Racing: Valixir can halt Rakti's Royal succession

There have been some striking public spectacles down the years on the piece of York common land they call the Knavesmire. In 1739 there was the grisly theatre of Dick Turpin being hanged for his audacity on the unprotected highways between old Eboracum and London. In 1982, a seething crowd gathered to pay respect to Pope John Paul II. Now, in the year of 2005, racing gets the prospect of burning its way into the history books.

There have been some striking public spectacles down the years on the piece of York common land they call the Knavesmire. In 1739 there was the grisly theatre of Dick Turpin being hanged for his audacity on the unprotected highways between old Eboracum and London. In 1982, a seething crowd gathered to pay respect to Pope John Paul II. Now, in the year of 2005, racing gets the prospect of burning its way into the history books.

Anyone who has ever attended an Ebor meeting on the Knavesmire in August will know that York does not have to sound its horn too loudly to get customers streaming through the gates. Now that the cachet of staging Royal Ascot has been attached to the course we can expect the sort of excited hordes last seen when the Vikings came to town.

This is York's big chance as Ascot racecourse undergoes its £185m redevelopment. And with great opportunity also comes great peril. For some, and they may not be the most dedicated of turfistes at other times of the year, the Royal meeting is the apex of the Flat season. The experience of one week dominates their entire view of the sport of kings.

York itself has redesigned and linked the old horseshoe course so it can stage races longer than two miles. Yet it is probably the plan to accommodate the human traffic which shows the new venue at its most vulnerable. The practice run at last season's Ebor meeting was worryingly inept. Racegoers have been advised to arrive by noon at the latest, fully two and a half hours before the sports start.

Crowd control may yet prove a problem, but York has already passed thrillingly in the area of quality control. Today's opening salvo is as appetising as you might expect for a card featuring two Group One races and a similar number of Group Twos.

There remains a Hitchcockian suspense about this afternoon's St James's Palace Stakes, as Godolphin may wait until the final moment before deciding which of its two leading three-year-old colts to field. Either Dubawi or Shamardal, both already Classic winners and both already installed at York last night, will run for the boys in blue, the former more likely if the anticipated showers arrive.

"We don't want to be awkward, but we could leave it until 40 minutes before the race," Simon Crisford, the Godolphin racing manager, said last night. "This is one of the highlights of the racing calendar so we have got to get it right."

Thus the picture remains vague as we search for a successor to Azamour 12 months ago, as well as Rock Of Gibraltar and Giant's Causeway, both also victors within the last five years. Aidan O'Brien, the trainer of the last two, is doubly represented by Ad Valorem and Oratorio, yet he must recognise the potency of his old Dubaian foe. Godolphin should win even if the identity of their agent is not yet available.

The Queen Anne Stakes used to be a two-piece puzzle. If Godolphin, who have won six of the last nine, did not collect it, then Sir Michael Stoute, who captured the other three, would. Rather unhelpfully, neither are represented this year.

That is not to say there is not a big gun in here. Rakti, whose owner Gary Tanaka remains under police observation in America as he continues his $11m bail on fraud charges, will be an odds-on favourite following a demolition job as thorough as anything to the Ascot pavilions in the Lockinge Stakes at Newbury.

"He seems fit and well and looks bright," Michael Jarvis, his trainer, said yesterday. "The ground seems suitable and we are looking forward to a good run. Everything has gone right and I just hope that the horse that turns up at York is the same one that turned up at Newbury."

And there is the rub. Rakti has thrown in a sufficient number of cantankerous efforts before to suggest opposing him at the odds today. The shape of the betting market and the numerical strength of the field indicate an each-way play and the obvious candidate is the supplemented Valixir (next best 4.20), whose stablemate, Cacique, almost three lengths behind in the Prix d'Ispahan at Longchamp last month, won a Group Three event at Chantilly on Sunday.

There are other instructive history lessons. The Tatling (3.05) won the King's Stand Stakes 12 months ago and is reported to be approaching that level of excellence again by his trainer, Milton Bradley.

In addition, Martin Pipe has two runners in the race which has provided five of his six victories at the Royal meeting, the Ascot Stakes. The interesting one here is PENNY PICTURES (nap 4.55), who was third in the contest last year. The six-year-old will be dangerous if he settles, which is not unlikely with a perfect pitch in the No 1 stall and with Johnny Murtagh at the controls.

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