Royal Ascot extravaganza gives Irish racing opportunity for morale boost

Aidan O’Brien odds-on to be iconic meeting’s leading trainer for a 13th time

Ryan Moore aboard Kyprios, who could deliver a record ninth Ascot Gold Cup for Aidan O’Brien. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

The Royal Ascot extravaganza delivers Irish racing an opportunity for a timely and much-needed morale boost when it kicks off on Tuesday.

A year ago, British racing’s most lavish stage had 12 Irish-trained winners, with eight different trainers included in the record tally: hopes of a similar haul this week occur in a context of unglamorous committee rooms and abhorrent actions in ugly sheds.

Last week’s RTÉ Investigates programme, and the shocking scenes uncovered at Ireland’s sole equine abattoir, could hardly be further removed from Ascot’s frothy glitz, those outrageous images striking to the heart of racing’s ethical dilemmas in duty of care for the animals it breeds.

In comparison, the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board’s recently disclosed 2022 accounting shuffle, which saw €350,000 transferred from the Jockeys Emergency Fund to the regulator before being put back three months later, is nowhere near as inflammatory.


Nevertheless, a transfer referred to by the IHRB’s own boss with terms including “bombshell” and “a matter of grave concern” means explanations for it will be eagerly anticipated in advance of the regulator’s appearance before the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee on Thursday.

That such a showdown might coincide with Kyprios delivering Aidan O’Brien a record ninth Ascot Gold Cup success tallies with how unprecedented Irish success on-track has too often corresponded to unrivalled reputational firefighting off it.

In fact, with the governance and regulation of the sport here continuing to be embroiled in controversy, the route to Royal Ascot success continues to look straightforward despite it being one of word racing’s most competitive events.

It is 28 years since O’Brien first struck at Ascot and no one has saddled more winners there. His 85 victories to date include a record-equalling seven in 2016 alone. Along the way a dozen leading trainer awards have been accumulated.

Ryan Moore could surpass Frankie Dettori's tally of Ascot wins. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

Not surprisingly O’Brien is long odds-on to make a “lucky 13″ this week even though he is relatively light on Tuesday with just a trio of runners.

That’s one more than Irish jump racing’s equivalent behemoth figure, Willie Mullins, who on Thursday has his own Gold Cup ambitions with Vauban.

That horse delivered his trainer a ninth Royal Ascot success a year ago and Mullins’s impressive strike-rate at the meeting could be augmented in Tuesday’s finale through the potentially well handicapped Belloccio.

If political issues of all kinds are an unfortunate context for Irish interests, then for much of the domestic public this Ascot is still about Frankie Dettori.

Racing’s most famous face will be present but not correct, instead taking a break from his new California base to soak up the social scene but resolutely not trying to add to his 81 Ascot victories in the saddle.

Only Lester Piggott’s tally of 116 is better but Dettori’s second position looks to be on sufferance as Ryan Moore needs only two winners this week to match him.

General odds of 1/3 indicate expectations that Moore will come up with significantly more than that and maybe even challenge his record haul of nine in 2015. Ballydoyle’s No 1 has already been leading rider for the week 10 times.

Moore’s major task on Tuesday is to rejuvenate Henry Longfellow, O’Brien’s principal hope for the St James’s Place Stakes, a race that fits its role perfectly this year in having the three major 2,000 Guineas winners take each other on.

Godolphin’s unbeaten Notable Speech was too good for Rosallion in Newmarket although the latter bounced back with victory at the Curragh. In between Metropolitan emerged on top at Longchamp in the French Guineas where Henry Longfellow proved a bitter disappointment.

William Buick rides Notable Speech to victory in the Qipco 2000 Guineas Stakes at Newmarket in May. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

That the O’Brien star has almost four lengths to find, and yet is a fraction of Metropolitan’s odds, underlines the power of his connections. In what might turn out to be a fascinating tactical battle, Rosallion’s rider Sean Levey might emerge on top if he times his challenge as late as possible.

Adrian Murray’s Valiant Force, a famous 150/1 winner of last year’s Norfolk, is the sole Irish hope for the newly titled King Charles III Stakes – formerly the Kings Stand – while there are three French hopes in the opening Group One of the week, the Queen Anne Stakes.

Royal Ascot’s international appeal has prompted the Wathnan operation owned by the emir of Qatar to go on a spending splurge in recent weeks. The result is a pair of hopes in the big sprint and three for the Coventry Stakes, where retained rider James Doyle has opted for Catalyse. Torito may also emerge as a major Wathnan contender in the Wolferton Stakes.

Tony Martin twice won the Ascot Stakes with Leg Spinner (2005) and Barba Papa five years earlier. The Co Meath trainer is serving a three-month license suspension for breaching anti-doping rules last year. His sister, Cathy O’Leary, will saddle Zanndabad for the marathon event this time and the Chester Cup third looks a major contender.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column