Fortune expects Tariq to help retain Ascot title

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The Independent Online

It's Royal Ascot week, and that means superlatives. The biggest, the best, the richest, the most ostentatious, the most elegant. And a bit of number-crunching is always appropriate on such occasions. Prize money for the week: £4,000,000. Amount likely to be spent on champagne in public bars: £2,000,000. Lobsters devoured: £10,000. Strawberries ditto: £200,000. Value of the week's top purse: £375,000.

Tomorrow's opening day will mark a first, for never before have three Grade One races – in this case the Queen Anne Stakes, the newly-upgraded King's Stand Stakes and the St James's Palace Stakes – been staged in one afternoon in this country.

Another innovation at the Royal meeting will be the wearing of a yellow armband by the meeting's top rider which will, cycling style, be passed on every time there is a change at the top of the leaderboard. Fortune, last year's best with six victories, will have it when he opens the defence of his title on Tariq.

And he has every hope of not surrendering it easily. Tariq, trained by in-form Peter Chapple-Hyam, is only fourth favourite for the Queen Anne Stakes, but Fortune is more than hopeful he can step up on his third place to now-sidelined Creachadoir in last month's Lockinge Stakes.

The four-year-old is going for a Royal double, having won the Jersey Stakes over seven furlongs at the meeting last year. "Everyone saw how he ran at Newbury," said Fortune. "It was his first run of the year and he was too fresh and free, but it was a very good performance. He likes the track, he gets a mile, the ground will suit and I think he's got a big chance this time."

Tariq's 10 rivals include the three who followed him home in the Lockinge: Cesare, Arabian Gleam and Haradasun. The last-named, a high-class performer in his native Australia, is one of three from Ballydoyle and is the pick of Johnny Murtagh, the short-priced favourite for the week's jockey title.

The Queen Anne Stakes is the season's second stop on the circuit for elite older milers. The pecking order among the three-year-olds they will face in the all-aged contests later in the season will be established in the St James's Palace Stakes, in which dual 2,000 Guineas hero Henrythenavigator, Murtagh's mount, is odds-on to maintain his place at the top of the pile.

Fortune will ride Rowley Mile fourth Raven's Pass, initially perceived as a non-stayer at Newmarket, but now given another chance at the top over a mile, rather than dropping in grade and distance to the Jersey Stakes later in the week.

"The Guineas was a complete mess-up of a race," said Fortune. "The stalls were in the middle of the track and everyone wanted the stands' rail. When you get all the horses going to the left like that and you're on a keen one, it's very hard to keep them on an even keel and get them relaxed because you're forever shifting. It wasn't ideal. But he's come on since the Guineas and has been working well and seems a much more relaxed horse at home now. Like everything else going to Ascot, you've just got to be hopeful rather than confident as you need a lot of luck there, but I hope that he's a lot better than at Newmarket."

For once, the best milers in Europe could be overshadowed by the electric competitors in the King's Stand Stakes, 15 of the best sprinters in the world. The ubiquitous Australian presence, represented this year by 2006 winner Takeover Target and last year's third Magnus, is backed up in the cosmopolitan stakes by South African mare National Colour and Spanish longshot Equiano. The home side defence will be led by a filly who could provide a genuinely thrilling, absolutely chilling moment on the Ascot opening day, Fleeting Spirit.

Murtagh (on Abraham Lincoln in the sprint) is one of only two jockeys with a chance of a Group One treble. The other is Olivier Peslier, who rides Sageburg, Equiano and French 2,000 Guineas winner Falco.

More numbers. The meeting's leading current trainer, with 70 victories starting with Parthenon in 1970, is Henry Cecil. The Warren Place maestro will be trying for one of the heartwarming stories of the week in the form of a winner on his honeymoon (his recent marriage to his third wife, Jane, was blessed in church yesterday) and his first at the meeting that was once his own for six years. His first runner this week will be Twice Over in the St James's Palace Stakes.

Mick Kinane is the leading active Royal Ascot jockey, with 41 wins, and has his first ride this time on Awinnersgame in the 18-runner Coventry Stakes, a contest taken last year by Henrythenavigator. Frankie Dettori, who regards Ascot rather as his spiritual home, is on the 39-mark and launches his bid for a sixth title on Dandy Man in the King's Stand Stakes.

* Move over, Big Brown. At Churchill Downs on Saturday night Curlin re-established his status as an American hero by taking the Grade One Stephen Foster Handicap, his first run since his Dubai World Cup win, by an easy, impressive four-and-a-quarter lengths.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Castlebury(Windsor 9.00)

NB: Kokkokila (Warwick 6.40)