ROYAL ASCOT NOT A BAD JUMP START TO BELMONT STAKES WEEK

How stark the scene at Royal Ascot; clouds and intermittent showers aplenty but nary a punter, champagne glass, or flamboyant millinery anywhere. Was Tuesday in Ascot, Berkshire intended as a prep for Saturday in Elmont?

The one-mile turf course looked great even without a Royal Carriage to grace it. Intermittent showers and overnight rain had the course on “the soft side of good,” according to two riders. Guess we’d call that yielding over here.

The lack of a crowd is said to be good for a horse’s mind and, by extension, his physical well-being. A relaxed horse is more amenable to his partner’s commands and might be less inclined to injure himself with obstreperous behavior.  

Battaash, a true world-class turf sprinter, can be willful but in the calm of Royal Ascot Tuesday, despite his notorious pre-race past, was as cool as the proverbial cucumber, and it showed.

Away quickly but quietly, and efficiently he was settled comfortably on the pace on the near side of the course while a speed challenger acted as a prompter/co-leader towards the center.

When Jim Crowley pushed the button, Battaash was there instantly and he was gone, leaving 10 rivals behind including runnerup stablemate Agincourt, who continued determinedly to the end.

No longer winless at Ascot, Battaash now boasts an 11-for-20 record at the trip. Thirty minutes later, his Shadwell stablemate Nazeef won her fifth straight, taking the Duke of Cambridge on the mile straightaway.

The victory was Gosden’s second on the day and 51st in Royal Ascot history, and it gave Jim Crowley a riding triple for the afternoon.

There were two performances of special note. The Ribblesdale Stakes very likely produced John Gosden’s next filly star. She is called Frankly Darling and yes, is a daughter of Frankel.

With Frankie Dettori in the boot for the first time, she attended the pacesetter until headstretch of the mile and a half route and accelerated away shortly thereafter, demonstrating both speed and power.

Dettori was asked whether the third-time starter could be ready for the Oaks. “We’ll talk it over,” the rider said, “but yes, she may be there right now.” Her trainer is a man not easily impressed but…

“Yes, that was quite a finish,” Gosden said of his 50th Royal Ascot victor. Showing her inexperience and freshness, she was very keen to go on but Dettori, seeking his 68th Ascot win, was able to switch her off mid-race.

From stout restraint, to tractably high cruising speed, to a turn-of-foot that yielded separation almost instantly, is highly unusual–especially for a young one of the female persuasion.

She might well be extra special, no hyperbole intended. Or, as one commentator noted, “she’s full of Frankel.”

As for the Oaks, if her energy level is there, she’ll be there, too. She owns too many weapons and too much talent not to be.

Circus Maximus punched his ticket into the Breeders’ Cup Mile, winning the Group 1 Queen Anne for Aidan O’Brien and Ryan Moore in a head-bob thriller over Terebellum. He’s matured over the winter, blinkers have helped, and he loves to fight.

Those performances notwithstanding, the Royal Ascot curtain raiser didn’t appear as deep as it has been in recent years and the reason for that, just as there are reasons why this year’s Belmont isn’t as deep as usual either, is that nothing in 2020 is as usual.

“You can put an asterisk next to the whole [racing] year and the Triple Crown is a big part of that,” Todd Pletcher said on Monday’s NTRA conference call.

“The [expected] small field is surprising but there were some unfortunate defections,” Pletcher continued. “It’s just bad luck and the uncertainty of timing.

“These are difficult races to win. If there is a [Triple Crown] winner, I don’t think you can take anything away from the accomplishment.

“But it’s not the same; it’s not five weeks that ends with the mile and a half Belmont. It’s a buried honor tradition, and I’d like to see it stay that way.”

Mark Casse, also on the call, was asked about the distance and the relatively small field of eight or nine, which will be drawn and live-streamed Wednesday at noon. Casse will start the recent impressive speedster, Tap It to Win.

“If the Belmont were a mile and a half, we’d be in the Woody Stephens,” Casse said. Asked how good he thought his chances were, it took very little reading between the lines. “If you beat him, you win.”

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