The third of four Breeders’ Cup ‘Win and You’re In’ Challenge races at Royal Ascot, the historic Norfolk Stakes is a much coveted prize for two-year-old sprinters.
Run at a straight five furlongs, it is also a race bound to come on the radar of the meeting’s adopted American son Wesley Ward, who numbers two Norfolk Stakes victories among his total of ten wins at the meeting he describes as “the Breeders’ Cup in June”.
The Group 2 contest has been pushed back from its usual slot on Thursday’s card to sit as the third race on Friday’s revamped seven-race programme, where the feature event is the G1 Commonwealth Cup.
The majority of juvenile contests at this year’s Royal Ascot have been pushed towards the second half of the meeting to give trainers more chance to prepare horses following the coronavirus shutdown in Britain, where racing resumed only on June 1.
With Royal Ascot purses affected by economic imperatives at a behind-closed doors meeting, this year’s Norfolk is worth £50,000, which is 50 percent of its 2019 purse.
Norfolk Stakes: a bit of context
History: established 1843 as the New Stakes. Renamed in 1973 after Her Majesty’s Representative at Ascot between 1945 and 1972. Promoted to G2 status in 2006.
Star turn: Johannesburg (2001) – first of Aidan O’Brien’s three Norfolk Stakes winners went unbeaten through seven races as a 2-year-old, crowned champion on both sides of Atlantic after memorable success on dirt at the Breeders’ Cup.
Most wins (trainer): Mathew Dawson (4 wins between 1851 and 1884), James Ryan (4, 1875-1890), John Porter (4 wins 1887-1898), Atty Persse (4, 1907-1928).
Most wins in modern era (since 1968): Richard Hannon sr (3) Niche (1992), Lucky Lionel (1995), Baron’s Pit (2002).
Peter Chapple-Hyam (3) Turtle Island (1993), Dutch Art (2006), Winker Watson (2007)
Aidan O’Brien (3) Johannesburg (2001), Waterloo Bridge (2015), Sioux Nation (2017).
Most wins – jockey: Lester Piggott (9) Abermaid (1961), Tin King (1965), Falcon (1966), Swing Easy (1970), Faliraki (1975), Emboss (1977), Precocious (1983), Magic Mirror (1984), Niche (1992).
Breeders’ Cup Challenge
The winner of the Norfolk Stakes will receive an automatic fees-paid berth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint at the two-day championships at Keeneland on November 6-7. A minimum travel allowance of $40,000 will also be provided for all starters based outside North America; the Challenge winner must already be nominated to the Breeders’ Cup programme or nominated by the pre-entry deadline of October 26 to receive the rewards.
Breeders’ Cup past performance
The Norfolk Stakes has produced runners in both previous editions of the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. Last year’s Royal Ascot winner A’Ali was well fancied but never landed a blow from a double-figure draw at Santa Anita. (Incidentally, Queen Mary Stakes runner-up Kimari, set to run in the Commonwealth Cup, was fourth for Wesley Ward behind stablemate Four Wheel Drive.)
Shang Shang Shang, Ward’s Norfolk Stakes winner in 2018, did not run in the Juvenile Turf Sprint, but Pocket Dynamo, the horse she touched off, did make it to Churchill Downs, where he was ninth behind all-the-way winner Bulletin.
Chelsea Cloisters, So Perfect and Queen Of Bermuda – who finished second, third and fourth at Churchill Downs – all ran at Royal Ascot. Ward-trained Chelsea Cloisters was a beaten favourite in the Queen Mary, where So Perfect was fourth, while Queen Of Bermuda was a disappointing favourite behind Soldier’s Call (sixth in the Juvenile Turf Sprint) in the Windsor Castle Stakes.
No Nay Never, who won the Norfolk for Ward in 2013, was a narrowly beaten favourite in the BC Turf Sprint as a 3-year-old.
Top contenders for 2020
Eye Of Heaven (Mark Johnston/Frankie Dettori) – heavily fancied for this race since winning debut at Newmarket Guineas meeting; is a son of Exceed And Excel, an able source of Ascot winners, and stable in flying form with 2-year-olds since resumption.
The Lir Jet (Michael Bell/Oisin Murphy) – son of previous Norfolk winner Prince Of Lir, bought by Qatar Racing since breaking all-aged track record over 5f at Yarmouth on debut.
Golden Pal (Wesley Ward/Andrea Atzeni) – a son of Uncle Mo, he was mugged close home after showing blistering pace on dirt debut at Gulfstream; said to be better on grass as trainer seeks third win in the race with what he describes as “maybe our best chance” of the week – though any rain usually doesn’t help with U.S. speedballs.
Lipizzaner (Aidan O’Brien/Ryan Moore) – another son of Uncle Mo, he finished second both starts in Ireland; outbattled final furlong latest over 6f and drop back to minimum should play to his strengths for trainer seeking third win in six years (and fourth win overall).
What they say
- Mark Johnston, trainer of Eye Of Heaven: “He is a big horse and he stands out from the crowd at home. Frankie just sat and held him together in the Dip [on debut] and he hit the rising ground and won well. Ascot should suit him better.”
- Wesley Ward, trainer of Golden Pal: “He ran a big race on his initial run – but you can’t finish if you go a 21-and-2 first quarter with a 2-year-old in April! He came out of that race really well. He’s had some unbelievable breezes on the grass – he’s certainly one who prefers turf to the dirt. I’m really looking for a big run out of him, I’m really excited about this guy.”
- Michael Bell, trainer of The Lir Jet: “The track record was a surprise but it wasn’t a surprise that he won because he had been showing up well at home. The conditions were very favourable that day, quickish ground and the wind was helping. To break an all-aged track record on debut, carrying 9st 2lb (128lb), is not easily done. It was an eye-catching performance, which caught the attention of Sheikh Fahad, and hopefully he will be rewarded.”