Sue Montgomery: Ascot offers pop and patriotism as racing changes its colours

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The Independent Online

Today at Ascot is very much a Marmite occasion, for the four-cornered international jockeys' contest that is the Shergar Cup tends to divide opinion sharply.

It is either yet another example of a racing's dumbed-down descent into Twenty20 territory or an excellent piece of marketing, a populist day out that gets bums on seats and feet bopping in the aisles.

It is true that a team concept flies in the face of the sport's raison d'etre, the search for individual excellence, and that the result will say absolutely nothing about the relative merits of riders from Great Britain, Ireland, Europe and the Rest Of The World. It is also worthy of note that three of the original high-profile stars in the saddle have found subsequent engagements, in Frankie Dettori's and Kieren Fallon's cases a three-line whip from their employers to ride at Newmarket; in Ryan Moore's, a family wedding.

But the promised jolliness at Ascot, which includes cheerleaders, anthems, autograph sessions and a post-racing pop concert, is forecast to bring in some 30,000 fun-seekers, a bigger crowd than that which attended an infinitely more purist occasion at the track two weeks ago, the Group 1 King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes won so brilliantly by Harbinger.

Today, the 12th running of the Shergar Cup, marks a first, in that the races will be made even easier for the uninitiated to follow the afternoon's narrative by the adoption of team strips. Hitherto, horses had carried their owners' colours, with distinguishing caps only; but finally, no doubt assuaged by the facts of no entry fees and good prize money on top of appearance money, egos have taken a back seat for one afternoon for the perceived greater good. It will be red-and-white for GB, green-and-white for Ireland, blue-and-white for Europe and black-and-white for RoW and whether or not the course commentator will appreciate the change remains to be seen.

If a good time is had in the stands, the suspicion is that a better one is had in the saddle. Some of the riders are more than familiar with Ascot, and the crowd, highflying Richard Hughes being the obvious one, backed up on various teams by Hayley Turner, Olivier Peslier, Chistophe Soumillon and Pat Smullen.

But for the RoW boys – Luke Nolen from Australia, Yasunari Iwata from Japan, and Anton Marcus from South Africa – the occasion is one to be savoured and enjoyed. None has ridden in Britain before and all three are relishing the challenge of pitting their style and talent against some of Europe's best on one of Europe's premier tracks.

They will, of course, be only as good as their horses (none of whom is in any way a champion) and who rides what was down to the luck of a draw. Local punters being fairly insular, value may be had in horses in unfamiliar hands. Marcus, his country's champion, has excellent prospects in the Stayers on Lady Eclair (3.55), for instance. But safer bets on the card may be Hughes in the Challenge on Emerging Artist (4.30) and Turner in the opening Dash on Monsieur Joe (2.10).

A day's entertainment at a venue like Ascot, perceived by many as elitist and off-limits, may open some eyes to racing's appeal. But the attraction of the sport in the mind of even the most peripheral fan is the opportunity it presents to make hard cash through betting. And two days after more than £2m was available to anyone who could be the only one to pick all six winners at Haydock, there is another huge Tote pool on offer today, in the form of a rollover for the ToteScoop6, likely to top £1.3m.

The six races involved this afternoon are at Haydock and Newmarket, with Kindest (2.05), Our Joe Mac (2.20), Khor Sheed (2.35), Class Is Class (2.50), Mata Keranjang (3.10) and Breakheart (3.25) suggested as the lifechangers.

That 2.35, the Sweet Solera Stakes, has a decent recent record in spotlighting future talent. Though the winner, Long Lashes, has yet to fulfil her early potential the fourth-placed filly, Snow Fairy, certainly has, as winner of two Oaks. The 2008 winner of the seven-furlong contest Rainbow View, also proved top-class, as did Soviet Song a few years earlier. Khor Sheed, a daughter of Dubawi, has looked the part in her homework since winning on the track in June over a furlong shorter.

On the earlier subject of silks as a sign of the times, Ascot's proprietor herself is to enter into the spirit of downmarket fun with her subjects at her local track, Windsor, tomorrow. The Thameside course hosts a football-themed day, when jockeys will don club colours.

On the Queen's three-year-old filly Olympic Medal in the 4.30, Jim Crowley will wear Birmingham City's strip instead of the famous purple, gold braid, scarlet sleeves and gold-fringed black velvet cap. But just don't expect to hear "Come on you blues" from the adjoining ramparts.

Hannon's strongest Suit looks smart for Irish challenge

The regal progress of the Richard Hannon-trained juveniles through the season has been astonishing, and well-documented.

Up to yesterday evening they had notched 73 wins to date, from 273 outings, a strike-rate of more than one in four. Victories have included all the Group contests at two of the summer's great festivals, Royal Ascot and Goodwood.

Today, though, the one judged by his trainer to be the pick of the bunch will put that reputation on the line at the top level for the first time.

At the Curragh, Strong Suit, who made it two from two in the Coventry Stakes, will face Ireland's best in the first Group 1 juvenile contest of the European season, the Phoenix Stakes.

Dunboyne Express, likewise two from two, comes to the fray from Kevin Prendergast's yard and Zoffany, winner of four from five, will be the Ballydoyle number one if he takes his chance.

Dunboyne Express may have been flattered by an eight-length victory over another of Aidan O'Brien's runners, Samuel Morse, in a small field three weeks ago. Zoffany, by Dansili, was behind Strong Suit at Royal Ascot but has, stepped up to seven furlongs, progressed to win twice since.

He looks a most promising prospect but over tomorrow's six, even with home advantage, may have to give best to the raider again.

Turf Account: Sue Montgomery


Our Joe Mac (2.20 Haydock)

Lightly raced gelding who drops back to a mile after his stamina was stretched by 10 furlongs in better company than today's and, as a son of Celtic Swing, should also like the return to easy ground.

Next best

Plymouth Rock (4.55 Newmarket)

Seemed to improve for the application of headgear last time and can continue his upward mobility for another step up in distance.

One to watch

After some good close-up efforts in decent sprint company, Tiddliwinks (K A Ryan) is still on a thoroughly manageable mark for turf, on which he is rated lower and less exposed than when running on artificial surfaces.

Where the money's going

The York International favourite Harbinger has drifted to 5-4 with Coral for the Knavesmire showpiece in the face of steady support for the Khalid Abdullah pair Byword (7-2) and Twice Over (7-1).

Chris McGrath's Nap

Escape Artist (5.20 Redcar)