Royal Ascot gets under way with no fewer than eight Group 1 performers crossing swords in Tuesday's Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes, which forms part of the Mile Category in the QIPCO British Champions Series and also offers an expenses-paid berth to the Breeders' Cup Mile this fall at Santa Anita Park.
The first two home last year, Accidental Agent and Lord Glitters, meet again, with the former joined by Barney Roy, Dream Castle, Mustashry, Olmedo, Romanised, Laurens, and One Master as being a winner at least once at the highest level.
The most prolific of the bunch has been the Karl Burke-trained Laurens, who has five Group 1 wins to her name. She made a highly encouraging return when chasing home the Sir Michael Stoute-trained Mustashry in the Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes at Newbury last month, a race which Accidental Agent (third), Romanised (fourth), Le Brivido (fifth), Sharja Bridge (tenth), Beat The Bank (eleventh), Mythical Magic (twelfth) and Lord Glitters (thirteenth) also contested.
PJ McDonald, 37, regular rider of Laurens, was delighted with that effort as it provided confirmation that a below-par run on her final outing last year, at Ascot on QIPCO British Champions Day, was not an indicator that she had lost her renowned fighting spirit.
“After she flopped on QIPCO British Champions Day you are always worried 'does she come back?' because she's had to battle every time she's raced,” he said. “She's never had an easy race. She has had to knuckle down and battle every day she has been on the racetrack, even when she won her maiden. That can take its toll on horses. Some just don't have the constitution to deal with that time and time again.
“We were confident on her homework that she'd trained on and still wanted to do it, but until you go to the races you never know. When she hit those lids, travelled with such enthusiasm and picked up and looked like she was going to win, it dispelled those fears. She felt every bit as good to me.”
McDonald says Laurens will improve for her Newbury exertions, not least because the imposing filly is difficult to get fully fit at home because she finds her homework so easy.
“I sat on her Tuesday morning and she did a nice piece of work. She's come out of the Lockinge well and we couldn't be much happier going into the race. She looks amazing, feels amazing and is going into Ascot as well, if not better, than when she has gone into any of her previous races,” he said.
“It's very competitive and she's taking on the boys again. She will have to find a bit with Mr Stoute's horse [Mustashry] and it wouldn't surprise me to see him improve again – he's trained by an absolute genius – but I'd be very confident our filly will improve from the Lockinge.
“She was fit enough to go and have her run but there is only so much you can do with them at home and she finds her work so easy that she's never really in the red zone. There is nothing that can take her there or lead her there.”
Laurens, owned by John Dance, has developed a growing fan club and McDonald said: “Everybody loves a battler; she wears her heart on the sleeve. I feel privileged to have ridden a horse of her calibre and even if she never wins again she owes us nothing and been an absolute inspiration to all of us.”
Sharja Bridge disappointed in the Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes, but showed his liking for Ascot when a smooth winner of the Balmoral Handicap on QIPCO British Champions Day in October.
Roger Varian, his trainer, said: “It was just too firm for him in the Lockinge – he didn't let down. He's capable of a big performance. If the meeting starts on good to soft that would see him very comfortable, and when gets his conditions he's got an awful lot of ability.”
William Haggas relies on last year's Qatar Prix de la Foret winner One Master and says she should be excused her comeback defeat at the Curragh. “She got tired, as I knew she would do, but she's had a race and is better for it,” he said. “She's got a bit to find but it's anybody's race and it will be luck of the draw. She will enjoy a bit of cut in the ground and although she's a big price she ran well in the Breeders' Cup and Hong Kong, considering we rode her wrong.”
Matterhorn, Hazapour, fifth in the Investec Derby at Epsom last year and the mount of Frankie Dettori, and globetrotting Stormy Antactic complete the line-up. The last-named was fourth to Roaring Lion in the QIPCO-sponsored Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot on QIPCO British Champions Day in October and has raced in no fewer than seven countries.
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