Three of the meeting's seven Group One races will be over inside 80 minutes today – and in an aggregate time quicker than will be set by its final winner on Saturday afternoon, trundling two and three-quarter miles in the Queen Alexandra Stakes. That race is too cherished an heirloom for anyone to suggest that Royal Ascot ends with a whimper, but it unmistakably opens with a bang.
Much like last year, the curtain is raised by the most accomplished racehorse on the planet. And while Frankel was a colossus content to bestride home turf, Animal Kingdom contests the Queen Anne Stakes in a spirit of testing every boundary of his talent – in terms of surface, environment and opposition.
The winner of a Kentucky Derby on dirt, and a Dubai World Cup on a synthetic surface, he now drops back in trip on turf. The last time he did the same, he was beaten but still contrived to gain in stature. Tanking along throughout the Breeders' Cup Mile last autumn, Animal Kingdom got stuck in traffic and looked unlucky not to run down Wise Dan. The winner was subsequently anointed Horse of the Year, a rare accolade for a turf performer, and both had left Frankel's regular punchbag, Excelebration, flat-footed in third. Overnight rain would introduce a fresh imponderable to the terrain, and this will be his first start over a straight track. But his versatility is such that Animal Kingdom (2.30) can reward his English-born trainer, Graham Motion, for nursing him skilfully through a career of fits and starts. Even money actually looks a pretty fair price, albeit each-way punters should note that Elusive Kate could enjoy an easy lead.
The cosmopolitan theme continues in the King's Stand Stakes, where Shea Shea is favourite for South Africa. He, too, arrives after chasing the dirham in Dubai, but has arguably opened less of a gulf in class. At 10-1, Shamexpress (3.05) looks better value after showing exceptional acceleration to scythe down seasoned rivals in one of Australia's top sprints. Sprinters from his homeland have a formidable record at Royal Ascot in recent years, and their trainer rates Shamexpress superior to Star Witness, second in this race two years ago. Those seeking a big outsider are in turn recommended Move In Time, who has not finished improving for his new yard.
However precariously, the St James's Palace Stakes has ultimately turned out to be one of the races of the week. It had initially seemed as though Dawn Approach would come nowhere near the meeting, after bombing out in the Derby, but he then became the latest in a long line of rabbits pulled from his trainer Jim Bolger's hat. The big rival who accompanies him from Ireland, Magician, conversely became prey to sudden doubts after a setback at the end of last week. Fingers crossed that both can show their best, after outstanding performances in mile Classics.
Dawn Approach started hot favourite at Epsom, when connections took a worthwhile gamble on his stamina, but the writing was soon on the wall when he refused to settle off a very slow pace. Bolger's best horses have historically been as tough as they are brilliant, which limits reservations about this one's busy schedule. Neither of the big guns have had a reassuring preparation, however, making Mars(3.45) tempting at 12-1. Sixth in both the 2,000 Guineas and Derby, while being indulged his inexperience from the saddle, the Ballydoyle second string could be ready to absorb those lessons with a giant leap forward today.
Aidan O'Brien also has a strong hand in the Coventry Stakes. It seems hard enough to choose between his runners – albeit his son, Joseph, has sided with the most accomplished to date in Stubbs – never mind from all the unexposed improvers in opposition. As a son of Henrythenavigator and Peeping Fawn, Sir John Hawkins (4.25) has a better pedigree than most to sustain his own promising start.
Justification gives the stable prospects in the first of the meeting's head-wrecking handicaps, but Mawaqeet and Suraj (5.00) both appeal at bigger odds. And while Ogermeister could easily book-end the card for the Americans, Sacha Park (5.35) is less of an unknown quantity at double the price.
CHRIS McGRATH'S NAP
Spieta (8.40 Kempton)
Animal Kingdom (2.30 Ascot)