Nature Strip heads strong Australian team at Royal Ascot

June 12th, 2022

It’s been 19 years since Choisir began the pilgrimage to Royal Ascot by Australian horses. He shocked the locals by not only winning, but winning twice in five days, taking the five-furlong King’s Stand S. (G1) on Day 1 and then the six-furlong Golden Jubilee S. on Day 5.

Australian horses have been back numerous times since then, mostly for the sprint races — unsurprising as Australia’s breeding stock is the most speed-oriented in the world. Takeover Target, Miss Andretti, and Scenic Blast followed Choisir with King’s Stand victories, while Australia’s greatest sprinter, Black Caviar, won the Jubilee despite being lengths below her best.

Two former Australians have also won the Jubilee for Aidan O’Brien: Starspangledbanner and Merchant Navy. Other Australian horses have won at Royal Ascot in longer features, but sprinting is very much their game.

Australians haven’t come to Royal Ascot in such large numbers in the last decade. But this year they are triple-handed, and two of them are absolute top-liners. Nature Strip, an eight-time Group 1 winner, is headed for the King’s Stand, while Home Affairs looks a strong prospect for the Platinum Jubilee S., where his opponents are likely to include fellow Australian Artorius.

There is a chance Nature Strip or Home Affairs may swap races, or even contest both (much more likely in Nature Strip’s case), but for now this piece will focus on their reported main targets.

Nature Strip and Home Affairs are both trained by the Sydney-based New Zealander Chris Waller, the most successful conditioner in Australia in recent years who is best known internationally as the trainer of the all-time great racemare Winx.

Nature Strip: King’s Stand S. (G1), 5 furlongs, June 14

Nature Strip is the kind of horse Australians love — a champion sprinter who races on for years due to the fact he’s a gelding. Born in November 2014, he’s a seven-year-old to southern hemisphere time, and has achieved a huge amount. His earnings of $7.12 million put him among the top 20 earners of all time; only Arrogate and Gun Runner among U.S.-trained horses have earned more.

An RNA for A$120,000 (about $86,000) at the Inglis Premier Yearling Sale in 2016, Nature Strip was eventually bought privately for $100,000 by a group of 17 owners that include Steve Hansen, a near-legendary figure who coached the New Zealand All Blacks to success in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. He is by far the best horse by Nicconi, an Australian Group 1-winning son of the U.S.-bred champion Irish sprinter Bianconi, while his dam is by Desert Sun, best-known internationally as the sire of champion mare Sunline.

Nature Strip showed talent early, but had a reputation of being inconsistent when it came to top-level competition. He also had the inconvenience of changing stables early on: he had four trainers early on before finally moving to the Waller stable in early 2019.

Though he won his first Group 1 contest in the 5 1/2-furlong Galaxy in March 2019, it wasn’t really until the VRC Sprint Classic (G1) in November 2019 that Nature Strip established himself as the best sprinter in Australia, winning by three lengths down the straight six-furlong course at Flemington.

Since then, he emulated Chautauqua by winning Sydney’s premier autumn sprint, the six-furlong TJ Smith (G1) around Randwick’s one-turn course for the last three years; he also added another VRC Sprint Classic in November 2021.

One of the races Nature Strip had strangely underperformed in is the world’s richest turf race, the A$15 million Everest at Randwick in October, not running in the first three when attempting the race in 2019 and 2020. But he finally turned that around last year, winning narrowly at the third time of asking.

If he’s on his game, Nature Strip has few flaws. He has speed from the gate, can lead or stalk, can handle fast or soft ground, and is equally adept on straight and turning courses.

Other than his inconsistency, and the question of how he’ll handle traveling halfway around the world, it is questionable whether Nature Strip would have been better at six furlongs in the Platinum Jubilee at Royal Ascot rather than the five furlongs of the King’s Stand.

However, he did win Australia’s main five-furlong sprint, the Lightning (G1) at Flemington, in 2021, and probably would have won this year but for a rare slow jump and squeezing at the start; even with those problems, he only just ran out of time to catch Home Affairs, of whom more will be heard later.

He faces a formidable field in the King’s Stand, most notably Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint champ Golden Pal. But on all form seen to date, Nature Strip is an outstanding chance.

Home Affairs, Artorius – Platinum Jubilee S. (G1), 6 furlongs, June 18

If Nature Strip is the established Australian sprinting champ, Home Affairs is the talented new kid on the block. And unlike Nature Strip, for whom the results and the $350,000 prize is relatively small change, Home Affairs has potential millions in stud fees to gain from victory here.

An A$875,000 yearling purchase for Coolmore, Home Affairs is by I Am Invincible, a Group 3-winning son of Invincible Spirit who has become one of Australia’s best stallions; at the time of writing, he was in line to win his first Australian Sires Premiership after being runner-up the past four seasons. His dam, Miss Interiors, is a half-sister to the dual Group 1-winning sprinter Russian Revolution.

Home Affairs was a good but not exceptional two-year-old last season. He won one of his first three starts, enough to earn him a place in the prestigious six-furlong Golden Slipper (G1), but after being prominent early he faded to ninth.

At three, however, he has come into his own. He won first-up, earning him a slot in the 2022 Everest, where he faded to ninth behind Nature Strip. He then headed to Melbourne to take on his own age group in November down the Flemington straight sprint course in the six-furlong Coolmore Stud S. (G1), one of Australia’s most important sire-making races. He came of age that day, dashing clear in the final two furlongs for a three-length victory.

Home Affairs returned to racing Feb. 19 in the Lightning (G1), where he showed great courage and class to hold off a slightly unlucky Nature Strip and beat older horses for the first time.

He then went on to Australia’s most important sprint handicap, the Newmarket (G1). He finished ninth, but the run was better than it looked: he was carrying 56kg (about 123 pounds), a hefty impost for a three-year-old and giving weight to nearly all his opponents, and he raced with the majority on the stand side of the straight track when the best going was on the far side; only three horses were in front of him on the stand side.

Home Affairs has the speed to be with the leaders early, and a good turn of foot. He stays six furlongs well and enjoys a straight track. He has won on soft footing but may be better on firmer ground.

One of the horses in front of Home Affairs in the Newmarket was Artorius, Australia’s third challenger at Royal Ascot. Like Home Affairs he’s a three-year-old, and though he’s also a class horse, he doesn’t have anything like the same record.

Artorius was a A$120,000 yearling purchase. He is by Flying Artie, a Group 1-winning son of Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) winner Artie Schiller who has made a good start at stud; his dam Gracie’s Lass is a daughter of Grace and Power, a More Than Ready mare who was Grade 1-placed in the Starlet S. (G1) in the US.

Artorius scored his biggest success as a two-year-old, winning Melbourne’s richest juvenile race, the Blue Diamond (G1). He then contested the Golden Slipper, finishing sixth, beating Home Affairs.

At three, he’s failed to win in seven starts, but run very well nonetheless. His most notable efforts were finishing third in the one-mile Caulfield Guineas (G1), third to Home Affairs in the Coolmore Classic (G1), and sixth in the Newmarket Handicap (G1). That day he finished ahead of Home Affairs while also running on the less-favored stand side, but he was carrying 5kg less than his fellow Ascot traveler.

Part of Artorius’s trouble is that he lacks early speed. If he’s at his best at Ascot, no horse is likely to be finishing more strongly. The question is whether he will be close enough to have a chance of winning. He would likely need a very strong pace to figure in the finish.

The two Australians face some strong opposition, most notably Wesley Ward’s top mare Campanelle. But Home Affairs, in particular, looks a very strong chance.