The previous most populous running came 12 months ago, when Kayf Tara beat 15 rivals and the two-and-a-half-mile contest produced Ladbrokes' biggest betting race of the four-day meeting. A combination of good-quality runners, much-loved horses, competitive finishes and a boost in prize money - this year's purse is pounds 210,000 - have brought renewed public and professional interest.
Kayf Tara, the Godolphin representative, could not be judged an outstanding Gold Cup winner on last year's form alone. After his Ascot triumph over Double Trigger he was twice defeated carrying his Group One penalty and did not win again until beating Silver Patriarch at level weights in the Irish St Leger. But after his summary defeat of Tajoun and Katun in France last month, giving them weight, there seems every reason to suppose that, in the mould of his top-class brother Opera House, he is improving with age and can retain his title.
Both he and the horse most likely to depose him, the James Fanshawe-trained Arctic Owl, are at their best with give in the ground. But should the sun shine unrelentingly in the next four days Godolphin have an able deputy in Nedawi, last year's St Leger winner.
Celeric, who must pounce late, has become inconsistent. He ran in snatches when a below-par fifth behind Arctic Owl and Rainbow High in the Henry II Stakes at Sandown 13 days ago, but looked in splendid shape on his seasonal debut, when he beat Shaya over two miles of Thursday's course in the Sagaro Stakes.
The multiple Godolphin entries on Tuesday's opening day have yet to be finalised but much will depend on the way the Dubai-based team jumps. Close season recruit Xaar, the top two-year-old of 1997, is more likely to go for the 10-furlong Prince Of Wales's Stakes than the Queen Anne Stakes over a mile. If Xaar opts for the longer race, the team's number one in a bid for a Queen Anne hat-trick will be Fa-Eq, probably backed up by Cape Cross and Fly To The Stars. But racing manager Simon Crisford stressed yesterday nothing would be writ in tablets of stone.
The blue colourbearer in the week's first Group One contest, the St James's Palace Stakes, will be another most interesting seasonal debutant, Aljabr, who was prevented by injury from contesting the Kentucky Derby after being diverted from the 2,000 Guineas. Aljabr has been sparkling at home since his return from the States, but his designs on the pro tem three-year- old miling crown will be tested by the French 2,000 Guineas winner Sendawar who, in the absence of Island Sands and Saffron Walden, will be the sole Classic winner in the field.
The equivalent race for fillies, the Coronation Stakes on Wednesday, offers a more definitive shakedown in pecking order, with the winners of the English, Irish and French 1,000 Guineas - Wince, Hula Angel and Valentine Waltz - plus Wannabe Grand and Golden Silca, runners-up at Newmarket and the Curragh, all set to take part. Wannabe Grand, a daughter of Danehill, can reward Jeremy Noseda's ploy in keeping her fresh.
In the lull before the Ascot storm yesterday's feature race, the William Hill Trophy Handicap at York, was steeped in irony on two fronts. Not only had the winning owner, the British Horseracing Board chairman Peter Savill, made a scathing verbal attack on the integrity of the bookmaking industry at his organisation's annual meeting three days previously but in picking up the despised sponsor's cash his horse Pepperdine, well supported at 10-1, prevented a bookies' benefit by swooping late to beating First Musical, a 50-1 shot.Reuse content