Irish contingent look well set as a more familiar Royal Ascot gets ready to roll

Aidan O’Brien’s numerical strength this week is another signal of normality returning

Queen Elizabeth  presents the leading trainers trophy to Aidan O’Brien on the final day of Royal Ascot in 2016. Photograph: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images for Ascot Racecourse

Queen Elizabeth presents the leading trainers trophy to Aidan O’Brien on the final day of Royal Ascot in 2016. Photograph: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images for Ascot Racecourse

 

Odds on what colour hat the Queen might wear on day one of Royal Ascot is a sign of a creeping return of some normality: that those odds came with a proviso about her actually turning up indicate how far there is to go.

British racing’s most famous owner hadn’t missed its most renowned meeting in seven decades up to last year’s behind closed doors renewal.

A permitted attendance of 12,000 for each of the five days this week is a long way short of Ascot’s packed norm.

But it does at least represent an improvement and holds the promise of some atmosphere for what is usually a famed combination of both social froth and elite sporting excellence.

It also holds the potential for a return to more normal service for Irish-trained hopefuls at one of the most important racing weeks of the year.

Last year’s disrupted season saw five Irish-trained successes with Jessica Harrington’s Alpine Star adding to four for Aidan O’Brien.

It brought the total number of Royal Ascot winners trained in Ireland since 1946 to 175.

A remarkable 74 of those have been for O’Brien, 10 times leading trainer at the meeting, and who is remorselessly closing in on Michael Stoute’s record tally of 81.

However, the pandemic circumstances that meant no Irish runners in handicaps resulted in last year’s tally being only half of what was a record 10 winners in 2016, seven of which emerged from Ballydoyle.

O’Brien’s numerical strength this week is another signal of normality. The Irishman is odds-on with some firms to be crowned leading trainer once again over the coming five days. The John and Thady Gosden team are rated his main threat.

Half a dozen Ballydoyle runners on day one include three hopefuls in the St James’s Palace Stakes.

It is Jim Bolger’s 2,000 Guineas hero Poetic Flare who sets the standard, however, while Harrington also holds realistic hopes with Lucky Vega and Joseph O’Brien has Frankie Dettori on his side for Thunder Moon.

Earlier, O’Brien’s brother, Donnacha, and last year’s champion apprentice, Gavin Ryan, will try to break their duck at the meeting through Masseto in the Coventry Stakes.

Co Dublin trainer Ado McGuinness is also looking for a Royal Ascot breakthrough in the King’s Stand Stakes with the outsider Harry’s Bar, all of which takes place before some of Irish jump racing’s biggest stars get in on the act.

Rachael Blackmore is on a well-earned break from riding over jumps in Ireland this month.

However, the pioneering jockey, top rider at Cheltenham and winner of the Aintree Grand National in April, has a chance to break even more new ground on board Cape Gentleman in the long-distance Ascot Stakes.

She teams up with Emmet Mullins for the spin on a horse whose stamina looks assured having been successful in last season’s Irish Cesarewitch. He also boasts jumps form possibly superior to all these.

Blackmore has enjoyed Listed success on the Flat with Mullins in the past and rode King Of The Throne for the trainer in last year’s Irish Derby. The partnership finished 11th behind Santiago.

Willie Mullins has regularly enjoyed success at the meeting and has three hopefuls in the Ascot Stakes, including Ryan Moore’s mount M C Muldoon.

Moore and Mullins will also team up in the concluding Copper Horse Stakes with the top class hurdler Saldier.

He bounced back to winning form on the level at Listowel last week and Mullins reported: “He dropped in class a good bit to get back on the winning trail last time and the run comes a bit quick.

“However, I’m just hoping he’s come out of it well as I think he’ll like the ground and the trip. He has every chance if it doesn’t come up too quick.”

Despite having the pick of the Ballydoyle team, Moore is only second favourite to be crowned top rider this week.

His great rival Dettori is a general 6-4 favourite to repeat his 2020 dominance when partnering six winners. It included a hat-trick on the final day.

All 35 races at Royal Ascot this year will be broadcast free-to-air.

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