How Ireland's Royal Ascot challenge is going from strength to strength

Leading Light wins the 2013 Queen's Vase. He will attempt to take the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot this year.

Ever since trainer Vincent O’Brien and jockey Lester Piggott first teamed up to begin their legendary partnership there, Royal Ascot has had a special attraction for the Irish. And nowadays, their success rate at the royal meeting, which starts on Tuesday, is greater than ever, as Donn McClean reports.

Vincent O’Brien ran seven horses at Royal Ascot in 1975.  Six of them won.

The legendary Irish trainer had been bringing horses to Royal Ascot for years, since the time that he stopped bringing horses to Cheltenham Racecourse and Aintree Racecourse (before he became Europe’s outstanding flat trainer, he had been Europe’s outstanding jumps trainer).

He brought Gladness to Royal Ascot for the Gold Cup (Britain’s two-and-a-half-mile championship) in 1958, gave Lester Piggott the leg up for the first time in his life, and watched as the 22-year-old jockey steered his gallant mare to victory. Then, he won the King’s Stand Stakes five times, he won the St James’s Palace Stakes twice, he won the Queen Anne Stakes once, and he won the race that we now call the Diamond Jubilee Stakes five times, including in 1993 with College Chapel, who was owned by Vincent’s wife and ridden by the 57-year-old Lester Piggott.

The wheel had turned full circle. College Chapel, 35 years after Gladness, was Vincent’s 25th and final Royal Ascot winner. It was appropriate, then, that the trainer himself led his horse and his rider back into the winner’s enclosure, something he hadn’t done since he had led Nijinsky back into the same winner’s enclosure after he had won the 1970 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes (Britain’s mile-and-a-half midsummer championship race).

But Ireland’s relationship with Royal Ascot did not end with Vincent O’Brien. If anything, it has grown stronger and more all encompassing since those days. Admittedly, it was largely a one-way relationship during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when there were no more than two Irish-trained winners in any year, and during which time four Royal meetings came and went with out an Irish winner. But things have been much better of late.

Vincent’s successor at Ballydoyle, Aidan O’Brien, has been prolific. He has won just about every one of the top races at Royal Ascot, most of them on several occasions: the G1 St James’s Palace Stakes six times, the G1 Prince of Wales’s Stakes twice, the G1 Coronation Stakes twice, the G1 Queen Anne Stakes three times, the Coventry Stakes (G2 for 2-year-olds) seven times, and five G1 Gold Cups – four of them courtesy of Yeats.

It was in 2009 that the son of Sadler’s Wells landed his fourth Gold Cup, thereby achieving a feat that no other horse had achieved before him.  Many had won two, Sagaro had won three, but no horse had ever won four.

In 2008, Aidan O’Brien had six winners at Royal Ascot, thereby equalling Vincent’s total from 1975 (although he had a few more runners at the meeting than just seven). In 2012, Aidan only had two winners – So You Think and Ishvana – but Irish trainers as a collective had eight. Jim Bolger (Dawn Approach), David Wachman (Duntle), Dermot Weld (Princess Highway), and David Marnane (Dandy Boy) all chipped in with a single, with champion jumps trainer Willie Mullins the only other Irish trainer to have more than one win (Simenon – the then 5-year-old took the 2-mile-and-4-furlong Ascot Stakes on the Tuesday and followed up with the 2-mile-and-5-and-a-half-furlong Queen Alexandra Stakes on the Saturday).

Last year, the meeting started with an Irish volley. Declaration Of War in the Queen Anne, Sole Power in the King’s Stand, Dawn Approach in the St James’s Palace, and War Command in the Coventry. Rat-tat-tat-tat. Four winners in the first four races, three G1s and a G2, and there could hardly have been a more Irish winner of the fifth race, the Ascot Stakes, than Well Sharp. He went down as a British winner, but his owner (JP McManus) was Irish, his trainer (Jonjo O’Neill) was Irish, and his rider (Fran Berry) was Irish.

Actually, all six winners on the opening day last year were ridden by Irishmen.

The first two winners on Wednesday last year – Gale Force Ten and Duntle – were also Irish, as was the winner of the Britannia Stakes (a Heritage handicap) on Thursday, Roca Tumu (now racing in Hong Kong and named Beauty Flame), and the G3 Queen’s Vase winner on Friday, Leading Light. That brought the total number of Irish-trained winners once again to eight. Another hugely encouraging factor was the fact that the eight winners represented five different trainers.

This year, the Irish team looks at least as strong as it has for the last two years. Last year’s Queen’s Vase winner, Leading Light, will step up in grade and in trip to bid to win the Gold Cup. If he does, that will be six Gold Cups for Aidan O’Brien, more than any other trainer since the race was first run in 1807.

Eddie Lynam will bring Sole Power back in a bid to land back-to-back runnings of the King’s Stand Stakes, a feat last accomplished in 1933-34, while Lynam’s progressive sprinter Slade Power will take his chance in the Diamond Jubilee. The main back-up plan for these two G1 sprints is a good one too, with Guerre and Due Diligence set to represent Aidan O’Brien in the King’s Stand and the Diamond Jubilee, respectively.

The Ballydoyle challenge looks characteristically strong. Verrazano in the Queen Anne, War Command in the St James’s Palace Stakes, Magician in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes, War Envoy probably in the Coventry, The Great War probably in the G2 Norfolk Stakes.

Furthermore, Dermot Weld looks set to run Pale Mimosa in the Gold Cup, Mustajeeb in either the St James’s Palace or the G3 Jersey Stakes, Alkasser in either the Jersey or the Wokingham Handicap, and Hisaabaat in the Ascot Stakes, while Johnny Murtagh is looking to run Purr Along in the G2 Duke of Cambridge and Royal Diamond in the Gold Cup.

And there are others: Alexander Anthem perhaps for Eddie Lynam in the G2 Queen Mary, Cappella Sansevero for Ger Lyons in the Coventry, Maarek for Evanna McCutcheon in the Diamond Jubilee, and John Oxx hopes to finally get My Titania’s season up and running in the Coronation Stakes.

Many Irish chances once again.

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