It just did not look like Cracksman’s day from the very start of his misadventure Wednesday at Royal Ascot.
Flailing his head in the paddock and sweating all the way to the starting gate, Cracksman (2-5 U.K., 1-5 U.S.) put up little more than a token fight as an odds-on favorite in what was supposed to be a validation of his place as Europe’s top-ranked horse.
Instead it was Poet’s Word (11-2, 5-1), a three-time Group 1 runner-up, that broke through for a 2¼-length victory over Cracksman in the $990,275 Group 1 Prince of Wales’s Stakes, the 1¼-mile feature on the second day of England’s most prestigious racing festival. Hawkbill (11-1, 10-1) was another eight lengths back in third.
While Poet’s Word’s trainer Sir Michael Stoute established a new record with his 76th and later Wednesday his 77th Royal Ascot winners, rival John Gosden was left to explain why Cracksman did not look like his old self the whole day. In this case, it was a 4-year-old colt acting like his new self.
“He’s a clever horse,” Gosden told ITV Racing. “To that extent he was welcoming in all the fillies that were walking back from the Duke of Cambridge on the way back to the stables. We just need to concentrate his mind. It wasn’t very much on the job today. It might have been more on the fillies walking back to the stables.”
From this side of the Atlantic it was a great lesson in why watching post parades can be time well spent for bettors – and why TVG proved so valuable Wednesday showing the entire lead-up to the races, something that NBCSN using the host feed from ITV failed to do consistently.
The warm, humid conditions in southern England could have been used as an excuse for horses being sweaty. But in Cracksman’s case, the fidgety comportment was not about the heat. Well, at least not the heat from the weather.
“It’s not the same animal that I was riding in the spring,” Cracksman’s jockey Frankie Dettori said. “He was very lethargic. He was very one-paced. He was lazy. Absent. He’s not the Cracksman that I know.”
Whether it is the attraction of the opposite sex or just a general indifference to racing, Cracksman has been on the slide since he won last year’s British Champion Stakes over the same course as the Prince of Wales’s. That was where he beat Poet’s Word by seven lengths. Where it was soft last fall, the turf was good to firm this time. But Dettori and Gosden were not using the ground as an alibi.
“He’s just become quite lazy about it all,” Gosden said.
Craftsman did start the year by winning the Group 1 Prix Ganay in Paris, but his speed figures were down. Then he had to rally to win by a head in last month’s Group 1 Coronation Cup on soft ground at Epsom. Most bettors ignored the backward trend, but they did so at their own expense and to the delight of bookmakers.
“Maybe Cracksman isn’t at his very best right now,” Stoute said. “But we’ve beaten the others comprehensively. That will do me.”
American trainer Wesley Ward’s disappointment continued at the start and finish of Wednesday’s card. Chelsea Cloisters (2-1) bobbled at the break as the favorite under Frankie Dettori and finished 11th of 22, three lengths behind in the Group 2 Queen Mary Stakes, a straight five-furlong dash for 2-year-old fillies that Ward has won three times. Signora Cabello (25-1, 33-1) was a short-head winner from a three-way photo with Gossamer Wings (25-1, 31-1) and second betting choice Shade Of Blue (5-1, 9-2). The winner is primarily owned by Phoenix Thoroughbreds, which also own Belmont Stakes runner-up Gronkowski. A winning $1 exacta ticket paid $789.40, the trifecta $12,341.70.
Ward’s long shot Hemp Hemp Hemp (50-1, 24-1) finished 13th, 10 lengths up the track in the Group 3 Jersey Stakes, a straight, seven-furlong sprint for 3-year-olds. Expert Eye (8-1, 9-1) ran off to a 4½-length triumph, the second win of the day for Stoute. He had been tied with the late Sir Henry Cecil with 75 Royal Ascot victories coming into this week. Winning jockey James McDonald got back to riding only last month after serving a 1½-year suspension for violating betting rules at his home base in Australia.
Aidan O’Brien trained a Coolmore sweep led by Kew Gardens (10-3, 3-1) in the Group 2 Queen’s Vase, a 1¾-mile test for 3-year-old stayers. Ryan Moore rode his 49th Royal Ascot winner 4½ lengths clear of Southern France (9-2, 4-1) and Nelson (9-2, 7-2). Now with 62 Royal Ascot victories including six Vases, O’Brien said that next week’s Irish Derby and the September running of the English St. Leger could be targets for Kew Gardens.
Aljazzi (9-2, 4-1) stayed in touch with the lead throughout and ran on to a 3¾-length victory in the Group 2 Duke of Cambridge, a straight mile for older fillies and mares. William Buick rode the winner, the first at Royal Ascot for Italian trainer Marco Botti, a regular most years on Arlington Million day. The favorite Hydrangea (7-4, 6-5) faded to finish eighth for O’Brien and Moore.