Racing: The fresh face of Ascot - all £200m of it

Mixed reviews and a downpour greet the first look at Royal course's redevelopment
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The Independent Online

Here yesterday, it mattered less who won or lost than where they played the game. Racing returned to the Queen's course after a hiatus of 20 months, and although the £200 million redevelopment still had something of the building site about it, the chippies and plumbers will be out by the start of the Royal meeting next month.

So is the jury. The dry run was anything but, which kept the limited numbers subdued - 11,000 were allowed though the gates but mostly stayed indoors - but there were enough gripes about poor ground-floor viewing, possible insufficient seating capacity in some areas, and potential access bottlenecks to keep the course supremo, Douglas Erskine-Crum, and his team busy before 80,000 descend in 23 days' time.

Erskine-Crum is confident that all will go smoothly next month. "We will take all the feedback on board," he said, "and work from there. But I defy anyone to build anything, from a house to a huge sporting arena like this, without there being teething troubles. Today has been an invaluable exercise."

The grandstand is undoubtedly spectacular, even if to some it bears more than a passing resemblance to an airport terminal. For the professionals, though, where it counts is on the track, and there were few complaints. Yesterday's six races on brand-new, sodden turf passed without incident.

"The ground is like a carpet," said Ryan Moore, who won the day's feature, the Victoria Cup, on Partners In Jazz for David Barron. "In fact, it's the best ground I've ridden on all year."

The straight mile has been realigned and the turf relaid from scratch. "It is better-drained than on the round course and so rides faster," added Moore. "It's early days yet, but cantering down we couldn't feel any differences across the course that might produce a draw bias. You can't knock it at all."

The distinction of opening the latest phase in Ascot's 295-year history went to Baby Strange, winner of the first race for jockey Graham Gibbons and trainer Paul Blockley. Almost inevitably, Ascot's favourite son, Frankie Dettori, was also on the scoreboard, taking the finale on the Sylvester Kirk-trained Trafalgar Bay. Dettori joined in the praise for the new racing surface. "Magnificent," he said. "Heaven."

The winner of yesterday's Irish 2,000 Guineas will have the St James's Palace Stakes on Royal Ascot's opening day as his target, but the surprise identity of that colt is Araafa, not George Washington, the so-impressive hero of the Rowley Mile. Aidan O'Brien's charge started at 4-7 to complete the Classic double but bottomless ground at the Curragh proved his undoing and he went down by two lengths to the Jeremy Noseda-trained winner, a 12-1 shot.

Alan Munro had Araafa close to the pace from the off and kicked on two furlongs out, getting first run on the favourite, who failed to quicken, veering towards third-placed Decado as he tried. "I had a hunch that he'd handle this ground, and he did," said Noseda. "We thought that second might be no disgrace, but if the favourite didn't perform we'd be waiting in the wings."

Kieren Fallon, on George Washington, confirmed the conditions were his mount's undoing. "He laboured on it," he said, "he plugged on but couldn't quicken. You'll see the real George back on better ground."

The fillies have their turn today in the Irish 1,000 Guineas, with British interests represented by the Newmarket runner-up, the Sir Mark Prescott-trained Confidential Lady, and third Nasheej (Richard Hannon), plus Short Dance (Barry Hills) and Don't Dili Dali (Gary Moore). The card also marks the reappearance of last year's best three-year-old, the Irish Derby and Arc winner Hurricane Run. Andre Fabre's star faces just two rivals in the Tattersalls Gold Cup.

At Auteuil this afternoon the admirable Tom Mullins-trained mare Asian Maze takes on 14 rivals, including her Irish compatriot Kerryhead Windfarm and Dom d'Orgeval for Britain, in the Prix La Barka.

After the hurdlers, the chasers are in the spotlight over the formidable Auteuil fences in the Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris, the French equivalent of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The two principals are the Arnaud Chaille-Chaille stablemates, the 11-year-old Kotkijet, winner for the past two years, and six-year-old Cyrlight. The young pretender, unbeaten this season, could set up a fabulous double for his owner, Sean Mulryan, who has Linda's Lad in the Derby.

One of his Epsom rivals, the fourth favourite Sir Percy, sealed his place in the Derby field with a satisfactory workout over a mile and a half at Lingfield yesterday morning. The colt returned from his second place in the 2,000 Guineas stiff and sore but has bounced back well. "It could not have gone much better today," said his trainer, Marcus Tregoning.


Best shortshot
Idarah (3.15) is lightly raced, progressive, won by seven lengths last time and is in the King Edward VII Stakes.

Best longshot
Dancing Guest (5.25) won on soft ground last year and should be sharper for his three-year-old debut run.