Geoff Lester’s column

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Geoff Lester’s column

ROYAL ASCOT

International Affairs: London – America’s 13th Triple Crown winner Justify showed the world last weekend he is the undisputed king of the dirt, but for those who prefer their racing on turf there is no meeting on the globe that compares with the five days of Royal Ascot – and the 2018 renewal is now just around the corner.

Day One will already be behind us by the time you read next week’s column, so this looks an opportune moment to take an advance look at what promises to be a stupendous opening stage on Tuesday, with three blockbuster Group 1s in the first four races.

It was Queen Anne who founded Ascot racecourse in 1711, and the Royal procession has been an integral part of what is the pinnacle of Britain’s racing year since 1825.

But, take out the wonderful pomp and pageantry and it’s all about the top-quality racing, with America launching their biggest ever challenge, and the Australians yet again a potent force in the speed races.

There is £7.3 million in prize money up for grabs next week when 300,000 racegoers are expected to stream through the turnstiles.

For the purists of the sport, the Tuesday is actually the best day, with Canada, France and Ireland having boasted success in the Queen Anne in the last five years, while in the last decade the King’s Stand Stakes (1000m) has been won by global sprint champions from America, Hong Kong and Australia.

The St James’s Palace Stakes brings together the cream of Europe’s classic generation over 1600m, while the Coventry Stakes, the most prestigious two-year-old race of the week, is a Group 2 in name only, with four winners in the last decade having gone on to capture a Guineas in their second season.

With a predominately dry weather forecast for the next week, the meeting should start on ground on the fast side of good but judged on recent results – only one favourite in the last 10 years has won the King’s Stand – expect a surprise or two on the opening day.

At the top of the King’s Stand market, Europe’s champion speedball Battaash and American flyer Lady Aurelia, who is looking for a third consecutive win here, having blitzed her field in the Queen Mary as a two-year-old and come close to breaking the track record when victorious in this race 12 months ago, are proving virtually inseparable.

Wes Ward is getting bullish about Lady Aurelia, but she might have lost her invincibility, and, while Battaash has a kink in him – he blew a fuse before the Nunthorpe at York last year – on his day he carries superstar status, though his stable are experiencing a quiet time just now, not ideal going into Royal Ascot.

Kachy, who has phenomenal early pace, had Battaash at full stretch at Haydock last month, but not even a tardy start could stop the latter at the business end, and he got up to snatch the Group 2 Temple Stakes on the line.

Washington DC, who flew home in second, renews rivalry, as does Kachy, who was eventually close up in third, but the value bet could be an Eachway interest on the improving MABS CROSS (fourth), who was fast overhauling the first three and looks the ideal closer for a race which will be run at a furious pace.

No filly has won the Queen Anne since French ace Goldikova eight years ago, but RHODODENDRON has special qualities and can give favourite-backers the perfect start.

Granted, Lightning Spear ran Rhododendron to a short head in the Lockinge Stakes at Newbury last month, but the latter, while admirably consistent, has only won one of his last 10 races and, unlike the Coolmore filly who is a dual Group 1 winner and has also finished second in two classics and a Breeders Cup, he lacks the much-needed X-factor.

Godolphin’s Benbatl, so impressive when winning the Dubai Turf on World Cup Night, will relish the ground, but she might have to be content with the silver medal this time.

I’m also inclined to stick with Aidan O’Brien for the St James’s Palace, with US NAVY FLAG preferred to stable Gustav Klimt.

It seems strange that Romanised, who beat the Coolmore pair on merit in the Irish 2000 Guineas, is twice the price in his quest to confirm the form, but fashion dictates and he is based with a relatively small trainer in Kevin Condon, leaving punters still suspecting that it was a fluke victory.

Cynics will doubtless have the same sentiment about Roger Teal’s Tip Two Win, who belied odds of 50-1 when beating all except Saxon Warrior in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket.

That form has been franked not only by third-placed Masar but also Roaring Wind (fourth) at Epsom, but I still feel we have not seen the real US Navy Flag this season and give him another chance. Remember, he was Europe’s champion two-year-old of 2017, and on this round course, I can see him making all.

Surprise favourite is John Gosden’s Without Parole, who is home-bred by John Gunther, as, ironically, was American Triple Crown hero Justify.

Without Parole is 3-3, but, having missed the Guineas because he had a bruised foot – he was very much the stable second-string behind Roaring Lion – he struggled in the soft when winning in Listed grade at Sandown.

This faster ground will suit Without Parole, but he is rated 3.5kg inferior to US Navy Flag and, while his recent homework suggests that race sharpened him up considerably, he still has to take another step forward.

Stablemate SERGEI PROKOFIEV is the best two-year-old seen in Ireland so far this season, and, while the home team look strong for this year’s Coventry, I was hugely impressed with the way he won at Navan. He’s a big powerful colt with an enormous future, and maybe you should back him for next year’s Guineas BEFORE Tuesday!

It could be a Flaming June for Coolmore as I also expect HAPPILY, a beaten favourite when only third in both the English and Irish 1000 Guineas, to improve going up to 2100m for the Prix de Diane (French Oaks) at Chantilly on Sunday.

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