Hours before yesterday's turbulent summer weather had any say in the matter, there were rumbles and flashes in Newmarket as Nicconi, the latest Australian sprint sensation to travel to these parts for a Royal Ascot challenge, went through his final serious workout ahead of Tuesday's King's Stand Stakes. The powerful bay five-year-old produced his trademark lightning acceleration at the end of a thundering five furlongs and put smiles on the faces of both rider Frankie Dettori and trainer David Hayes.
"Very happy indeed," said Hayes afterwards, "with the way he quickened through the last 400 yards and really stretched. He's right to go."
Raiders from Australia have won four of the last seven runnings of the King's Stand Stakes, the Grade One minimum-distance highlight of the Ascot opening day. But though Nicconi will be bidding to follow the hoofprints of Choisir (2003), Takeover Target (2006), Miss Andretti (2007) and Scenic Blast last year, the venture is a first for Hayes, a multiple champion of his profession both from his base in South Australia and during nine years in Hong Kong.
"I've never yet had a runner at Royal Ascot because I've waited until I had the right horse," he said, "and I firmly believe this is the right horse. He's the best sprinter I've ever trained and the King's Stand Stakes – a top-grade 1,000-metre race where the fast tempo will suit him perfectly – looks made to measure."
Hayes, 47, took over from his legendary late father Colin at the family's Lindsay Park empire 20 years ago and has 61 top-level victories, including Japan and Melbourne Cups, to his credit. The trip to the Northern Hemisphere is the racing swansong for his latest star, whom he part-owns and whose place at stud back home is already assured.
Nicconi, ante-post favourite for next week's race at a general 4-1, is unbeaten over five furlongs on a straight track. He produced an exhilarating effort to win the Lightning Stakes at Flemington in January, making his rivals seem nailed to the floor as he came from last to first in little more than 200 yards.
His latest run, over six furlongs on soft ground in early March, produced an uncharacteristically dull effort but, after a break, a sizzling piece of public work in a visor –which he will wear again at Ascot – confirmed his well-being before he boarded the plane to England.
Scenic Blast, Miss Andretti and Takeover Target were all ridden by their regular Australian jockeys but Hayes prefers to rely on local knowledge. "I like the idea of using an English-based rider," he said, "and there is none better than Frankie, especially at Ascot. And having the best might give us that extra half-length and that might be the difference between winning and losing."
The betting market identifies Nicconi's contemporary Kingsgate Native, who two years ago won the Golden Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot and has since been gelded after failing at stud, as the best of the home defence. Trained by Sir Michael Stoute, he bounced back to his best in accounting for two other top-grade winners, Equiano and Borderlescott, on his comeback at Haydock last month. Third market choice is last year's runner-up, the Jeremy Noseda-trained mare Fleeting Spirit.
Yesterday's other bulletins ahead of next week's five-day extravaganza in Berkshire were as much about who's out as who's in. The French filly Special Duty will not travel for the Coronation Stakes on Friday, waiting instead for next month's Falmouth Stakes, and so will miss a clash with Jacqueline Quest, inches in front of her on the Rowley Mile. And Mabait, ante-post favourite for the Royal Hunt Cup today week, will swerve the meeting's most competitive handicap after proving himself better than that class with his close third place in a Group 3 event at Epsom on Friday. Irish-trained Dandy Boy has taken over at the head of the market.
The Richard Hannon yard, on the mark twice at Salisbury yesterday, has a strong hand in the Group One mile races, with Paco Boy heading for the Queen Anne Stakes (only very soft ground would prompt a switch to the Golden Jubilee) and Canford Cliffs favourite for the St James's Palace Stakes after his devastating victory in the Irish 2,000 Guineas. But, despite beating Canford Cliffs twice earlier this term, stablemate Dick Turpin may avoid a third clash and be switched to the seven-furlong Jersey Stakes.
Sue Montgomery's Nap
Escape Artist (4.30 Beverley) Gelding who raced only at seven furlongs at two, improved for a step up at Redcar last week.
Deacon Blues (4.10 Yarmouth) Has impressed lately and the drop into less competitive company may bring reward.
One to watch
Red Badge (R Hannon) Was unlucky at Newmarket last month and should continue his own progress.
Where the money's going
Sir Michael Stoute's Ask has been cut from 10-1 to 8-1 for the Ascot Gold Cup.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Custard Cream Kid (9.05 Beverley).