Royal Ascot 2023: Top 10 takeaways
While the proliferation of longshots was a recurring theme of Royal Ascot 2023, there’s much more to be gleaned from the five action-packed days.
Here’s my synthesis, in top 10 style:
1. Dettori accomplishes goal on farewell tour
Ryan Moore won the jockey title, buoyed by his association with the meeting’s top owner (the Coolmore partners) and trainer (Aidan O’Brien). But Frankie Dettori won four races on his farewell tour, thereby remaining Royal Ascot’s all-time leading active jockey during his final year in the saddle.
Moore, who will take over that mantle next summer, hailed Dettori’s craft:
He's the most beautiful rider you will ever see – if you want to build a jockey, that's how you build one.
Dettori had hoped to increase his tally to 80 career wins at Royal Ascot, and he exceeded that goal by making it to number 81. Best of all, he won an incredible ninth Gold Cup (G1) in a pulsating finish aboard the undefeated Courage Mon Ami. In the postwar era, only the late, great Lester Piggott has won more Gold Cups (11).
Adding to the occasion was the fact that Courage Mon Ami hardly had the typical profile for the 2 1/2-mile marathon. Defying inexperience in just his fourth start, he had never raced in black-type, let alone Group, company. Yet Courage Mon Ami lived up to his name, rallying to wear down battle-hardened favorite Coltrane under a power-packed Dettori drive.
Courage Mon Ami is trained John and Thady Gosden, who furnished two more Dettori-guided winners last week. Another unbeaten young stayer, Gregory, put on a front-running clinic in the Queen’s Vase (G2) to boost his credentials for the St Leger (G1). Fittingly, Dettori’s final winner was a Juddmonte homebred, Coppice, in the Sandringham H., and the full sister to the top-class Calyx is bound for bigger prizes.
Dettori also delivered juvenile filly Porta Fortuna in the Albany (G3) for young trainer Donnacha O’Brien, who now joins father Aidan and brother Joseph on the Royal honor roll.
2. Mostahdaf was no Saudi mirage
The 1 1/4-mile Prince of Wales’s (G1) featured an all-star cast, but Mostahdaf made his rivals look like understudies with a devastating kick. The last time that the Shadwell homebred raced in these conditions — over a similar distance on quick ground — he smashed them in the Neom Turf Cup (G3) on Saudi Cup Day. Of course, it’s one thing to boss that field, and quite another to do it on this stage. That’s why he went off at 10-1 (12-1 in the World Pool). Yet Mostahdaf treated them about the same, cruising from last on the bridle before overwhelming Luxembourg and Adayar.
Mostahdaf earned a berth to the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1). The firm course at Santa Anita must be a lure, even if connections believe that 1 1/2 miles is stretching him. That was the sense, at least, from his fourth to Japanese dynamo Equinox in the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1) in his latest. The Gosdens will keep Mostahdaf in this vicinity for now, targeting the about 1 5/16-mile Juddmonte International (G1) Aug. 23.
Luxembourg, just the type for the Turf, and Adayar will appreciate stepping up in trip for another “Win and You’re In” at Ascot, the July 29 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (G1). Also expected in the 1 1/2-mile King George are defending champion Pyledriver and Shadwell’s outstanding Hukum. Pyledriver, who had not raced since last year’s King George, overcame ring-rustiness to win the course-and-distance prep, the Hardwicke (G2), while Hukum scratched because the ground was too firm for him.
3. Three-year-olds outshine older milers
As longshots prevailed in the majors for older milers, sophomores Paddington and Tahiyra were more convincing in their corresponding events. Tahiyra didn’t get her rematch with 1000 Guineas (G1) heroine Mawj, who was ruled out by illness, but Paddington trumped 2000 Guineas (G1) winner Chaldean.
Paddington, last seen taking a step forward to win the Irish 2000 Guineas (G1), drove home with greater authority in the St James’s Palace (G1). Picking up strongly from just off the demanding pace set by Chaldean, Paddington lent substance to the idea he can go further. He also gave Aidan O’Brien a record 83rd Royal Ascot victory, surpassing Sir Michael Stoute on the trainers’ list.
O’Brien paid Paddington a handsome compliment:
I would think Paddington would be the highlight. He looks very different — he is progressing with every run and he travels and quickens. I know Ryan (Moore) was always taken by him, and I think he was really blown away.
Tahiyra’s margin in the Coronation (G1) wasn’t as gaudy as Paddington’s 3 3/4 lengths, but she came through in less than ideal circumstances. The Dermot Weld filly might have excelled if she’d gotten the slower ground on Tuesday, rather than the firming surface on Friday. Perhaps the bigger factor to overcome was the lack of pace, as jockey Chris Hayes said of Tahiyra:
I can't wait to ride this filly in a properly-run mile race to really see what she's made of.
Tahiyra had to survive a stewards’ inquiry, as runner-up Remarquee got squeezed before regaining momentum. If slightly unlucky, she did not appear to be quickening well enough into the gap when Tahiyra swept past. Meditate could have used a pacesetter instead of trying to lead herself, a tactic that contributed to her tiring fourth.
In contrast, the results among the elders had a more circumstantial vibe. The longshot tone was set right off the bat in the Queen Anne (G1), courtesy of 33-1 Triple Time. Although the blueblood was always well regarded, it was difficult to endorse him off the layoff in his Group 1 debut. But the Kevin Ryan pupil showed a fine attitude to rebuff Inspiral, who appeared poised to go by, only to hang in her comeback. Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) winner Modern Games was a lackluster fourth, even allowing for the rain-affected going, in a harbinger of a subpar week for Godolphin. In the Duke of Cambridge (G2) for distaffers, a tepid tempo set the stage for a frenetic finish, and it was the filly who’d never tried a mile before, Rogue Millennium, who had the superior turn of foot.
4. King of Steel, Waipiro advertise depth of Epsom Derby
Derby (G1) supremo Auguste Rodin was not at Royal Ascot, with his Irish Derby (G1) engagement coming up on Sunday, yet his presence was felt. The Epsom form stood up in both the King Edward VII (G2) and Hampton Court (G3).
King of Steel, just collared by Auguste Rodin at Epsom, was much the best as the King Edward VII favorite. A slow pace didn’t faze the gigantic gray, who rolled from last to beat Ballydoyle’s Continuous by 3 1/2 imperious lengths. Continuous remains one to watch for O’Brien, since progeny of Heart’s Cry tend to improve with maturity. King of Steel himself is capable of more as well; after all, the Derby was his belated sophomore bow. The Amo Racing runner could make his third start of the season in the Grand Prix de Paris (G1).
Derby sixth-placer Waipiro shortened up to 1 1/4 miles in the Hampton Court, where he burst from the pack to win going away. The half-brother to multiple Hong Kong Group 1 victor Waikuku could well end up at Sha Tin for owner P.K. Siu. Waikuku was runner-up in his attempt at the Hong Kong Derby in 2019, over a distance a shade far for him. Waipiro would find it exactly in his wheelhouse, if connections want to aim that way in 2024.
Finishing a creditable sixth in the Hampton Court was the filly Caernarfon, who was likewise turning back in trip after her third in the Oaks (G1) at Epsom. She’s a more meaningful barometer for the Oaks form than the longshots up the track in the 1 1/2-mile Ribblesdale (G2) behind the progressive Warm Heart. At Newbury last out, Warm Heart had posted a narrow decision over Bluestocking, and she increased her margin handsomely on the stretch-out at Ascot. To be fair, Ribblesdale third Bluestocking might have wanted a stronger pace to accentuate her stamina.
5. British sprinters defend home turf
It wasn’t just that the home team hurled back the Hong Kong, American, and Australian invaders in the Group 1 sprints, but the identity of those British-based heroes.
The biggest surprise of all was Khaadem, a $148.90 shocker in the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee (G1). Once upon a time, he’d looked like a rising force for Charlie Hills. By Saturday, Khaadem looked more like a wildly hit-or-miss seven-year-old without much upside, especially over a stiffer six-furlong course. Then he rolled back the years to run down the more logical Sacred, who deserves to find a Group 1 somewhere.
Although the streaking Shaquille made sense in the Commonwealth Cup (G1) for three-year-olds, he didn’t shape as the biggest threat to Ballydoyle hotpot Little Big Bear on paper. Once Shaquille reared at the start, spotting the field lengths out of the gate, his chances normally would have been gone. But the Julie Camacho trainee made a remarkable recovery, pulling himself into position and outfinishing a rather tame “Bear.”
Highfield Princess had been the likeliest to fly the British flag, only she had to settle for minor awards twice last week. An aggrieved second to Bradsell (more on him in the next section) in the King’s Stand (G1), Highfield Princess wheeled back for third in the Jubilee, where she was arguably not helped by her draw toward the stands’ side. She’s eligible to regain the winning thread over the summer.
6. Elementary for Watson and Doyle
Bradsell was the kickoff to a great Royal Ascot for the trainer/jockey tandem of Archie Watson and Hollie Doyle. Last year’s Coventry (G2) winner had been beaten in both starts this season versus fellow sophomores. Watson had the inspiration to drop him back to five furlongs, with the trade-off that he’d have to tackle elders in the King’s Stand as a longshot (16-1 in the World Pool).
The cutback made all the difference, and Bradsell traveled supremely well through the race. When Highfield Princess loomed, Bradsell herded her across the course, despite Doyle’s efforts to correct. Still, he knuckled down to preserve a one-length margin, enough to survive the inevitable stewards’ inquiry.
Given Watson’s international outlook, Bradsell is definitely one to take up the “Win and You’re In” offer for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1).
Watson and Doyle combined for two more double-digit winners in sprint handicaps. Saint Lawrence, in his first start for the yard, won the Wokingham in a time almost as fast as the same-day Jubilee (1:12.55 compared to 1:12.42). Rhythm N Hooves landed the five-furlong Palace of Holyroodhouse, and the duo almost pulled an upset in the Coventry with Army Ethos, who came up a neck shy.
7. River Tiber leads successful raids by Irish juveniles
River Tiber entered the Coventry as the one to beat, and the highly-touted Ballydoyle colt did not disappoint. The margin was a lot closer than in his first two starts at home, but he was in the vanguard throughout in a strongly-run race, and kept finding.
Ireland had three of the first four in the Coventry, with Army Ethos the only interloper. Bucanero Fuerte ran a mighty race in third; if he’d gotten in another race since his March 25 debut, he might have been even nearer. Fourth Givemethebeatboys was in front until late.
Irish shipper Valiant Force sprang the $240.70 stunner in the Norfolk (G2), booking his ticket to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint (G1). The Adrian Murray trainee was breaking his maiden, and reversing form with Ballydoyle’s His Majesty in fourth. Yet His Majesty was the eye-catcher here after a sluggish start, and he gapped the rest on his side of the course.
The Albany also has Breeders’ Cup implications, since the aforementioned Porta Fortuna has American ownership. She topped the all-Irish exacta by overhauling Ballydoyle’s Matrika, who suggested she may want to go further already. Porta Fortuna’s time for six furlongs (1:13.97) wasn’t far off the sophomores in the Commonwealth Cup (1:13.15).
Irish fillies served up another exacta in the seven-furlong Chesham S. over the boys, as the Gavin Cromwell-trained Snellen edged Ballydoyle’s Pearls and Rubies. The two raced far apart on opposite sides of the course, and Pearls and Rubies wouldn’t know she lost.
Two other Ballydoyle juveniles are worth watching after better-than-appears losses in the Windsor Castle S. The inexperienced Johannes Brahms did his best work late for second, and newly-blinkered stablemate Alabama fared best of those on the far side in fifth. That said, the British-based upsetter, Big Evs, was three lengths clear in a time slightly faster than the Queen Mary (G2) (:59.91 versus :59.96).
8. Gulfstream’s Royal Palm initiative an instant hit
Gulfstream Park’s idea to stage Royal Ascot launching pads for juveniles has already yielded dividends, as the inaugural Royal Palm Juvenile Fillies produced Queen Mary winner Crimson Advocate. The George Weaver filly displayed the same high speed she had at Gulfstream, and most important, she managed to sustain it over the taxing straightaway.
Crimson Advocate barely lasted on the bob from British-trained filly Relief Rally, who endured a brutal beat by being marginally in front before and after the wire. But jockey John Velazquez faulted himself for the tight finish, believing that he asked Crimson Advocate to put the race away too soon:
In the race she was going so well, but I probably made a little premature move thinking I would get away from them and then hold on. In hindsight, I almost messed up the race and should have waited. She handled it better than I did!
In any event, Crimson Advocate figures to be a prime player in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint back around a turn. Stablemate No Nay Mets wasn’t able to land the same blow for the Royal Palm Juvenile in the Norfolk. Still, the Gulfstream race put him on the map and got him sold for £800,000 at Goffs London on the eve of Royal Ascot.
9. Whither Wesley Ward?
For the second straight year, Wesley Ward was shut out. Moreover, his four runners were all well beaten. American Rascal did not inherit dam Lady Aurelia’s aptitude for turf sprints; his action in the Norfolk did not look the same as in his Keeneland maiden romp on dirt. The son of Curlin can regroup back on the main track stateside — maybe at Saratoga?
Fandom should have skipped the Coventry and focused on the shorter Windsor Castle, when the ground was better too. Bundchen totally missed the break in the Queen Mary, although it would take some projection to see her fighting out the finish with a good start. Ward’s only older entrant, Twilight Gleaming, faded badly in the King’s Stand.
It’s historically been a challenge to figure out which Ward runners will jump up here, or fade. At this point, the lack of results in recent years will make it easier to downgrade his runners until the trend turns. Note that his last Royal Ascot winner, Campanelle, was also the only one to strike for him in 2020 and 2021 (when elevated via disqualification).
10. Desert Hero an important Royal reinforcement?
At this first Royal meeting since the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, it was significant to see King Charles III embrace the role. Racing hasn’t been his equestrian sport of choice, so my supposition was that he’s dutifully honoring his late mother. And it certainly helps that Queen Camilla has an interest.
Yet there’s nothing quite like having a winner, especially on a grand occasion, to fire up passion for the game. That’s why I wonder if Desert Hero’s score in the King George V might just help Charles in this department. Bred by the late Queen, the promising sophomore had to dive through traffic to get up in an absolute thriller, sporting those historic silks, in the race named after Charles’s great-grandfather.
Desert Hero clocked a faster time (2:29.56) than the same-day Ribblesdale (2:30.41), a reflection of the stronger pace. Note that he was getting 10 pounds from Bertinelli, the 135-pound highweight who had beaten him last out in the London Gold Cup. Bertinelli is yet another Ballydoyle prospect with a big reputation. But Desert Hero is just getting started too, for a patient trainer in William Haggas. By Sea the Stars, he’s out of a full sister to Dartmouth, winner of the 2016 Hardwicke for the Queen.
Among equine royalty, the great Frankel sired three Group 1 winners over an array of trips, from miler Triple Time to marathoner Courage Mon Ami and Mostahdaf in between. We will save his exploits for a pedigree notebook.