Racing Roundtable: Royal Ascot recap and Batten Down's future

June 25th, 2024

This week, the Racing Roundtable analyzes Royal Ascot's five-day meeting, Batten Down's future following his Ohio Derby (G3) win, and what else stood out from the weekend of racing.

Where does Batten Down rank among three-year-olds after the Ohio Derby?

James Scully: Prominently. The leading three-year-old doesn’t always come along by the Kentucky Derby (G1), with three of the last eight champion three-year-old males missing the premier event on the first Saturday in May, and this year’s division is ripe for a late-blooming type who is just joining the stakes ranks.

Mindframe stepped forth when recording a half-length second in the Belmont (G1) earlier this month, unbeaten Parenting looms a promising prospect off a romping win in the June 9 Affirmed S., and Batten Down has something going for him following a 1 3/4-length score in the Ohio Derby (G3). An eye-catching maiden winner at Churchill Downs two back, Batten Down has displayed improved speed in the last two outings, registering 106 E1 and 109 E2 Brisnet Early Pace ratings dominating the 1 1/8-mile Ohio Derby on the front end, and the gray colt is an excellent candidate to keep progressing for Bill Mott.

Vance Hanson: I don't think we learned a whole lot about Batten Down's place in the division pecking order, given the pace dynamics of the Ohio Derby. He was left absolutely all alone to dictate things as he pleased, built up a five-length lead down the backside, and responded well enough down the lane while not seriously threatened. It more or less mirrored the trip he got winning a 1 1/4-mile maiden at Churchill Downs as an odds-on choice. This is not to say Batten Down won't continue to progress and can not make his presence felt in stronger races, but he is unlikely to have things go so easily for him in the near future.

Ashley Anderson: The Tapit colt earned a career-best 100 Brisnet Speed figure with his 1 1/4-length victory in the Ohio Derby on Saturday, placing him in the mix with the best three-year-olds in the division based on Speed figures alone. The Bill Mott trainee has now won two straight after needing four starts to break his maiden, and he showed his potential two starts back when he romped to an 8 3/4-length victory in gate-to-wire fashion in a 1 1/4-mile maiden special weight at Churchill. The Juddmonte homebred has shown steady improvement in his last two, and his top Speed figure ranks right alongside Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Mystik Dan, who clocked a 97 BRIS figure in his Derby win and a career-best 102 in his runner-up effort in the Preakness (G1). Batten Down was originally pointed toward the Belmont (G1) but connections opted for an easier task in the Ohio Derby, where he beat five rivals. As a full brother to Tacitus and recent Shawnee (G3) victress Scylla, he should continue to improve with age and experience, and could be a top contender in a wide-open three-year-old division by the end of the year.

What stood out to you at Royal Ascot?

JS: Fairy Godmother’s win in Friday’s Albany (G3) was fun to watch. Taken back after breaking on top in the six-furlong affair, the two-year-old filly was steered right after being blocked in traffic but found no seam. Jockey Ryan Moore redirected to the left, angling to the far outside for clear sailing, and Fairy Godmother surged dramatically to win in the final yards. 

The meteoric rise of Billy Loughnane was on full display as he guided 80-1 Rashabar to an upset in the Coventry (G2) on Royal Ascot’s opening day, and the 18-year-old picked up a second win aboard Soprano on Friday. “Billy the Kid” is going places. I’ll also mention jockey Sean Levey, who won a couple of group events, including St. James’s Palace (G1) on the rising three-year-old Rosallion.

VH: One performance that has generally been overlooked is that of the three-year-old Calandagan, the French raider from the Aga Khan stable who demolished his King Edward VII (G2) foes by six lengths. The son of Gleneagles had previously captured the Prix Noailles (G3) and Prix Hocquart (G3) at Longchamp over slow and heavy ground, but proved at Ascot that ground condition is really no factor for him.

The primary reason this performance is not being given its due, so to speak, is because Calandagan is a gelding. In Europe, geldings are prohibited from running in the classics and select other races. Among those are the Grand Prix de Paris (G1) and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (G1). Although connections are in no rush to get Calandagan back to the races anytime soon, it would be worth their while to look at some races in America. Calandagan might fit well in nearly all of them.

AA: Arguably the most impressive win of the five-day meeting came in the Chesham S., where two-year-old filly Bedtime Story cruised to a 9 1/2-length win against males in the seven-furlong sprint. The Aidan O'Brien pupil already made waves in her career debut, when the daughter of Frankel won a sprint at Leopardstown. She is now unbeaten from two starts. 

With the win, O'Brien and rider Ryan Moore finished the 2024 Royal Ascot meet as the leading trainer and jockey, respectively. Both won six races, with Moore topping the standings for a third consecutive year and the 11th time overall for his career. O'Brien, meanwhile, celebrated not only his 13th training title at Royal Ascot, but his 400th Group 1 win of his career on Day 2 of the meet, when Auguste Rodin prevailed in the Prince of Wales's (G1). The four-year-old secured a spot in the Breeders' Cup Turf (G1) with the victory, but O'Brien may opt for the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) instead.

In addition to triumphs by Auguste Rodin and Bedtime Story, the Ballydoyle trainer also pulled off a surprise win with Kyprios in the Gold Cup (G1), collected a record-tying eighth career victory in the Queen's Vase (G1) with heavy favorite Illinois, stole the Ribblesdale with 12-1 longshot Port Fairy, and visited the winner's circle with New Albany (G3) champion Fairy Godmother.

What else caught your eye?

JS: Ellis Park lacks any notable dirt sprint stakes for older horses, and the six-furlong Alfred G. Vanderbilt (G1) at Saratoga on July 27 looks like a viable target for Happy Is a Choice following a convincing win over a stakes-quality allowance field at Churchill Downs Saturday. And he’ll be one to consider given the lack of depth and clarity among older dirt male sprinters on the East Coast and Midwest. Skelly, who exits a second at odds-on the Aristides S. at Churchill Downs, is still trying to prove himself outside of Oaklawn and one would be hard-pressed to name three other viable Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) contenders (among older horses) outside of California.

A maiden winner last fall, Happy Is a Choice started to come on for John Ortiz earlier this season, reeling off consecutive allowance wins at Oaklawn Park, and finished third to Skelly when stepping up to face stakes rivals in the Count Fleet Sprint (G3) in mid-April. The four-year-old rebounded nicely while returning from a two-month freshening on Saturday, registering a career-best 99 Brisnet Speed rating for his 2 1/4-length decision, and Happy Is a Choice may have more to offer.

Ortiz has been on a tear of late, recording four wins, a second, and a third from his last eight starters (June 16-24). 

VH: One three-year-old that looked as intriguing as Batten Down at the weekend was the Chad Brown-trained Unmatched Wisdom, who is now 2-for-2 following a facile allowance win at Aqueduct on Saturday, admittedly against an overmatched field of five going 1 1/8 miles. The son of Cairo Prince has now both of his starts by a combined margin of 12 lengths and earned Brisnet speed figures in the low 90s. The stable already has some solid prospects for the major summer three-year-old races, so a spot like the restricted Curlin S. at Saratoga on July 19 might be more on Unmatched Wisdom's radar at the moment. If he continues to progress, Unmatched Wisdom could be a graded quality type by the end of the year and a potentially decent older horse, too.

AA: The Grade 3 Chicago drew a small field of five but featured an exciting clash between Derby City Distaff (G1) winner Vahva and 2023 Chicago heroine Society, who set the speed record when winning by more than 10 lengths in last year's edition of the Grade 3 event at Churchill Downs. Although Society was returning off a lengthy layoff, she appeared to have the advantage on Saturday as the lone speed in the field and looked like she might have her way in the seven-furlong race. However, the late runner Vahva got the best of her rival, stalking the leader before inching closer and applying pressure into the turn. The Gun Runner filly then drove clear to win by 1 1/4 lengths to score her fourth win from as many starts at Churchill. The Cherie DeVaux trainee also has four wins from her last five starts, with her lone loss in that span coming by half a length to Alva Starr in the Madison (G1) while returning off a nearly six-month layoff.

Vahva recorded a career-best 104 BRIS figure with her win on Saturday and has now won more than $1.7 million from 13 career starts. DeVaux said Vahva is likely to point toward the Ballerina (G1) at Saratoga, with the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint (G1) the goal at the end of the year.