Comparing the current Flat turf season to a long train journey is one way of describing the roller-coaster campaign that comes to two of its most famous stops in June courtesy of the Epsom Derby and the five days of top-class racing at Royal Ascot later in the month.
The Derby now occupies a Saturday slot in the racing programme that is more in keeping with its place in the modern age, and only a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist or a blinkered fool would be grudge the fact that the premier classic has been rescued from the backwaters of the first Wednesday in June to a permanent Saturday berth.
The action at Epsom begins on Friday June 2 with the Group 1 Vodafone Oaks. Already this season’s classic fillies look a distinctly average bunch and it’s not hard to see the Oaks winner coming from the powerful stables of Sir Michael Stoute and Aidan O’Brien, who should provide a handful of the more interesting runners.
The all-conquering Stoute team is likely to feature Riyalma, a game winner of the Pretty Polly Stakes on her sole start to date this term at Newmarket’s Guineas meeting and the fast-improving Short Skirt, who beat O’Brien’s well-touted Alexandrova, the current Oaks favourite in the often influential Musidora Stakes at York at the end of last month.
Speciosa and Confidential Lady, the Newmarket 1,000 Guineas winner and runner-up respectively, could also be in the Oaks line-up but the form of that soft ground classic may not add up to a great deal and the winner in particular is a wayward sort on track who might be unsuited to Epsom’s unique camber.
The June 2 card also features the Vodafone Coronation Cup, a Group 1 race for older horses that may well be won by Andre Fabre’s Shirocco, who looked better than ever when scoring on his seasonal debut at Newmarket recently, while Look Again is one of the better treated horses in the Vodafone Rose Bowl Handicap on the same day.
The Vodafone Derby takes centre stage on June 3 and there can be little doubt that the world’s greatest Flat race has been enhanced as a spectacle by the timely switch to a Saturday even though several recent renewals have been decidedly sub-standard affairs.
Still, watching the Derby field stream around Tattenham Corner before hitting that long and tilting home straight remains one of the greatest thrills in racing and if the betting is an accurate guide then Visindar.
This year’s short-priced favourite, is on an unstoppable course to give France their first Derby winner since Lester Piggott steered Empery home for trainer Maurice Zilber and Texan owner Nelson Bunker Hunt in 1976.
Andre Fabre’s unbeaten chestnut has won both his races against weak opposition with ease this season and the trainer’s intimation that the colt is ‘something special’ will be put to the sternest of tests at Epsom.
A short career of just three starts in small fields on flat tracks and over shorter distances is barely an adequate preparation for the uphill and downhill challenge of the Derby’s complete test. But Visindar may a cut above ordinary opposition.
Aidan O’Brien and Sir Michael Stoute have saddled four of the last five Derby winners and the former’s Septimus, a determined winner of the best Derby trial in the Dante at York, may emerge as the main threat to Visindar even though he lacks a change of pace and seems a St Leger and not a Derby horse.
Epsom’s Derby day card also features the Vodafone ‘Dash’, a five furlong sprint over one of the fastest sprint courses in the world and the man to stick with here is speed specialist, Dandy Nicholls, who may be represented by Merlin’s Dancer, his recent Chester winner who features on a handy mark for the ‘Dash’.
June 4 sees picturesque Chantilly host the Prix du Jockey-Club, or French Derby as it is more universally known, and Aidan O’Brien’s French 2,000 Guineas winner Aussie Rules could complete a rare French classic double.
While Jean-Claude Rouget’s Germance bids to make it five from five in the Prix de Diane Hermes, France’s version of the Oaks at Chantilly on June 11. On the eve of Royal Ascot, York stages its valuable Timeform charity day and the feature race is the valuable three-year-old sprint entitled the William Hill Trophy.
Five of the best days of Flat racing to be found anywhere in the world begins on June 20 with the first day of Royal Ascot that is rightly restored to its true home after slumming it on the pudding-like turf of York’s Knavesmire a year ago.
The Group 1 Queen Anne and St James’s Palace Stakes are the first day highlights and a clash between Peeress, the recent Lockinge winner and Proclamation, last year’s Sussex Stakes hero could be a mouth-watering meeting while George Washington’s presence in the St James’s Palace could put many of his potential rivals off their game.
On June 21 the Group 1 Prince of Wales’s Stakes occupies pride of place and the Godolphin team have saddled four winners in recent seasons and if they can re-capture their best form before Royal Ascot then the stable’s chosen representative will be well worth a second look.
Alan King’s Levera and Sir Michael Stoute’s Jeremy will be among the more fancied runners in the seven furlong Jersey Stakes while the latter’s Echelon could be the one to give the Stoute team back-to-back victories in the Windsor Forest Stakes, a one mile pattern event for the better middle-distance fillies.
There’ll be a massive field in competition for the Royal Hunt Cup, one of the biggest betting heats of the entire handicap season where class as well as courage is required of the winner. An early fancy for this one-mile dash would be Roger Charlton’s Another Bottle, who can handle big fields and may be a shade better than he’s shown so far.
The Ascot Gold Cup is the feature race on June 22 and many will be pinning their faith on Sergeant Cecil making the transition from top-class staying handicaps to this Group 1 prize and he’s sure to go well, though that also applies to Sir Michael Stoute’s Distinction, a runner-up in the race a year ago and the most likely winner from Andre Fabre’s Reefscape, who has been specially prepared for the valuable stayers’ crown.
Friday’s Royal Ascot action centres upon the Coronation Stakes, a Group 1 race over a mile for fillies and though this year’s fairer sex seems like an ordinary bunch, the Marcus Tregoning-trained Makderah might be the type to go well at big odds. She has been progressing nicely all season.
Royal Ascot’s final day, June 24, features the Group 2 Hardwicke Stakes, which hasn’t been a good race for favourites in recent years while the same is true of the Wokingham Stakes, where speed, a good handicap mark and the ability to handle a big field are all essential components for the eventual winner.
Hughie Morrison’s Intrepid Jack will be one of the more intriguing challengers for the season’s first big sprint handicap.