Sure, sure. The finish was great. But the start was an absolute mess.
Bred and prepped in Australia, the 3-year-old Coolmore colt Merchant Navy (4-1 U.K., 7-2 U.S.) got the better of a thrilling duel with City Light (12-1, 14-1) to win by a short head Saturday in the $796,078 Group 1 Diamond Jubilee Stakes, the six-furlong feature on the final day of Royal Ascot.
American 4-year-old Bound For Nowhere (16-1, 8-1) set the early pace, bumped Merchant Navy in the stretch and wound up three-quarters of a length behind third. The colt sired by The Factor nevertheless gave owner-trainer Wesley Ward a second in-the-money training finish during a week that brought him a 10th career win in England’s most prestigious racing festival.
But the story of the Diamond Jubilee came 72 seconds earlier, when the favorite Harry Angel (5-2, 5-2) was eliminated from any chance of winning because of the premature opening of the gates.
The 4-year-old Godolphin colt was loaded with a hood. When jockey Adam Kirby removed it, Harry Angel began to flail, forcing Kirby to readjust in his stirrups. As the horse continued to shuffle his feet, his left-hind hoof was planted upward on a side board. That is precisely when the gates flew open.
The unnamed race starter, according to a stewards report, said “that Kirby had shouted at him to wait, which he had done, and when Kirby had indicated all was well he had effected the start.” The report went on to say that Kirby “could not see that the colt's leg was on the running board as it was covered by the stalls rug, and once he had regained his iron he was happy to indicate to the starter that all was well for the race to start.”
Off balance, Harry Angel launched upward and lost valuable ground before Kirby finally got him in stride. By then it was too late, and the horse was clearly hurting. Kirby eased him to finish next-to-last in the field of 12.
“Harry Angel is not straightforward in the stalls,” his trainer Clive Cox said. “It’s a big shame it has happened and it has affected the whole day really. He has a nasty puncture wound, which we are concerned enough about. The vets are flushing the wound that he has on a hind leg. Hopefully, it is not too serious."
Up front Ryan Moore rode Merchant Navy from third at mid-race to a victory that wound up making the difference in his winning a fifth consecutive Royal Ascot riding title and his eighth in nine years.
“I can’t repeat what I was thinking when he hit the (finish) line,” Moore told ITV Racing. “The American horse leaned into me, and we were all very tight. (Merchant Navy) just lost his rhythm for a second. If I had got beat, I would have felt unlucky.”
Jockey Joel Rosario said Bound For Nowhere “broke well. He lugged to the left for a little bit, lost momentum and was kind of unfocused.”
Aidan O’Brien, who won his fourth consecutive Royal Ascot training championship and his ninth overall, said it was a challenge getting Merchant Navy to adjust to his move two months ago from the Australian autumn to the Irish spring.
“When he ran at the Curragh, his coat didn’t know whether he was going into the winter or coming into the summer,” O’Brien said. “Some horses adjust and they have that healthy constitution, and some don’t. He obviously has.”
The race provided a dramatic climax to the five days of racing on consistently good-to-firm turf. It was the second year in a row that Royal Ascot was baked through a dry, warm week in southern England.
The usual suspects prevailed for the meeting’s championships. All but one of Moore’s five winning rides were for O’Brien and Coolmore, which repeated as the top owner.
Sir Michael Stoute raised his Royal Ascot record to 79 training victories when Crystal Ocean (4-7, 1-5) came through with Moore for a 2½-length win in the Group 2 Hardwicke, a 1½-mile race that attracted only four other horses. The 4-year-old colt sired by Sea The Stars has won three of his last four since he finished third as the favorite in last year’s King Edward VII at the royal meeting. A possibility for the Breeders’ Cup Turf, Crystal Ocean is showing 20-1 odds for this fall’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, according to Oddschecker.
Running on or near the lead throughout, Soldier’s Call (12-1, 19-1) held on for a half-length win over Sabre (12-1, 16-1) in the Windsor Castle, a five-furlong sprint against 27 other 2-year-olds. The Ward-trained filly Moonlight Romance (7-1, 5-1) missed the break and finished 7¾ lengths behind in 13th. Rosario looked like he nearly came out of his right iron at the start. The race was delayed nearly 15 minutes after the colt James Watt (25-1, 30-1), refused a farrier’s repair in the saddling enclosure. He finished 10th racing without a left-hind shoe.
Bacchus (33-1, 46-1) held off the Godolphin favorite Dreamfield (2-1, 2-1) to win the six-furlong Wokingham handicap. Ward’s 8-year-old gelding Undrafted (14-1, 14-1), owned in part by former NFL wide receiver Wes Welker and winner of the 2015 Diamond Jubilee, wound up 8¼ lengths behind in 18th. With the long shot Major Jumbo (22-1, 22-1) finishing third, a winning $2 trifecta ticket paid $31,652.40.
Arthur Kitt (13-2, 7-1), a colt that survived life-threatening complications when he was foaled, won by a neck in the Chesham Stakes, a seven-furlong opener for 2-year-olds. He had to be revived six times the February 2016 night when he was born. His broodmare Ceiling Kitty, owned by Betfair founder Andrew Black, died in the foaling.
Jockey Jamie Spencer wove 9-year-old gelding Pallasator (11-2, 5-1) left and right in the stretch to win the Queen Alexandra, the 2 5/8-mile finale. This was Pallasator’s first flat race since he won a pair of Irish jumps in March and April for his new trainer Gordon Elliott.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com and appears daily through Royal Ascot. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Guests this week include Daily Racing Form chief photographer Barbara Livingston and southern California handicapper Bob Ike, who discusses what is next for Triple Crown winner Justify. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.