seriously. Like any good lunchtime kickabout, it may have its own complex rules and scoring system that would take hours to explain - and yet is seemingly understood by everyone involved - but victory comes with major bragging rights.

Consequently some of the biggest names from fields afar have flown in for the event, with Neil Callan coming from Hong Kong, Kerrin McEvoy and Michelle Payne from Australia, Keita Tosaki from Japan, Emma-Jayne Wilson from Canada, Jamie Spencer from Newmarket and Hayley Turner from retirement – it's somewhere in France apparently?

Wilson, Turner and Payne, the three biggest female names in the sport, will combine only if Payne proves she is over the illness that led to her aforementioned swearing at an Ascot official – something just about anyone who has ever visited the place has felt like doing from time to time.

International athletes having to pass a doctor has been a bit of a theme at international sporting events this week – perhaps Ascot would consider sending Payne down to the mile start at Swinley Bottom before the Cup starts to race against the clock and earn her way back into the competition?

It does make for compelling drama and give those who arrive early a reason to loosen the vocal chords.

Should Payne miss out Hollie Doyle will take her place. Should Payne make it then Harry Dunlop's Early Morning looks her best chance of a winner in the Mile.

The bookies make her the 33-1 outsider for the Silver Saddle, with Adrie de Vries and McEvoy the 11-2 joint-favourites, but then Payne shot to fame by overcoming vastly bigger odds in the Melbourne Cup, so this probably seems like a walk in the park.

For a jockeys' competition the one drawback of the Shergar Cup is that the jockeys' themselves are very hard to tell apart – racing as they do in their team colours – so do take the time to familiarise yourselves with the various combinations of silks and caps. Those looking for Jamie Spencer needn't bother, he'll still be sat out the back.

World's best jockey off to Arlington

While some of the best jockeys from around the world have come to Ascot for a showdown, the best jockey in the world has got on a plane and gone in the other direction, with Ryan Moore flying over to Illinois to ride Coolmore's Deauville in the Arlington Million XXXV Stakes.

Grade 1s worth £487,805 to the winner have always been more Moore's bag than fun with his colleagues – unless it is at their expense during a stewards' inquiry – and he also partners Taj Mahal in the Secretariat Stakes, in which Mark Johnston's hardy Royal Ascot winner Permian bids for a first Group 1 success, and Rain Goddess in the Beverly D. Moore will then fly back to ride at the Curragh 14 hours and 11 minutes later on a card that contains the Group 1 Phoenix Stakes.

The fact Moore will spend more time on a plane than he will at both courses combined is arguably the greatest indication yet that Aidan O'Brien has his eyes firmly set on Bobby Frankel's record of 25 Group/Grade 1 wins in a calendar year. His current tally for 2017 sits at 13. It could be 17 by the end of the weekend.

And that's not all . . .

A host of exciting juvenile fillies go head to head in the Group 3 Sweet Solera at Newmarket over 7f, a race that is often a stepping stone to the Fillies' Mile and then the 1,000 Guineas, while up at Haydock Owen Burrows unleashes the unbeaten Laraaib in Group 3 company for the first time.

Jim Crowley rides there in the Rose of Lancaster Stakes as he bids to cap an excellent first season after becoming champion by finding a Group 1 horse to cement his relationship with his new boss Sheikh Hamdan.

Saturday's cards, form and betting

Perhaps Ascot would consider sending Payne down to Swinley Bottom to go against the clock and earn her way back into the competition?
E.W. Terms
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