2024 Royal Ascot: U.S. shippers include proven course performers

June 14th, 2024

The U.S. shippers descending on Royal Ascot this year include not only the usual batch of speedy juveniles, but also past winners at the meeting.

John Sadler sends Missed the Cut, who scored in a handicap for original trainer George Boughey in 2022, for a tougher mission in the June 22 Hardwicke (G2). Last year’s Queen Mary (G2) victress, Crimson Advocate, has prepped stateside with George Weaver ahead of her engagement in the June 18 King Charles III (G1). Having just switched to John and Thady Gosden, she now counts as British-trained, but we’ll include her as a fresh expat. 

The center of gravity for U.S. interest, however, remains the two-year-old squad.

Wesley Ward launches his annual raid in hopes of regaining the winning touch. Although responsible for 12 of the overall tally of 14 U.S.-based winners, Ward has been out of luck here since 2021. That last victory came via disqualification in the stewards’ room, as his three-year-old Campanelle was promoted in the Commonwealth Cup (G1). She is also Ward’s most recent winner of a Royal Ascot juvenile race, courtesy of her narrow score in the 2020 Queen Mary.

Jose D’Angelo earned his way here in Gulfstream Park’s Royal Palm Juvenile, while Eddie Kenneally has a once-raced maiden who exemplifies the global ambitions of John Stewart’s Resolute Racing.

Let’s look at the U.S. shippers in race order.

Tuesday’s King Charles III (G1) – Crimson Advocate

If that race name looks unfamiliar, it’s the rebranding of the five-furlong dash formerly known as the King’s Stand (G1). Thus Crimson Advocate returns to the same course and distance as her signature win in the Queen Mary.

Yet in more significant ways, the conditions are much tougher here. The sophomore filly is taking on older males, as well as her conqueror from last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint (G1), Big Evs. With rain in the forecast, the ground is expected to be riding at least slower, if not a lot softer, than the good course she handled a year ago. Even then, she barely lasted by a diminishing nose. 

Another difference is that Crimson Advocate has had just one prep run this time. As a juvenile, she had two starts under her belt before venturing abroad – a third on debut at Keeneland followed by an impressive score in the Royal Palm Juvenile Fillies that booked her Royal Ascot ticket. 

Thanks to adverse weather that rained off a couple of her intended comeback spots, Crimson Advocate didn’t reappear until the May 18 Roar S. versus sophomore males back at Gulfstream. The daughter of Kentucky Derby (G1) champion Nyquist showed that she still has speed in abundance. Despite bobbling to her knees at the start, she recovered well to chase an unsustainable pace in splits of :20.12 and :42.78. The others were run off their feet until well into the stretch, when Crimson Advocate capitalized on her prominent early position. Passing the exhausted pacesetter, she prevailed by one length in a final five-furlong time of :54.77.

Crimson Advocate is eligible to move forward from that tightener, and she’s likely better than her sixth behind Big Evs and Valiant Force in the Breeders’ Cup. She was pitched straight into that without the benefit of a prep, but was only beaten 2 1/2 lengths at Santa Anita. Still, she’d need to find a fair bit more than that to factor versus elders at this level.

Owned by the rising powerhouse of Wathnan Racing, the nom de course of the Emir of Qatar, Crimson Advocate was transferred to the Gosdens to pursue additional European targets following Royal Ascot. Note that she’s Wathnan’s second-stringer in the King Charles III, with Rogue Lightning the main hope. 

American fans will remember Valiant Force for his sojourn at Gulfstream this winter. After a fourth in the Hutcheson S. for Jorge Delgado, it was plain that he wasn’t going to pan out on dirt. The Amo Racing brain trust sent him back to his original trainer in Ireland, Adrian Murray, for whom he stunned last year’s Norfolk (G2) here at odds of 150-1. Like Crimson Advocate, Valiant Force can boast a major course-and-distance win, but resurfaces in a more challenging spot. 

Wednesday’s Queen Mary (G2) – Ultima Grace

Ward has had more success in the Queen Mary than any other race, with four winners on his resume. His 2024 hope is For the People Racing’s homebred Ultima Grace. By Triple Crown champion American Pharoah, she is out of past Ward trainee Ultima D, whose only win came in the 2017 Juvenile Fillies S. at Kentucky Downs. Ultima D, a daughter of Scat Daddy, is closely related to Ward’s No Nay Never, the sensational winner of the 2013 Norfolk.

Pedigree could be significant in assessing Ultima Grace, since she has yet to race on turf. Her lone start so far came in an April 18 maiden on the Keeneland dirt, where she galloped by 3 3/4 lengths under a hold. Ultimate Grace’s time for 4 1/2 furlongs was a tepid :53.48, and she beat a very suspect bunch as a lopsided odds-on favorite. 

On paper, that’s not up to Queen Mary standard, but Ultima Grace is bred to excel on the switch to turf. Ward told attheraces.com that she’s clearly indicated her surface preference in her turf works. If Ward’s characteristic effervescence makes all his juveniles sound wonderful, this one could lend some substance to his comments. 

Stablemates Saturday Flirt and Burning Pine were also made eligible for the Queen Mary, but they’re reportedly targeting races later in the week (see below). Joel Rosario, who has ridden two of Ward’s dozen winners here, is expected aboard his 2024 team.

Wednesday’s Windsor Castle S. – Gabaldon, Cheval de Guerre, Honorary American

D’Angelo has the most accomplished American entrant in the Windsor Castle S., as his Gabaldon upset the May 11 Royal Palm Juvenile in his career debut. Connections are wisely going for the five-furlong option that might not be as daunting as Thursday’s Norfolk. 

That placement may help him fare better than last year’s Royal Palm Juvenile winner, No Nay Mets, who flopped in the Norfolk. Even so, Gabaldon didn’t necessarily look like one who’d enjoy carrying his speed down a stiff straightaway. 

The $9,000 OBS October yearling, who was purchased as a prospect for the Florida Sire Series on dirt, was overlooked at 16-1 in the Royal Palm Juvenile. Indeed, as a son of Gone Astray and a Value Plus mare, Gabaldon did not bring the pedigree buzz of others. But he did bring bags of speed, vying through an opening quarter in :21.33, forging clear by the half in :43.80, and finishing five furlongs in :56.20.

While Gabaldon held sway by 1 1/4 lengths from the congregating closers, he did appear to be looking for the wire, as track announcer Pete Aiello observed. 

Royal Palm runner-up Reach for the Rose, who rallied in a promising debut effort, had been mentioned as a Royal Ascot hopeful himself. Trained by Saffie Joseph Jr., the Ken Ramsey homebred was supposed to breeze at Churchill Downs, but he hasn’t worked back. 

“He’s a horse that came in early to point to Royal Ascot,” Joseph told Gulfstream publicity May 30, “because Mr. Ramsey wanted to go. It’s his dream to win a race there. He ran a big race first time out. He broke on top, dropped back and came with a good run. If he didn’t drop back maybe he could have won that race that day. It gave us confidence to go forward.”

Kenneally’s Cheval de Guerre and Ward’s Honorary American will try to break their maidens in the Windsor Castle. 

Cheval de Guerre has not raced since his debut second at Keeneland April 25. But he advertised his potential well enough, selling the next day for the joint top price of $450,000 to Stewart’s Resolute Racing.

“I’m not really surprised,” Kenneally told Keeneland publicity following the sale. “I was expecting a good number for the horse. He did everything right but was a little unlucky not to have won. He ran a good race. We had some good people on him and we’re delighted to get it done. We’ve had a good little run with this horse in a short period of time.”

In that 5 1/2-furlong turf maiden, Cheval de Guerre led through fractions of :21.89 and :45.08 and spurted clear, only to be caught late by Into Diamonds in 1:03.29. The third, Bright Skittle, came back to finish a dead-heat third to Gabaldon at Gulfstream. 

You could say that Royal Ascot is in Cheval de Guerre’s blood. Sire Caravaggio was a Royal Ascot star for Aidan O’Brien, and broodmare sire Declaration of War was likewise a Group 1 winner at the meeting for Ballydoyle. Cheval de Guerre comes from a fine American turf family, as a descendant of multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire Memories of Silver. 

Cheval de Guerre was slated for a May 24 maiden at Aqueduct, but scratched when it was transferred to the main track. Ward’s Honorary American stayed in the race and went off as the even-money favorite. The Irish-bred son of Churchill faded to third after forcing the pace, displaying a high head carriage and an action perhaps more suited to turf. 

On probation for Royal Ascot until a bullet move over the Keeneland turf June 8, Honorary American will take his chance. Yet Ward said that he left it up to his ownership group, which isn’t the usual boosterism coming from his quarter. 

Thursday’s Norfolk (G2) – Saturday Flirt

Note that the Windsor Castle trio discussed above – Gabaldon, Cheval de Guerre, and Honorary American – are all cross-entered to the Norfolk, the five-furlong affair that serves as a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint. But as of this writing, reports indicate that they’ll opt for the Windsor Castle, and Saturday Flirt is expected to fly the flag in the Norfolk.  

Bred, owned, and trained by Ward, Saturday Flirt is a daughter of Mendelssohn and Dragic, a multiple stakes-placed half-sister to champion Echo Zulu. Dragic, whose other half-siblings include Grade 1 winner Echo Town and Grade 3 scorer J Boys Echo, showed surface versatility in her brief career. A debut winner on the Keeneland dirt, she was third versus males in a pair of turf stakes, the Kentucky Downs Juvenile and Futurity S.

Saturday Flirt will take on the boys herself in the Norfolk. She justified 1.06-1 favoritism in her unveiling on the Keeneland turf, despite a slow start. Saturday Flirt rallied from well off the pace to win cozily by 1 1/4 lengths, covering 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:03.35. Runner-up Bois Blanc let the form down, though, when sixth next time in the Royal Palm Juvenile Fillies.

Interestingly, Ward intends to stick with the off-the-pace strategy, rather than employing his typical forward style. Plans call for Saturday Flirt to remove the blinkers for the Norfolk and save energy for the finish.  

Stablemate Burning Pine was cross-entered to the Norfolk, but given the comments about her wanting to go further, her target is on Friday. 

Friday’s Albany (G3) – Burning Pine

Ward has yet to win a six-furlong race here with his juveniles, and Burning Pine doesn’t appear the type to rewrite that stat. By Nyquist (sire of Crimson Advocate), the $80,000 Keeneland September yearling purchase initially wasn’t on the radar as a Royal Ascot possible. But the Hat Creek Racing runner came to hand a lot quicker than thought. She easily won her April 26 Keeneland debut going 4 1/2 furlongs on dirt, strolling by 3 1/2 lengths in :52.17, as the odds-on favorite.

Burning Pine’s ensuing works were unexceptional until her June 8 bullet on the turf, which gave Ward some hope that she’s warming to the surface. She ought to handle it, on pedigree. Out of the More Than Ready mare Orabella, she’s a half-sister to stakes-winning turf miler Louder Than Bombs and to current Transylvania (G3) winner Neat.

Aside from the perennial questions of how juvenile formlines compare, Burning Pine has the profile of a filly who could improve with time. She’s exceeded expectations just to make the squad, and it’s questionable how she’ll cope with rivals arguably nearer their peak. 

Saturday’s Hardwicke (G2) – Missed the Cut

It would be an understatement to say that plenty of water has gone under the bridge since Missed the Cut dominated the Golden Gates H. during the 2022 Royal meeting. Then a progressive handicapper, he ranked as the 5-2 favorite in that 1 1/4-mile handicap for three-year-olds, and he rolled by 4 1/4 lengths. 

Missed the Cut didn’t build on that effort as hoped in Group company on turf. He did nail Algiers in course-record time in the Churchill S. over Lingfield’s Polytrack, perhaps implanting the idea that the son of Quality Road could be worth trying on dirt.

Hence Missed the Cut moved from Newmarket-based Boughey to Sadler at Santa Anita in the spring of 2023. He eventually added to his resume on dirt, but at a lower level in the Tokyo City Cup (G3), and he was unplaced in his attempts in the San Diego H. (G2) and Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).  

Missed the Cut has been much more consistent since reverting to turf, albeit on a Southern California circuit that lacks the depth of its heyday. His recent second in the Elkhorn (G2) at Keeneland, to Godolphin’s Silver Knott, is arguably of greater relevance.

The Hardwicke figures to be his toughest turf test since he was a well-beaten fourth as the favorite in the 2023 Neom Turf Cup (G3) on Saudi Cup Day. Another question is the distance. Missed the Cut was a 1 1/4-mile performer in his British days. Even though he handles 1 1/2 miles on flat tracks stateside, that’s no guarantee he’d stay as effectively around Ascot. 

Still, with his course form, it’s better for him to go for international glory than ply his trade in less memorable contests at home.