It is not just in bricks and mortar – or glass and steel – that Royal Ascot has boldly re-invented itself. Whatever it might represent to more conservative patrons, the new grandstand certainly discloses a wholesome dread of complacency, and likewise the complexion of events on the racetrack itself. The two big sprints, in particular, are increasingly contested by fields competent to identify a champion not just of Europe, but of the world.
In 2005, Ascot became one of the founding partners in the Global Sprint Challenge, a series now embracing eight turf races spread between Britain, Australia, Japan and Hong Kong. It has not been a terribly flattering experience, for British trainers, but some day they will perhaps learn to embrace new horizons of their own – without even leaving home.
Certainly they have been given every incentive to question their own methods since 2003, when the raging bull, Choisir, arrived from Australia to win both the King's Stand Stakes and Golden Jubilee Stakes. Overseas raiders have especially prospered in the pure test of speed presented by the King's Stand, over five furlongs. And it is easy to envisage another humiliation for the home team on Tuesday, when they meet the latest Australian sprint sensation.
Scenic Blast can be backed at 4-1, but bookmakers and punters alike have no meaningful way of measuring his achievements against, say, those of Amour Propre, the favourite. Between precedent and instinct, however, there lurks the possibility that his real chance may be closer to 4-6. Previous international encounters permit little doubt that this discipline, broadly speaking, is more exacting in other racing environments. And the videos played at a press conference in Newmarket yesterday morning – just down the road from the raiders' lodgings – allowed none whatsoever that Scenic Blast is exceptional, by any standards.
Joe Janiak, who has returned with the evergreen Takeover Target, left the strong impression that his decision to sit out the King's Stand this time was not wholly in deference to his own horse's advancing years. Even in his pomp Takeover Target would not have won Group One prizes back home with this kind of leisured acceleration.
Janiak, with his hard-bitten features and heart-melting tale, has become a familiar face during the Takeover Target odyssey, which is now to be made into a film. Russell Crowe has apparently been approached to play Janiak, who was born on the boat from Poland, worked as a baker and taxi driver, and first trained Takeover Target – a cripple who cost little more than a carcass – from a caravan.
His young compatriot, Dan Morton, is a less exotic figure. Horsemanship is in his blood, and his father still trains a few in his own right, despite handing his Perth barn over to his son in 2004. Now 36, Morton Jr combines decorous respect for the unknown with conviction about his own horse.
"We're fully aware this is a big gig," he said. "But both his [Group One] wins this year have been in very good fields, and I thought he was pretty dominant. He still looked to have the hand-brake on for much of the race. Maybe it'll be a different story here."
Janiak himself sounded pretty awestruck by Scenic Blast, and hopes that Morton sticks to his present plan of missing the Golden Jubilee and waiting for the Darley July Cup. Takeover Target will have ample on his plate tomorrow week against J J The Jet Plane, from South Africa, and with Sacred Kingdom, the Orient express, set to be supplemented to the field.
"Takeover Target blew my mind right out when he won [his comeback race in Australia] because he was well and truly underdone," he said. "And I was quite happy with his effort behind Sacred Kingdom in Singapore last time, because he's nine now and they ran a brilliant time. He wasn't eating up, was sweating a bit, but I think he feels more at home here than he does even in Australia."
Some Royal Ascot diehards may still not feel at home, in their fourth year in the new stand. But the world has moved on, and the world has moved in.
Nap: Pyrrha (6.50 Goodwood)
NB: Harlestone Snake (6.20 Goodwood)
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