Elsworth eyes a golden double

Sue Montgomery says Persian Punch can land a popular blow at the Ascot meeting
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IF Persian Punch wins the stayers' crown on Thursday it will put his trainer David Elsworth in a club so exclusive that so far it has just one member. The legendary Vincent O'Brien is the only man to have trained the winners of both the Ascot and Cheltenham Gold Cups, the former with Gladness in 1958 and the latter with Cottage Rake (1948-50) and Knock Hard (1953).

Persian Punch's physique is such that Elsworth's first impression was that he might be a possible candidate for the jump championship he annexed with Desert Orchid nine years ago. Such ideas have now been put to one side, at least for the moment. There would certainly be no more popular winner at this week's meeting. Persian Punch is owned by Jeff Smith, who has stuck by Elsworth through times thick and thin. Smith normally breeds his own horses at his Littleton Stud in Hampshire, but Persian Punch was a 14,000 guineas yearling purchase. Smith said: "David must take all the credit for this one. He saw him, liked him, bought him and passed him on to me. The attraction was that he walked well, like a natural athlete. Because of his size we thought he might be a jumper. But it didn't really surprise us when he showed enough speed for Flat racing."

Persian Punch, who has won seven of his 18 races to date, will be making his third consecutive visit to Royal Ascot. As a three-year-old he ran third in the Queen's Vase and last year started favourite for the Gold Cup, a race that in effect ended for him at the start when he became upset by the antics of another horse. "He banged his head on the side of his starting stall," Smith said, "and had an egg-sized lump on it. He was probably concussed when he ran in the race and it took him a while to get over it."

There is something of a jumping theme to this year's Gold Cup. Stretarez is the only Flat horse in Venetia Williams' yard, having been bought as a hurdling recruit after proving a good-class stayer in France last year and having had his jumping career put on hold after a surprise win in the Ormonde Stakes at Chester in May. French Ballerina, who beat Gordi at Leopardstown three weeks ago, won the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham, and I'm Supposin finished fourth in the Champion itself.

However, hurdlers do not win Gold Cups, even in a year when soft ground may make the two-and-a-half mile trip a severe test of stamina. Persian Punch can set his Ascot record straight and win what is usually the week's best spectacle at the expense of the quirky Three Cheers and the plain, honest filly Book At Bedtime.

The Gold Cup is one of three Group One contests - the others are the St James' Palace Stakes on Tuesday and the Coronation Stakes on Wednesday - during a week that features 15 pattern races, a prize fund of pounds 2.25m and 24 consecutive headaches for punters. The sheer sustained quality of the sport and the prestige on offer makes winner-finding something of a challenge; every horse will be trying for its life.

One of the safest policies over recent years has been to follow the fortunes of Henry Cecil. His first Royal Ascot winner was Parthenon in the 1970 Queen Alexandra, his 63rd Canon Can in the same race last year and only the Cork And Orrery Stakes, King's Stand Stakes and Wokingham Handicap stand between him and a complete set at the meeting.

This year the best of an impressive Warren Place line-up may be Jibe in Thursday's Ribblesdale Stakes and Royal Anthem in the King Edward VII Stakes the following day. Jibe, whose sister Yashmak turned the 12-furlong contest into a procession last year, has now got her act together after a slightly disappointing start to the year and can foil the likeable Zomaradah.The progressive Royal Anthem, who broke the track record at Newmarket last weekend on only his second public appearance, may prove among the leaders of the Classic generation later in the year.

The pounds 255,000 one-mile St James Palace Stakes, the week's richest race, features a clash between the winners of the French and Irish 2,000 Guineas, with preference for the supplemented Longchamp hero Victory Note. In the fillies equivalent, the Coronation Stakes, Sir Michael Stoute can celebrate yesterday's knighthood with Exclusive, who has progressed markedly since running third to Cape Verdi in the 1,000 Guineas.

The older middle-distance horses take their turn in thePrince of Wales Stakes on Tuesday, when the Godolphin representative Daylami can repel Insatiable, and in the Hardwicke Stakes on Friday, when Romanov can confirm his status.

Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson's loyalties will be tested on Tuesday, when his Queensland Star lines up for the Coventry Stakes 10 minutes before Scotland kick off their second World Cup match. But Bertolini at Ascot and Norway in Bordeaux are likely to spoil his afternoon.