Is it too soon to hand Aidan O’Brien his fifth consecutive Royal Ascot training title? Or Ryan Moore his sixth in a row as the top rider?
With 24 races left this week, the math says yes. But what is it called now? Recency bias? The way things have gone for O’Brien and Moore this century, the engraver may as well get a head start on the trophies or plates or whatever it is they hand over, over there.
O’Brien and Moore teamed for a pair of victories on Tuesday’s cool, wet opening day of the royal meeting, most notably seizing on the worsening, south England weather to win with Circus Maximus in the $626,007 Group 1 St. James’s Palace Stakes.
Adding blinkers and cutting back from a sixth-place disappointment in the 1½-mile Epsom Derby just 17 days before, Circus Maximus (13-1 U.S., 10-1 U.K.) stayed close to the lead throughout the right-turning, turf mile for 3-year-olds on the way to winning over a pair of John Gosden-trained colts. The late-closing King Of Comedy (5-1, 4-1) finished a neck behind in second; the favorite and 2018 British juvenile champion Too Darn Hot (8-5, 2-1) was three-quarters of a length back in third.
“It was a big challenge for the horse to drop back down in trip,” O’Brien said of Circus Maximus. “That’s why we put the blinkers on him as he didn’t have much time to learn how to race back at a mile. That helped him.”
Where O’Brien and Moore teamed to score with a long shot in the St. James’s Palace, they took a favorite to a half-length victory two races earlier with Arizona (1-1, 15-8). He took the lead for good late in the $187,802 Group 2 Coventry Stakes, giving O’Brien his ninth win in the six-furlong race for 2-year-olds.
Bettors were sucked into the tail-chasing vortex of what we call chalk, a term that causes non-American heads to turn like dogs puzzled by a strange sound. Short-priced horses won two of the first three races. But by the time the St. James’s Palace started, the rain had become steady, and jockeys reported the course had become testing.
Handicappers who did not adjust their overnight work were caught off guard by rain and the cut in the ground. Since his debut victory for trainer John Gosden last summer, the favorite Too Darn Hot had nothing in his past performances to suggest that a softening course would be to his liking.
Conversely, Circus Maximus’s two previous victories came on heavy ground in Ireland and just last month by 1¼ lengths in a 1¼-mile listed stakes at Chester. The owners – Maria Niarchos-Gouaze and the Coolmore team of Derrick Smith, John Magnier and Michael Tabor – also showed faith in the latest of a long string of their winners by Galileo. They supplemented him into the race for $56,447.
“Maria, Derrick, John and Michael all decided at 11:45 a.m. (on deadline day) that they were going to supplement Circus Maximus for this race,” O’Brien said. “We just ran with it.”
The win was worth $383,278, making it an 11-2 payoff for the owners.
O’Brien has 67 career Royal Ascot victories as he tries to catch up with Sir Michael Stoute’s 79, tops among active trainers. Moore has 55 victories, five behind Frankie Dettori.
The O’Brien-Moore duo will be reunited notably Wednesday with Magical (2-1). The runner-up to Enable in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Turf is the favorite for the signature $939,007 Group 1 Prince of Wales’s Stakes, a 1¼-mile race for older horses.
Royal Ascot notes and opinions
Making his Royal Ascot debut, 2000 Preakness-winning trainer Joe Orseno finished sixth with Imprimis (17-2, 6-1) in the $626,007 Group 1 King’s Stand Stakes, a five-furlong sprint for 3-year-olds and up. The winner of the Grade 2 Shakertown at Keeneland ridden Tuesday by Dettori, Imprimis and most of the rest of the 12-horse field were outclassed. For the second year in a row Blue Point (8-5, 5-2) and Battaash (9-5, 2-1) finished one-two in what turned into a match race by the end with the repeating winner finishing 1¼ lengths clear. Soldier’s Call (21-1, 16-1) was 2¾ lengths back in third. The winning time was 58.53 seconds on a course labeled all day as good to soft.
The 6-year-old gray gelding Lord Glitters (12-1, 14-1) qualified for the Breeders’ Cup Mile with his upset win by a neck in the $751,209 Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes. Now 3-for-7 with six in-the-money finishes for hot jockey Daniel Tudhope, Lord Glitters outfinished Beat The Bank (27-1, 20-1) and One Master (29-1, 20-1) in the straightaway mile for older horses. A year ago the David O’Meara trainee sired by Whipper finished second to Accidental Agent (14-1, 17-1), a 5-year-old that refused to start when the gates flew open for Tuesday’s first race.
Wednesday’s card includes the first appearance this week of trainer Wesley Ward, who has 10 Royal Ascot victories to his credit in as many trips to England’s biggest meet. He has four horses going in two races, most notably Kimari (11-2), ridden by John Velázquez, and Anna’s Fast (10-1), ridden by Tyler Gaffalione, in the $137,964 Group 2 Queen Mary Stakes, a five-furlong sprint for 2-year-old fillies. Ward also saddles Foolish Humor (9-1), with Velázquez, and Karak (14-1), with Gaffalione, in the $112,880 Windsor Castle, a five-furlong sprint for 2-year-old males.
With showers in the Ascot forecast for Wednesday, my play in the opener is admittedly chalky. Sort of. The Godolphin filly Final Song (9-2) is the tentative favorite in the Queen Mary. She won over this same course – on soft going, no less – by five lengths in her maiden debut last month. In a field of 28 that includes four Godolphins, the lean is to the one chosen by jockey Christophe Soumillon.
Ron Flatter’s racing column appears daily during Royal Ascot. It is normally posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. The current episode is focused on Royal Ascot meet and features trainer Wesley Ward and Racing Post’s Lee Mottershead. The RFRP is also available via Apple, Google and Stitcher.