Two parallel strands of a thread that will become one next month will be tightened on Tuesday at Ascot when the best milers strut their stuff on the opening day of a truly Royal feast of racing. At this stage of the season, the generations are kept apart at the highest level, with the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood the time-honoured point of first contact for this division. Next week the older brigade turn out in the Queen Anne Stakes; barely an hour later their three-year-old counterparts will be on stage in the St James's Palace Stakes.
Last year it was the youngsters who held sway as the campaign progressed and this time Mastercraftsman, winner of the Irish 2,000 Guineas, is an even-money chance to confirm his position of superiority over his contemporaries. But though the powerful grey's reappearance is eagerly anticipated, even more so is that of the old pretender to the miling crown. Never mind the brilliance of Sea The Stars, the highest-rated racehorse on the planet is currently the Queen Anne Stakes favourite Gladiatorus.
The four-year-old, now the pride of the Godolphin stable, earned his position back in March, when he emerged from relative obscurity to demolish his field in the Duty Free Stakes at Nad Al Sheba. Those who followed him respectfully in were subsequent Group One winner Presvis and his own stable-mate Alexandros, beaten by a nose in the Lockinge Stakes.
Gladiatorus's progress to the top was stealthy; he had been headhunted by Godolphin as a two-year-old after sweeping most before him in Italy, failed to run for the blues last year and emerged from forgotten obscurity in Dubai in January under the stewardship of Mubarak Bin Shafya, one of Sheikh Mohammed's trainers of endurance horses.
"We had him in Dubai the winter after we bought him," said Godolphin racing manager Simon Crisford yesterday, "and he returned to Newmarket with the rest of the string for the British season. But he proved to have a slight issue with his pelvis, the faintest of fractures, and he was a big, weak sort of horse anyway, so the decision was made to back off him and give him the time to develop he needed.
"We sent him off to Mubarak's stable in the desert, away from our training centre and the racecourse. And when he came back for the carnival season, he did nothing but get better."
Whether or not Gladiatorus's shimmering success at Nad Al Sheba was but a mirage will soon be tested. His nine possible Queen Anne opponents include Virtual, who won the Lockinge by a nose, and fourth-placed Paco Boy, plus impressive recent Haydock winner Main Aim, who will try his luck for the first time at the top level after being supplemented, along with Mac Love, to the field yesterday.
Gladiatorus has been impressing in his homework at Newmarket and will, according to Crisford, lack nothing in fitness in his bid for a prize Godolphin have already won seven times, most recently with another ex-Italian, Ramonti, two years ago.
"He's been training very well," said Crisford, "and will be straight enough. My only concern is that this will be a new test for him. His last three wins have been on the turning left-hand track at Nad Al Sheba, which he loves and handles very well. The straight mile at Ascot is very different."
Mastercraftsman, too, will face a new set of conditions; underfoot at Ascot it is currently mainly good to firm, whereas at the Curragh on Irish Guineas day it was so heavy as to be almost unraceable.
But trainer Aidan O'Brien, going for his fifth St James's Palace Stakes, and his second in a row after Henrythenavigator's, has no concerns for ground. "He is one of those unusual horses that seems to act on both types of going," he said yesterday. "Most that handle it fast can't handle it heavy, and vice versa. And I think his most impressive performance came on good to firm, in the Phoenix Stakes last year."
Ballydoyle stable jockey Johnny Murtagh will be on board Mastercraftsman, but will miss the last two days of the Royal meeting after failing in his appeal yesterday against a five-day ban picked up for careless riding in the Coronation Cup last week.
Nap: Implication (2.10 Newbury)
NB: Glasshoughton (7.50 Haydock)