LAS VEGAS — Are you reading this on a laptop or a tablet? How big is the screen? At the end of the 2½-mile feature Thursday at Royal Ascot, the margin of victory was about the width of your screen.
Big Orange (5-1 in the U.K., 9-2 in the U.S.) took the lead passing the grandstand the first time and never gave it back, barely holding off a late charge by defending winner Order Of St George (5-6, 4-5) to win the $464,336 Group 1 Gold Cup, the popular race that marked the midpoint of England’s big five-day racing festival.
“He’s just an absolute superstar,” said victorious trainer Michael Bell, who last won at Royal Ascot eight years ago. “He gives his all, and he’s got a heart as big as himself. I can’t praise his attitude enough. He wants to race, and he’s a colossal racehorse. On fast ground in the middle of summer he’s a monster.”
The 6-year-old British gelding that stands 17 hands tall claimed the second win this week for a horse that should have been ridden by injured Frankie Dettori. But because the 56-time Royal Ascot winner was sidelined by a hand injury last week, British jockey James Doyle filled in. He gave Big Orange a slow but perfectly paced ride, getting a successful bob of the head at the end of a race that took 4:22.40.
“Frankie just told me not to interfere with Big Orange,” Doyle told reporters. “He knows what speed he wants to go at, and you just sit as a passenger. I heard Frankie’s voice in my head, so I just eased him, let him go to the front, and the rest was history.”
A two-time Group 1 winner for Coolmore and trainer Aidan O’Brien, Order Of St George was held back throughout the race by jockey Ryan Moore before being wound up for a big finish. Two lengths back with a furlong to go, he went eyeball to eyeball and cheek to cheek with Big Orange, only to come up a “short head” shy of the victory.
“I wasn’t sure if Order Of St George was just lugging into him a little bit, but it just gave him a little wake-up call,” Doyle said. “I always knew he was going to hold him to the line. I knew we had won crossing the line, but when I saw the ‘photo’ (sign), I thought I hope I haven’t gone too soon.”
Harbour Law (33-1, 40-1), the winner of last year’s English St. Leger, finished sixth lengths back in third.
After coming up short twice in the Melbourne Cup in Australia and a fade to 11th in last year’s Hong Kong Vase, it was the first Group 1 win for Big Orange, which came into Thursday’s race off a victory last month in the Group 3 Henry II Stakes 80 miles away at Sandown.
“The Gold Cup is the feature race of the meeting, an epic race taking on a very good horse in a proper horse race,” Bell said. “I can’t tell you the pride I have got in Big Orange.”
American trainer Wesley Ward’s try for a third win in as many days came up four lengths short in Thursday’s opener. Co-favorite McErin (13-2 U.K., 9-2 U.S.) was unable to maintain his early pace and faded to finish seventh in the five-furlong Group 2 Norfolk Stakes for 2-year-olds. Sioux Nation (14-1, 16-1) defied the previous day’s stand-side bias, racing in a group to the far side of the straightaway and winning by a half-length over co-favorite Santry (13-2, 6-1). That gave jockey Ryan Moore his third victory of the week. Trained by Aidan O’Brien, the Coolmore colt became the third Royal Ascot winner this year to be sired by the American stallion Scat Daddy. The other two – Lady Aurelia and Con Te Partiro – are trained by Ward.
The 3-year-old gray filly Coronet (9-1, 9-1) overcame a blistering early pace and won the Group 2 Ribblesdale, the 1½-mile race that is often called “the Oaks of Royal Ascot.” She outdueled favored Mori (2-1, 9-5) to win by a neck under French jockey Olivier Peslier for English trainer John Gosden, who spent the early years of his career in southern California. The top two finishers dropped in class for the race that was full of fillies that were moving up.
Godolphin colt Benbatl (9-2, 9-2) finished a half-length ahead of Orderofthegarter (10-3, 5-2) to win the 1¼-mile Group 3 Hampton Court for 3-year-olds. Trainer Saeed Bin Suroor got his 36th Royal Ascot win but only his second since 2012. His drought coincides with Godolphin’s turmoil that began with a steroid scandal in 2013 and climaxed this month when CEO John Ferguson resigned after a feud with Bin Suroor.
Atty Persse (13-2, 7-1) became the first Royal Ascot winner sired by former world champion Frankel when he won by three lengths in the 1½-mile King George V handicap for 3-year-olds. It marked Godolphin’s fifth victory of the week.
An also-eligible that drew into the field thanks to two scratches, Bless Him (7-1, 25-1) overcame a wide draw to defeat 28 other horses and win the Brittania, a mile handicap for 3-year-olds. The colt sired by Sea The Stars was part of a nine-horse entry in American betting. That is because betting software in the U.S. is not programmed to accommodate more than 24 horses per race.
American horses racing Friday include La Coronel (22-1 in the U.K.), the Mark Casse-trained long shot that will try to take down O’Brien’s Irish guineas winner Winter (8-15) in the one-mile Group 1 Coronation for 3-year-old fillies.
Ward has three horses going Friday, including Bound For Nowhere (10-1 in the U.K.) in the Group 1 Commonwealth Cup, a six-furlong race for 3-year-olds; Fairyland (7-1), the early third choice for the six-furlong Group 3 Albany for 2-year-old fillies; and Princess Peggy (22-1), an Albany long shot that will race despite being hit by a bicycle on the way back from training Wednesday.
“Some bicycle tried to run through the red light and the guards and ran right into her,” Ward told ITV. “It kind of knocked her over a little bit on her right side. She’s got a little bit of a scrape. We looked at her, and she was perfect. The vets looked at her as well. She’s fine.”
As for the bicyclist, Ward said, “He’s lucky I wasn’t there.”