Noble's Promise is equal to the Ascot bluebloods
Challenger from US can take European Classic colts down a peg
No doubt there are those who will treat Royal Ascot as a placid sanctuary from the drone of the vuvuzelas, but they may yet find they've gone to the wrong place. Admittedly, the fashions are generally nothing like as loud, but nowadays this is as close to a World Cup as you are going to find on the European Turf.
The increasingly international complexion of competition at this meeting is not welcomed by some of our more insular trainers, for obvious reasons. But it ensures that Ascot does not have to rely solely on its breathtaking grandstand to confirm itself the 21st-century showcase of British racing. Royal Ascot cannot compete, financially, with Meydan in Dubai; nor can it match the Ryder Cup intensity of the Breeders' Cup. Both on and off the track, however, its management has shown commendable dynamism in resisting any staleness in one of the nation's greatest social and sporting institutions.
Things are happening too fast for some tastes. And there could be another breakthrough today that catches everyone off guard. For the three Group One races that set such an explosive tone for the meeting may yet prove to contain still more dynamite than even the cognoscenti might suppose.
Everyone is talking about this rematch between Makfi and Canford Cliffs in the St James's Palace Stakes. Each has his ardent defenders, albeit some punters are expecting both to be upstaged, by Steinbeck or Siyouni. Nobody, however, seems to be giving due respect and attention to Noble's Promise, who introduces a completely new dimension to the overseas challenge.
Until last year, those raiders from beyond Europe to have discovered fertile new territory here tended to be sprinters from Australia or Hong Kong. Then Wesley Ward showed up from California, and proved that our two-year-olds didn't really have the necessary over five furlongs, either. In Noble's Promise, however, we have a colt exiting from the Kentucky Derby itself to run over a mile of Berkshire grass against two brilliant Classic winners.
Both Makfi and Canford Cliffs were sufficiently impressive, in the 2,000 Guineas and its Irish equivalent, to suggest that Kenny McPeek, trainer of Noble's Promise, might have chosen a bad year to do something so audacious. But as McPeek himself observes: "Who knows? Maybe they chose a bad year!"
And he's absolutely right. Anyone who professes certainty that Noble's Promise is or isn't up to standard is simply guessing. McPeek is familiar with the syndrome, in that American trainers can't be adamant how East and West Coast form will stack up together, or even state by state. So how can anyone know, when the form is literally an ocean apart?
The corollary, of course, is that you must make an equal presumption in his favour to back Noble's Promise. But at 25-1, compared with 6-4 against Canford Cliffs, that's not so terribly hard. After all, this is demonstrably one of the most able American colts of his generation, good enough to lead them into the home turn at Churchill Downs in conditions he reviled. Despite sharing an excessive pace, he faded into fifth only in the final 100 yards, and McPeek is convinced that his stamina ran dry.
Lacking suitable mile opportunities at home, and blessed with a facility to train on turf and right-handed, McPeek has shown the same enterprise that animated his previous visit here. Hard Buck, likewise dismissed in the betting, finished second in the 2004 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes.
Canford Cliffs is returning to the scene of that dazzling success in the Coventry last year, having finally retrieved that sparkle when coasting home at the Curragh last month. He had previously flattened out into third behind Makfi, after going well through the race, but should settle better round these turns and can certainly close the gap on the French colt. Steinbeck, in turn, will be no pushover for either after shaping so well on his delayed comeback at the Curragh. Siyouni also gives the impression that his best is yet to come. In fact, one of the things that makes Noble's Promise (3.50) so tempting an each-way alternative is the sheer tangle of ascending form lines between the European colts.
We know a good deal more about the older milers who start proceedings with a vintage edition of the Queen Anne Stakes. Last year's winner, Paco Boy, has resumed in great heart this spring but the flair he has been showing against inferior rivals cannot be taken to imply the improvement he requires to reverse past form with two top-notchers in Rip Van Winkle and Goldikova. It would be staggering were the former ready to produce a career best after such a long lay-off, so Goldikova (2.30) looks a worthy favourite.
The Australians' excellent recent record in the King's Stand Stakes has emboldened them to send over two more speedballs this time, and Nicconi is favourite after apparently scorching Newmarket Heath during his preparations. He looks less obviously superior than Scenic Blast last year, however, and Total Gallery (3.05) might be worth forgiving that disappointing run at Haydock, now that he is relieved of his penalty.
After blowing them away with Canford Cliffs last year, Richard Hannon returns to the Coventry with another strong fancy in Strong Suit. The colt he beat at Newbury has since been enlisted by Godolphin and impressed at Goodwood, but there is a persuasive look to Zoffany (4.25) after two stylish wins in Ireland. It is always encouraging when the Coolmore team fast-track a colt without a Coolmore pedigree, and perhaps he can earn consideration as a future stallion today.
Ward, meanwhile, is back with another Californian ball of fire for the Windsor Castle Stakes. Metropolitan Man (5.35) has all the trimmings – blinkers, tongue-tie, and a seven-length maiden win – and they probably won't see which way he goes. He won't be 25-1, though, so while he can earn his stripes, it can be Noble's Promise who becomes the star.
Chris McGrath's nap
Ghimaar (5.0 Ascot)
Looks on a fair mark on his best form in Ireland and has made a good start over hurdles for his new stable, which has an excellent record with its occasional runners on the level. The booking of Kieren Fallon is the icing on the cake.
Noble's Promise (3.50 Ascot)
See main preview.
One to watch
Akhmatova (G A Butler) made a promising start at Salisbury on Sunday, held up and staying on nicely when meeting a bit of traffic. Decent pedigree suggests she may stay beyond a mile.
Where the money's going
Ask is 6-1 from 7-1 with Totesport for the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot on Thursday.
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