The absence of Prince Charles from the carriages will miff Royal watchers, who gather at this meeting above all others, but, for those who prefer to spectate when horses are not in harness, the loss of Zafonic is a far greater disappointment. The brilliant winner of last year's Dewhurst Stakes and the 2,000 Guineas this season is unlikely to be seen on these shores again.
Khalid Abdullah's colt was removed from considerations after the Saudi owner's racing manager, Grant Pritchard-Gordon, walked the Berkshire course. 'With overnight rain and the unsettled weather the Prince decided it would not be right to run him,' he said yesterday. 'He has run three times on soft and each run has proved conclusively that he doesn't like it.' By yesterday afternoon the ground was officially good to soft.
Zafonic, who is trained in France by Andre Fabre, is now likely to be rested until the Prix Jacques le Marois at Deauville in August, which will precede a mission to the Breeders' Cup series in California.
However, plans for another Abdullah horse, the beaten Derby favourite Tenby, are about as positive as the results of the drug test announced yesterday. A urine sample taken from the colt proved negative in analysis by the Horseracing Forensic Laboratory.
Henry Cecil, Tenby's trainer, now believes the horse may have been as breathless as the punters who saw him fade into tenth place on Derby day. 'Tenby's tongue was hanging out and there's a possibility it got over his bit,' he said yesterday. 'When this happens it can stop the oxygen supply and that may have been the reason for his poor showing. It is not a problem, it's one of those things and obviously we will take precautions in future.'
Zafonic's absence this afternoon has unfortunately given the St James's Palace Stakes, previously the highlight of the meeting, the appearance of jackals and hyenas squabbling over a kill after the lions have become disinterested.
Wharf, another of Abdullah's talented squadron of colts, and the immaculately bred Kingmambo can hardly be described as scavengers, though. Despite Zafonic's omission, this prize should still be nailed into a crate with 'Chantilly' burned on the exterior, as Francois Boutin's Kingmambo (3.45), the only horse to have beaten the Guineas winner, can follow up his victory in the Poule d'Essai des Poulains (French 2,000 Guineas).
The card begins with Royal Ascot's usual panoply of trainers, plus one R Conway, not the 60s pianist, but the horse tuner from Dubai. Richard Conway, an American who trains for the Maktoums, is represented in the Queen Anne Stakes by Calling Collect, who was formerly prepared in this country by Luca Cumani.
Horse and trainer flew in on Friday, when they must have known what it is like to be a British holidaymaker returning from abroad. As Calling Collect may still be coming to terms with the drizzle and Cumani's Inner City is stepping up in class, the most sensible alternative here may be Alhijaz (2.30), who represents the team of John Dunlop and Willie Carson, successful 12 months ago with Lahib. This trainer and jockey partnership also contest another Group Two event, the King Edward VII Stakes, which will be notable not for the performance of their runner, the outsider Azzilfi, but as a barometer of the Derby form.
Among Azzilfi's opponents is Cairo Prince, fourth to Commander In Chief at Epsom, and the first horse to appear out of the Classic. The memory of Cairo Prince's burning finish on 2 June will ensure he starts favourite here, but on form he should not beat Beneficial (4.55), who conquered the Derby third, Blues Traveller, at Chester.
Beneficial was never entered for the Derby because his trainer, Geoff Wragg, thought he was not good enough, a decision which is beginning to look like scrubbing The Beatles in the heats for the Eurovision Song Contest.
Another product from a Classic, Jean Lesbordes's Urban Sea (next best 3.05), has prospects in the Prince Of Wales's Stakes, the race which will remind of the eponymous absentee. A fast-finishing sixth in last year's Prix de Diane (French Oaks), the filly is one of few guaranteed to relish the going.
Paul Cole's decision to remove Gold Land from the Coventry Stakes has made the colts' juvenile sprint a virtual match between Stonehatch (4.20) and Wajiba River. As the former has already won on spongy terrain and is considered to be the current head man among Peter Chapple-Hyam's strong batch of two-year-olds, he merits preference.
The only non-Group race on the card, the Ascot Stakes, offers the biggest challenge and potentially the biggest rewards. BUSTINETTA (nap 5.30) appears an attractive proposition in this handicap with her known appreciation for easy ground, her staying capability and the promise of double-figure odds. She might almost make up for Zafonic.
The Jockey Club announced yesterday that no disciplinary action will be initiated over April's abandoned Grand National. On Sunday the Jockey Club's official report into the chaos had singled out recall man Ken Evans for criticism, but the stewards ruled yesterday that there had been no breach of racing's regulations at Aintree.
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