Racing: Westerner approaches the great move north on a roll

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The Independent Online

The transfer of a great racing occasion to an alternative venue inevitably diminishes it, justifiably or not. Derby winners who earned their Blue Ribands during the war years, for instance, when the race was run on the July Course at Newmarket, tend to be regarded in a lesser light than those who scored in the real thing at Epsom, even though Owen Tudor (1941) and Dante (1945) were well- above-average performers and Gay Crusader (1917) and Gainsborough (1918) truly great horses.

Perhaps it is that they did not have to tackle the peculiar demands of the traditional venue. That will certainly be so this week, as the Royal Ascot meeting transfers to York, two tracks which could hardly present a greater contrast. York is left-handed, not right-handed. It is flat, not undulating. It has a home straight of more than half a mile, not two-and-a-half furlongs. It has a safety limit that will rule out traditional handicap cavalry charges. It does not have a straight mile. And until quite recently, it did not have a round course. One has had to be specially built to accommodate the Gold Cup.

And there is a famous, or rather infamous, draw bias at York. In big fields on the round course, particularly in races at a mile or longer, the lower-drawn horses - those running closest to the rail - are distinctly favoured, with those in the middle, rather than on the wide outside, at the least advantage. But in big-field sprints, those in the middle tend to come out on top. Being flat in topography, this is a course over which those who race up with the pace can excel; look for the long-striding, bold-running gallopers, the resolute, courageous types who spoil for a fight.

Both courses are steeped in history and tradition, though, and there is a "royal" link between the two. In 1714 a horse called Star became the first winner at York to carry the colours of a reigning monarch; he was owned by Queen Anne, who three years earlier had founded the course at Ascot. There has been racing at and near York (Star won at Clifton and Rawcliffe Ings) on and off since Roman times, and on the Knavesmire, the expanse of common land just 20 minutes' walk from the city centre, since 1731. Although nowadays the entertainment is confined to events between the running rails, time was when an afternoon's jollification would be prefaced by a hanging. Most notably, Dick Turpin met his end at the York Tyburn in 1739.

Those required to stand and deliver this week must do so in less harrowing circumstances than afforded to the highwayman's victims, but riches are at stake none the less. Whatever the setting and whatever the test, there is £3.255 million in prize money on offer over five days, split between 30 races, six of which are Group One contests. Hats and social niceties apart, this is top-class international racing.

The week's richest contest is no longer the Gold Cup, but the Prince of Wales's Stakes. Time was when the stayers' crown was the ultimate prize anywhere, one without which on his CV no self-respecting stallion could retire to stud, but times have changed, of course, and stamina is no longer seen as an essential quality. Happily, though, the caste of stayers has risen since the nadir when Ashal won the Gold Cup in 1990, and there has been some smart talent in the division lately; names like Classic Cliché, Kayf Tara, Persian Punch, Vinnie Roe. All not only good horses, but good box-office, and the two-and-a-half mile test provides the best spectacle of the week.

The last French-trained victor was Sagaro, who came from a golden era for marathon men and completed a unique treble in 1977. On Thursday the high-mettled Westerner, who wears earplugs to help keep him calm, can end the Gallic drought. The Elie Lellouche-trained six-year-old finished second to Papineau 12 months ago and is on a roll, going for his sixth successive win.

There being more potential stud value in shorter events nowadays, it would be ironic if a filly could deprive the colts of the prestige of a Group One victory in the £350,000, 10-furlong Prince Of Wales's Stakes on Wednesday. Ouija Board's road to York has not been smooth, though, and Azamour, with the benefit of a run, is preferred. But don't forget the Australian raider Elvstroem, who will relish the left-handed, upfront challenge.

Last year's Prince Of Wales's winner, Rakti, drops back in trip to the Queen Anne Stakes on the opening day, and the mean, moody six-year-old looks impossible to oppose. Dubawi is the class act in Tuesday's other feature, the St James's Palace Stakes, but no Derby runner has won since Marju in 1991, and his fast-ground-loving stablemate Shamardal, whose sire, Giant's Causeway, launched his Group One five-timer in the race five years ago, looks a better option.