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Racing / Royal Ascot: Challenge to Turtle sets the standard: Fine weather, fast ground and a hot betting heat bring the meeting to an early boiling point for St James's Palace showdown

WITH temperatures expected to climb into the high 70s, punters in morning suits may find the going a little sticky at Ascot this afternoon. Unfortunately for those who have also backed Turtle Island in the St James's Palace Stakes, however, out where it matters the ground will be getting firmer by the minute.

Followers of other sports might find it strange that the Royal meeting's most compelling contest should depend so heavily on the weather. Were it not for the doubts about Turtle Island's ability to act on fast ground, however, today's feature would be only half a race, without the ferocious betting which even a Group One contest demands. Figures released by Ladbrokes show that last year, when Kingmambo took the St James's Palace at odds-on after the late defection of Zafonic, it generated the lowest betting turnover of any of the meeting's 24 races. Twelve months on, it could be the punting event of the week.

Turtle Island will be a short price, but not so short as to be unbackable, while a nine-runner field ensures that each-way punters will have three places to aim at (and all but Clive Brittain's Czarna must have a fair chance of filling one). From a less avaricious point of view, the race brings together three 2,000 Guineas winners, Turtle Island (Irish), Green Tune (French) and Royal Abjar (German), and the short-head runner-up in the original at Newmarket, Grand Lodge. Ascot also marks the time when three- year-olds who have had an early preparation for the Classics start to go off the boil, allowing less race- weary runners to take their measure. If so, Darnay and First Trump would have a serious chance.

It will be enthralling, the best race of an exceptional week, but one of Royal Ascot's triumphs is that while the top contest is often run early on the first afternoon, neither the day nor the meeting lose their momentum. The money helps - there is more than pounds 400,000 in added prize money on today's card alone - but above all there is the belief of owners, trainers, jockeys and punters that any winner at Royal Ascot is something to be treasured.

The two-year-old events provide a strong foundation for the week, particularly today's Coventry Stakes in which the focus will be on Rambrino and Silca Blanka, a smooth winner on Derby day. The Derby form receives its first serious test in the King Edward VII Stakes, in which tradition dictates that an Epsom also-ran starts favourite, only to be beaten before the turn for home. Pencader (sixth behind Erhaab), Golden Ball (seventh, but still very lightly raced) and Foyer (who unseated Willie Ryan) have the best chance of justifying the general opinion that this year's Derby was a good one, while Opera Score and Moonax will be running for anyone who disagrees.

Khamaseen, who gave Lester Piggott an excellent ride in the Epsom Classic, has been withdrawn from the King Edward VII, leaving the ageing ex-champion with just two mounts on today's card. He may also reflect that one of those, Star Player in the Ascot Stakes, became available only when the young rider of the moment, Jason Weaver, was claimed for Mark Johnston's Argyle Cavalier. The odds that this Royal Ascot will be Piggott's last must be shrinking.