While the major Royal Ascot sprint prizes have been rich pickings for Australians in recent years, the 2016 assault force from down under looks to be rapidly diminishing, with the likely line-up taking a number of twists and turns in the past fortnight.
At the same time, America’s hand via regular Royal Ascot visiting (and winning) trainer Wesley Ward looks to be gathering momentum.
Ward, on 14 May, won the Unbridled Sidney - for fillies and mares - at Churchill Downs with last year’s Queen Mary Stakes winner, Acapulco, who scored by 3.5 lengths and is now bound for either the King’s Stand on June 14 or the Commonwealth Cup on June 17.
Acapulco will likely join the 2015 Golden Slipper winner, Vancouver, a recent acquisition from Australia, in representing Coolmore during the Royal week, although plans for Vancouver are a little unclear after he missed last Saturday’s Greenland Stakes at The Curragh with new trainer Aidan O’Brien unhappy with his blood picture.
Undrafted's likely return
Acapulco’s Kentucky win continued a good recent run of Ward’s U.K. aspirants. Undrafted, who gave Ward his sixth Royal Ascot winner when he beat the Australian 3-year-old Brazen Beau in last year’s Diamond Jubilee Stakes, all but booked himself a return trip when he won the Shakertown Stakes at Keeneland on 9 April - a race in which he ran third last year.
He and Acapulco are among six Ward-trained entries for either or both the King’s Stand and the Diamond Jubilee, and he’s also likely to take recent Churchill Downs juvenile winner Silverton.
Australia will not be without some direct or indirect representation but, in the absence of the world’s top-rated (and Australian-trained) sprinter Chautauqua, it will lack some ‘oomph’.
Undrafted is again likely to be opposed by a Southern Hemisphere 3-year-old in Godolphin’s Holler, but he is not as highly rated as Brazen Beau. Nonetheless, the odds makers are not disregarding him.
Surprise Chautauqua decision
Holler is generally marked around 12-1 for the Diamond Jubilee with ante-post bookmakers while Undrafted is a best-priced 10-1 and the Charlie Hills-trained Magical Memory, winner of four of his past five starts, is the early favourite at no better than 6-1. Vancouver is as big as 20-1 and it’s hard to know how he’ll be assessed on race day if he doesn’t appear before the Royal meeting.
What looked likely to be a stellar 2016 Australian invasion has lost momentum since the decision was made, immediately after Chautauqua’s stunning last-to-first win in the Chairman’s Sprint Prize in Hong Kong on May 1, not to travel the gelding to the U.K.
That decision may have surprised some, not least because his trainers - the Hawkes family training partnership - stood to gain A$400,000 themselves courtesy of their share of the Global Sprint Challenge bonus and the Diamond Jubilee prize money at Ascot. They’d have to win Australia’s richest race, the Melbourne Cup to have that sort of pay day at home.
“Trust me the money did cross our minds, but in the end it was never going to matter or influence our decision,” said co-trainer Michael Hawkes. “The welfare of the horse came first and, after two peak performances in Sydney and Hong Kong in the space of the month plus the travel, we felt it wasn’t the right thing to do. Maybe next year,”
And, now, enthusiasm for the Royal meeting has been tempered among the other Australian-trained entries.
Waller's change of heart
Next year might also be the story for Southern Hemisphere 3-year-old Japonisme, whose trainer, Chris Waller, travelled Brazen Beau last year. Japonisme ran third, beaten 1.4 lengths, behind Malaguerra, in the BTC Cup in Queensland on May 14.
“It's highly unlikely. I’d rather take him over there next year when he is a 4-year-old,” Waller said when questioned about the Ascot trip.
That is something of a change of heart from Waller, who has regularly said he was keen to avenge last year’s defeat with Brazen Beau, whom many consider plotted too adventurous a path under Craig Williams, racing virtually solo nearer the stands’ side for much of the race.
The Quarterback, winner of Flemington’s Newmarket Handicap in March, was among the other mooted Australian runners, but his trainer, Robbie Griffiths, has ruled out the trip after his charge was unplaced behind Black Heart Bart in the G1 Goodwood (1200m) at Morphettville in Adelaide last Saturday (May 21).
However, Australia’s Godolphin trainer, John O’Shea, did confirm that his 3-year-old Holler will be taking his place in England. “His work was very good last week, and I was happy with his trial last Friday (May 20),” O’Shea said. “He’ll leave at the end of May and I’d hope to get there 10 days or so before the race.”
Big mission for Holler
Holler finished a half-length second behind Encostanati in a 1050-metre trial at Randwick, which was the fastest of the five trials at the distance on the day.
“That was all I wanted him to do, have a nice hit-out and stay out of trouble. He’s got a lot of residual fitness, he’ll have another gallop in about a week, which will leave us a bit to work with when we get to England,” said O’Shea, who indicated that Diamond Jubilee was his likely race.
“It’s a big mission given the travel, but he’s an in-form last-start winner and we can take some heart from the good performance of Chris’s 3-year-old last year,” O’Shea said in reference to Waller’s Brazen Beau. “I’m under no illusions about the task but he’s generally bombproof, touch wood, and he is the quintessential Australian sprinting type.”
O’Shea may also be represented, in the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot, by Bow Creek despite the son of Shamardal failing to beat a runner home in the recent Champions Mile in Hong Kong, won by Maurice.
A possible new trend
“That performance was very disappointing as I genuinely expected him to run well, but I’m prepared to overlook it. He’s a horse who simply has to be allowed to find his own rhythm in the early part of the race, and that wasn’t the case in Hong Kong.
“He finished up pulling his way out of the race and Zac [Purton] just let him coast to the line when he was beaten. He’s a really good horse on his day, although I’ll concede there are fewer of those as he’s getting older,” O’Shea said.
Bow Creek was shipped to England the day after the Hong Kong race, and the plan is that he returns to Australia for the Melbourne spring, which may set a new trend if he performs well. “Better that he stays in light work, and possibly races, through the English summer than stand in a paddock in Australia through our winter,” O’Shea said.
Vancouver, who was unbeaten in four starts as a 2-year-old in Australia when prepared by Gai Waterhouse, would certainly add an element of intrigue to the Ascot sprints. “He's very exciting, very quick and the Diamond Jubilee is his most likely race at Ascot,” O’Brien said. But that was before he missed the race in Ireland.
O’Brien won the then Golden Jubilee Stakes in 2010 with another acquisition from Australia in Starspangledbanner, who claimed the Ascot prize off one lead-up run in the U.K. - a fifth-placed finish at 1200m at York in early May (in the race won by Magical Memory this year).
O'Brien's Vancouver declaration
O’Brien floored Australian racing fans, as he’s been apt to do, when he recently declared: “This fellow (Vancouver) is by far and away the best horse we’ve had from Australia.”
That comment came in a Coolmore video and is some call given his success with the highly rated So You Think, a winner of five G1s in each hemisphere; not to mention Starspangledbanner and the 2008 Queen Anne Stakes winner Haradasun.
“He ticks all the boxes and he’s probably the most exciting we’ve had. He looks like he could be a really, really special horse. We could not be more excited about him. A big, strong, clear-winded horse - a great mind and a great mover,” O’Brien added.
Must have a chance at Ascot, then, or so you’d think.
It could be the year for O’Brien or another of the European trainers to excel in the sprints with the Australian challenge depleted. However, it may well be unwise to dismiss Holler given that Australian-trained sprinters boast six wins and another 11 top-four finishes in Ascot’s two major sprint races since 2003. The Australian winners have been Choisir (twice), Takeover Target, Miss Andretti, Scenic Blast and Black Caviar.
And it would be similarly foolish to underestimate the now ever-present Wesley Ward, whose six Royal Ascot winners have come at an excellent strike rate of approximately one in four winners to runners. Since 2009, Ward has won with Strike The Tiger, Jealous Again, No Nay Never, Hootenanny, Acapulco and Undrafted.