With the greatest respect to those horses due to contest the seven Group One races at Royal Ascot over the next five days, the week's most smashing, absolutely dashing moment may have come yesterday at Chantilly. Against the elegant, timeless backdrop of the Grandes Ecuries and the smaller chateau, the three-year-old filly Stacelita made park hacks of her opponents in the Prix de Diane.
The same race, the French counterpart to the Oaks, was taken with similar contemptuous ease a year ago by the horse who became the season's champion, Zarkava. And while it might be stretching the arm of coincidence too far to ask for an action replay, the parallels are there. Like Zarkava, Stacelita was taking an unbeaten record to five. Like her predecessor, yesterday's heroine produced the blitzing acceleration that is the hallmark of an exceptional performer. And she will now follow the same path, the Prix Vermeille and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.
Ridden by Christophe Lemaire, Stacelita, the 11-10 favourite, surged to the front two furlongs from home, bounded nonchalantly clear and won, eased down, by four lengths from her Jean-Claude Rouget stablemate Tamazirte, with Plumania third. The sole British raider Fantasia came in a well-beaten seventh.
It was a third Classic of the season for Rouget, based at Pau in the Pyrenean foothills, and his second one-two. Last month, he sent Elusive Wave to Longchamp to win the French 1,000 Guineas, with Tamazirte runner-up, and eight days ago the colt Le Havre took the Prix du Jockey-Club over yesterday's extended 10 furlongs. All three were ridden by Lemaire.
Rouget, 56, is no newcomer to the game; he is in his 32nd year with a licence and, though yesterday's success was only the 11th of his career in the top grade, he has long been his country's most prolific Flat trainer. Last year he sent out 237 winners (just failing to beat his own record of 242), mostly at minor provincial tracks; this term he is allying quantity with quality and has a first championship in his sights.
"This is all enormous for me," he said yesterday. "But if you had asked me back in February, I would have said it would simply never happen."
Unlike Zarakava, who was a juvenile champion, Stacelita has risen from obscurity. The daughter of Monsun raced only once last year, at Salon-de-Provence near Marseilles, and her true worth did not become apparent until she took a top-level contest at Longchamp last month by six lengths. The ground was testing then; yesterday she proved equally classy under lighter conditions. The filly is now second favourite for the Arc at around 8-1, behind the Derby winner Sea The Stars. "The Vermeille, and then to take on colts in the Arc seems a good programme for her," Rouget said.
Fantasia, third in the French Guineas, quickly came under pressure in the straight yesterday. "She became upset after her journey and did not fire," said her trainer, Luca Cumani. "Perhaps she is still immature; we will go home and regroup."
Rouget, now firmly centre stage at home, will take his talent to the glitziest arena of all this week. Never On Sunday, winner of the Prix d'Ispahan last month, runs in the Prince Of Wales's Stakes on Wednesday and Elusive Wave takes on the British and Irish Guineas winners, Ghanaati and Again, in the Coronation Stakes on Friday. Their trainer's only overseas success at the highest level was with Literato in the 2007 Champion Stakes.
Royal Ascot week invariably invokes superlatives, sometimes even flattering ones, and on such an occasion a bit of number-crunching never goes amiss. Amount likely to be spent on champagne in public bars: £2m. Lobsters devoured: 2,000. Strawberries ditto: 150,000. Helicopters in attendance: 400. Limos: 1,000.
It is Europe's richest meeting, with £4,025,000 in prize-money up for grabs. Tomorrow is the only domestic card featuring a trio of Group One races, the Queen Anne, King's Stand and St James's Palace Stakes. Only two men, Frankie Dettori and Ryan Moore, have mounts in all three. The last-named goes into the fray as hot favourite to wrest the top jockey award from Johnny Murtagh, who misses the final two days because of a ban.
The week's top purse is £450,000, for both the Prince of Wales's Stakes and Saturday's Golden Jubilee Stakes, but more than that may be at stake, starting tomorrow. The King's Stand Stakes is the second leg of the Global Sprint Challenge, which offers a million-dollar bonus to any horse who can win three of eight races in three different countries, and the field of 15 specialist speedsters includes the rising Australian star Scenic Blast, who took the first Challenge leg at Flemington in January. With apologies to Alan Jay Lerner, this year's five-furlong dash should be a gripper, an absolute XXXX ripper of a moment on the Ascot opening day.
Nap: Top Man Dan (8.40 Warwick)
NB: Carpe Diem (4.45 Carlisle)Reuse content