Racing: Ascot's new look to be blessed by a Holy victory

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The Independent Online

Those depressed by the ratio of efficiency and flair in the English sporting character need not wait until this evening for signs of improvement. For if football could strike the same exemplary balance as racing, which begins its own summer carnival this afternoon, Wembley would have been finished months ago.

Flair has always had its place at Royal Ascot, and finds sumptuous expression in the new grandstand. In sleekly harnessing aesthetics to utility, the structure might be compared with the thoroughbreds on the track itself. But efficiency? Well, the £200m redevelopment has been completed, on schedule and on budget, in barely 18 months.

True, it was very tight, and the management warns that "many teething problems" must be tolerated during the next five days. But that is the equivalent of reminding the patient not to eat for a couple of hours after root canal surgery. At Wembley, meanwhile, the victim is still thrashing in his chair, wondering what happened to that stuff about not feeling a thing.

Even those who come to Ascot in preening indifference to the racing will surely recognise a duty of patience. After all, their stoicism should not have been exhausted by a brief migration north last summer.

York proved a worthy host to the royal meeting, its only intolerable failure being the quality of the racing surface. In fairness, Ascot had not set exalted standards. The last two royal meetings on the old course were staged on very firm ground, and the management believes that the re-laid straight - moved 50 yards to accommodate the new stand - will respond to more sophisticated irrigation and drainage.

The trial meeting here, staged after a month of heavy rain, yielded an inauspicious contrast between the old turf on the round course, which was pretty soft, and much faster ground in the straight. With the weather expected to remain dry this week, the search for winners must literally be based on firm opinions - on horses that will be at home on fast ground.

There are two Group One races over a mile on the opening card, and neither has a vintage look. The hot favourite for the St James's Palace Stakes, Araafa, was only fourth in the 2,000 Guineas on his reappearance, and while he did beat the winner in the Irish version, that was run in desperate ground. His good run at Newmarket showed that Araafa is competent in firmer conditions, but the odds look very short.

The colt guaranteed to run a career best is Ivan Denisovich, who has not had the fast going he needs since last summer and, in common with so many from his stable, lacked fitness in the spring. The fact that Kieren Fallon rides him in preference to Marcus Andronicus suggests that things may be about to click back into place, but he does still have something to prove.

The value may instead rest in Stormy River (3.50), who finished just behind Marcus Andronicus when odds-on for the French 2,000 Guineas after leading on the bridle a long way from home. He barely gets a mile, and a more patient ride on this ground should compensate for stamina deficiency.

It would not be a complete shock to see Arabian Prince run well at 100-1, because he keeps drowning in soft ground, but the chances are he will be sacrificed as the Ballydoyle pacemaker.

In contrast, the fact that the same duties will be assigned by Godolphin to Belenus (next best 4.25) may improve his eligibility to spring a huge shock in the Queen Anne Stakes. He is in the race only to guarantee a gallop for the stable's big hope, Proclamation, but he seems unlikely to be taken on for the lead and should retain plenty of energy for the closing stages of a race that sorely lacks depth.

Proclamation himself has a fizzy temperament and it is difficult to imagine him sustaining a peak effort, not least because he missed vital work during his stable's trying start to the season. His best run last year came on soft and, while he remains the class act in the field, he looks a poor price.

The other élite miler is Peeress, who maintained her relentless improvement at Newbury last month, but she would be happier on soft ground. With Court Masterpiece yet to match his seven-furlong form over eight, the stage is set for a surprise. There is plenty of speed in Belenus's pedigree, and while he managed decent form over a mile and a quarter last year, he tended to race keenly before tiring and hanging. Ridden by a sensitive judge of pace, he has the rails draw and might steal an each-way return.

Competition is far more hectic for the King's Stand Stakes, where three Australian raiders try to emulate Choisir's success three years ago. The best is reckoned to be Takeover Target, the £450 reject trained by a taxi driver who lives in a caravan, but he arrives as Goliath rather than David. That role can instead be filled by Les Arcs (3.10), who had excuses last time but has been making giant strides for his rookie trainer. Majestic Missile could bounce back, visored for the first time.

His trainer, William Haggas, also resorts to headgear with Conquest (5.30), who will be mistrusted by many after failing to find extra at Newbury last time. He may simply have failed to last a sixth furlong in soft ground and the emphasis on speed can reward loyalty in the Windsor Castle Stakes.

The other juvenile race is the most competitive of the season to date, but Holy Roman Empire (2.35) looks another élite colt for Ballydoyle and will have fearless support from the Irish. But their biggest investment of the day could be TOP THE CHARTS (nap 4.25) in the Ascot Stakes. Having landed a gamble over hurdles at Listowel a fortnight ago, he is confidently expected to go close on his first Flat start since changing stable.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Top The Charts (Royal Ascot 4.55)

NB: Belenus (Royal Ascot 4.25)

Hyperion´s TV Tips: Royal Ascot

2.35 The stands-side looked to offer an advantage here last month - the only previous time a big-field sprint has been run on this newly laid straight track. But that is insufficient evidence to make a case for the low numbers today. MAJOR CADEAUX is drawn in stall 2 but it is the impressive style of his Newbury victory that justifies his selection. Jo'burg, the runner-up at Newbury, must be a danger if the high numbers are not inconvenienced. A rank outsider with possibilities is Tudor Prince, who will find this ground much more to his liking after two runs in softer conditions.

3.10 The punters who piled their cash on LA CUCARACHA midweek will be dancing if this mare confirms the validity of reports that she has been flying on the home gallops. She won first time out last season and loves quick ground. Her former stablemate Moss Vale is thriving this year and will take some catching.

3.50 It was a mudbath when ARAAFA took the Irish 2,000 Guineas last month but this colt has an action suited to fast conditions. An outside draw on this turning mile is not ideal, but Alan Munro is a very able pilot.

4.25 The absence of Home Affairs has further diminished the quality of this contest. Proclamation may have to give best to PEERESS.

4.55 Even in this marathon event a high draw can confer an advantage - especially on horses who race prominently. Shamayoun was a revelation when front-running tactics were employed over hurdles last winter (notably with a Cheltenham Festival victory) and Nicky Mackay's mount could be hard to peg back off such a light weight. ELUSIVE DREAM has not been so fortunate in the draw, but this gelding has always threatened to develop into a big player over extreme distances.

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