GEOFF LESTER: LONDON – Royal Ascot had everything this year – we were on the edge of our seats from the moment unbeaten Frankel kick started the five-day Festival with another explosive performance in the Queen Anne Stakes right through to Saturday’s dramatic cliff-hanger in the Diamond Jubilee, where Aussie jockey Luke Nolen so nearly committed hari-kari on phenomenal Black Caviar, who started at the prohibitive odds of 1-6 and scrambled home by the skin of her teeth.
Peter Moody, who has trained Black Caviar brilliantly to run up a sequence of 22-straight victories, had said beforehand that there was no way we would witness a Frankel-esque display and that “a quarter of an inch success would be enough’’. But just as the South Africans walked off the Nelson Mandela Bay pitch deflated on Saturday after an ante-climatic draw with a very ordinary England team, similarly the thousands of Aussies who converged on the Royal Heath expecting a procession from Black Caviar confessed to a feeling of mixed shock and disappointment as Nolen had the same sort of nightmare as Morne Steyn in Port Elizabeth and he can count himself lucky that the brilliant mare got him of out of jail.
The Ascot stewards confirmed afterwards that Nolen, who took his foot off the throttle for four strides in the last 20m and was almost caught by French raider Moonlight Cloud, would have been hit with a 42-day suspension had the head photo-finish verdict gone the other way. Even allowing for the fact that Black Caviar was subsequently found to have suffered minor soft tissue damage, it was an inexcusable error which took the gloss off what should have been an historic celebration.
It has to be said that Black Caviar never travelled like an equine superstar in the £500,000 feature and clearly the 36-hour journey from her Melbourne stable had left its mark. Nolen messed up big time, but Black Caviar was making heavy weather of winning even before his faux-pas and even if she had been given a half-decent ride she would still have only won by a length.
Connections promptly ruled out the July Cup at Newmarket and Black Caviar, who was by all accounts “as flat as a pancake’’ when she returned to her Newmarket lodgings, was in quarantine on Sunday morning in readiness to return “Down Under’’ in a fortnight’s time.
It would be a shame if our final memory of Black Caviar is clouded in controversy, so let us hope that the fizz is back in her glass when she arrives home and that she can produce one or two more vintage performances at the Spring Carnival in Melbourne before she heads off to the paddocks.
In contrast, Frankel threw in what many professionals believe was a career-best performance in stretching his unbeaten run to 11 and with three more races planned before he starts his stallion career – the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood, Juddmonte International at York and Champions Stakes back at Ascot – few would bet against the horse who is officially the best in the world finishing off with an unblemished 14 for 14.
Highlight on Day 2 was So You Think finally living up to all the Southern Hemisphere hype when winning the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes. The former Aussie superstar beat the Queen’s one-time Derby favourite Carlton House with real authority.
Aidan O’Brien was quick to apologise to Bart Cummings and all of So You Think’s Aussie fans, claiming that “it has taken me a year to find out how to train him – I worked him too hard and raced him too often’’. So You Think was winning his fifth Group 1 race in Europe, so maybe Aidan, who will give the horse one more roll of the dice in the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown on Saturday week before he returns to Australia to start his stud career, was being a bit hard on himself.
Ladies Day belonged to Frankie Dettori, who dragged his chin off the floor and jettisoned himself from the basement to the penthouse to land the Gold Cup for Godolphin on Colour Vision.
Frankie remains the king of Ascot, scene of his Magnificent Seven in 1996, but his fall from the big-time has coincided with a drop in the fortunes of Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation. Yet anybody who saw him galvanize Colour Vision to get the better of a titanic tussle with stablemate Opinion Poll will testify that there is still no better jockey around for the days that matter most.
John Gosden and William Buick shared the honours on Friday, rattling off a sparkling treble with Newfangled, favourite for next year’s 1000 Guineas after spread-eagling the opposition in the Albany Stakes, Fallen For You, who bounced back to form in the G1 Coronation Stakes, and Gatewood, who looked a Group horse running in a handicap when he stormed to victory up the wide outside in the Wolferton.
For many Day 4 belonged to The Queen, who celebrated her first victory here since 2008 when, in the year of her Diamond Jubilee, she saw Estimate power home in the Queen’s Vase.
Gosden clinched the trainer’s award when adding Joviality and Camborne to his winning haul, but not even five victories was sufficient for young Buick to carry off the jockeys’ prize. He was pipped for that honour in the very last race by Ryan Moore, whose Simenon landed the Ascot Stakes-Queen Alexandra double, enabling the former champion to equal Buick’s achievement and to deny him of the prestige on a count-back of places.
Sir Michael Stoute’s Sea Moon is heading for the King George and the Arc after an impressive Hardwicke Stakes triumph over Melbourne Cup hero Dunaden on whom Christophe Lemaire rode a shocker, while Ascot’s new-found international flavour was further illustrated by a magnificent success for Hong Kong speedball Little Bridge in the King’s Stand Stakes and also a surprise celebration for German-trained Energizer in the Tercentenary Stakes on Wednesday.
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By his high standards, Royal Ascot was slightly disappointing for O’Brien, with only So You Think and Ishivana triumphing, but back on his own patch normal service should be resumed at The Curragh on Saturday when his Epsom hero CAMELOT should not break sweat to land the Derby double and give the Ballydoyle trainer his seventh successive victory in the race and his 10th overall.
The form from Epsom has taken a few knocks, but Camelot looked an exceptional winner and Joseph O’Brien, who would be winning Ireland’s premier classic for the first time, is supremely confident.
Jim Bolger thinks that his Derrinstown Stud Trial winner Light Heavy could be capable of ruffling Camelot’s feathers, but perhaps the one for the Exacta is John Oxx’s Akeed Mofeed. He looks the type to improve now that he steps up to 2400m. However, Camelot is likely to start the shortest-priced favourite in the 50-year history of the race, so stand by for a Frankel-type performance.
Gosden’s great run could continue on the Kildare track on Sunday, when improving mare IZZI TOP looks a must bet for the G1 Pretty Polly Stakes.
Big race in Britain on Saturday is the Northumberland Plate at Newcastle, in which I can pass on an encouraging word for both Chester Cup winner Ile De Re and Mount Athos, who looked right back to his best at Newmarket last time and would definitely be a player if the ground is good or better.
However, Mount Athos is unlikely to get those underfoot conditions and for a speculative Eachway investment I can recommend THE BETCHWORTH KID around the 20-1 mark.
He made a very pleasing return after his summer break when finishing third at York recently, and trainer Alan King thinks that he will come on for that.
King said: “The Betchworth Kid has picked up plenty of place money for his owners over hurdles, but he does not really enjoy the jumping and I think we will stick to the Flat.
“It probably took me two years to learn the best way to train him. He does not need a lot of work, so we keep him fresh and he has never been better than he is just now. A fast-run race at Newcastle should suit him, and he could be the surprise-packet.’’
Champion trainer Richard Hannon drew a blank at Royal Ascot for the first time since 2005, but his team remain in good heart and he could be back amongst the winners at Newmarket on Saturday, when RAYAHEEN should not be missed in the Listed Empress Stakes.
Rayaheen, the first foal of Cheveley Park and 1000 Guineas winner Natagora, was impressive when winning on debut at Nottingham but missed Royal Ascot as it came a bit quick. She is one of the best juvenile fillies in the yard and I won’t be opposing her.
Finally, keep an eye out for a Gosden debutant this week in HOARDING. This Elusive Quality colt has been going well at home. He is entered at Newmarket on Saturday and also Doncaster both Friday and Saturday and wherever he runs he should not be far away.