It was Ladies’ Day on Thursday at Royal Ascot. The traditional feature on Ladies’ Day is the Ascot Gold Cup, a 4000-metre marathon. A fixture in the past four runnings of the Gold Cup was conspicuous by his absence. Yeats, the venerable gelding, who had carried the Ballydoyle flag to victory in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009, was not in the field. The Coolmore torchbearer had bid goodbye to racing.
Trainer Aidan O’Brien had drawn a blank on Tuesday and Wednesday. His runner in the Gold Cup was Age of Aquarius. Fans showed little enthusiasm and Age of Aquarius, a John Murtagh mount, could be backed at 8-1. As the Gold Cup unfolded, many fans began to rue the decision not to respect the chances of the O’Brien charge. Akmal played his customary role of pacemaker and Age of Aquarius lay in close attendance. Rite of Passage, coming off a third place finish in a Cheltenham hurdle in March, raced in striking range in the hands of Pat Smullen. As Akmal began to weaken going into the final 800 metres, Age of Aquarius drew first blood. Jockey Murtagh went two, may be, three lengths clear and Rite of Passage, dismissed at 20-1, picked up the chase. Manifest and Ask, two well-supported runners were spinning their wheels. With 200 metres to go, the Gold Cup became an all-Irish affair. Murtagh and O’Brien were trying to break their 2010 Royal Ascot duck and give Coolmore its fifth consecutive Gold Cup win and were attempting to beat back a determined challenge from Rite of Passage, a Dermot Weld-trained and Pat Smullen-ridden hurdler-turned flat horse. Rite of Passage was gaining ground with every stride and the son of Giant’s Causeway got his neck in front in the shadow of the wire. Purple Moon, unable to keep with the top two, was a distant third, six lengths off.
The 4000-metre Ascot Gold Cup was run in four minutes, 16.92 seconds. Twelve ran. Rite of Passage was giving jockey Smullen (who rode in the 2000 Guineas in Mumbai in late December) his first win in the Gold Cup. It was the 14th Royal Ascot win for Dermot Weld who has won races the world over. Rite of Passage, it should be brought to the attention of the readers, is a flat horse and a jumper too. William Hill made a 5-1 quote on Rite of Passage getting an encore in the 2011 Gold Cup. Dermot Weld’s comment that his trainee may run in the Melbourne Cup in November prompted William Hill to offer 10-1 on Rite of Passage.
Trainer Weld spoke. “This plan was hatched a long time ago. This is a race I always wanted to win. Pat (Smullen) is a world class rider and I left the decision about how to ride to him. Rite of Passage is young and he has a good future.”
The victory had a bittersweet element. Pat Smullen received a four-day ban for careless riding. He explained his emotions. “Words cannot describe how I feel. Winning the Ascot Gold Cup is every jockey’s dream. To win the race in such a battle is also a dream and it was such a tough and dogged performance.”
John Murtagh, yet to win after the dust settled on Thursday, had cause for more frustration. The Ascot Stewards suspended him for three days for excessive use of the whip. Murtagh talked about his Gold Cup ride. “I thought we had it turning for home. We were caught in the last 60 yards. He (Age of Aquarius) is a very brave horse and I am sick.”
End of Thursday, Ryan Moore was the 11-10 favorite to win the Arora Hotels leading jockey title. Richard Hughes, Frankie Dettori, Michael Hills and jockey Moore had two wins each with two days (12 races) left in the Royal meeting.
Thursdays’ card began with the Norfolk Stakes. The 1000-metre race was taken by the William Haggas-trained Approve, a 16-1 chance, ridden by Eddie Ahern.
Hibaayeb, Frankie Dettori up, ran away with the 2400-metre Ribblesdale Stakes. Hibaayeb, the 4-1 joint favorite, hails from Saeed bin Suroor’s barn.
Michael Hills and Barry Hills combined skills to win the Britannia Stakes with Ransom Note, a 9-1 chance. There were 27 runners in the 1600-metre race.
Kieren Fallon opened his Royal Ascot account with a hard-earned victory aboard the Luca Cumani-conditioned Afsare, the 9-4 favorite in the Hampton Court Stakes. Fifteen went to post in the 2000-metre event.
Thursday’s finale was won by Dandino who was winning his fourth consecutive race. It was the 2400-metre King George V Stakes. Eighteen runners answered the starter’s call. Dandino was ridden by Paul Mulrennan, a name fans in India ought to be familiar with. This was jockey Mulrennan’s first win at Royal Ascot. There was an inquiry but the placings were not altered.
A decision was taken to water the course for Friday’s races. Doctor-ordered weather is what Ascot has been having. The condition of the course has elicited high praise. Ascot’s Royal meeting has been a balancing act for Chris Stickels, the Clerk of the Course, but things could not have gone better this year.
On Thursday at Leopardstown, jockey Chris Hayes had a lucrative double. In the 6 35 PM race, Hayes rode Money Trader, a 20-1 longshot, to victory. In the 8 05 P M contest, Hayes connected with Rose Hip, a 12-1 proposition. Hayes has been riding with distinction and is slowly but surely becoming one of the top Irish jockeys.
Maxime Guyon went to Paris after winning the Prince of Wales Stakes on Wednesday at Royal Ascot. On Thursday, Guyon was in action at Nantes in France. He won the day’s feature, the Derby de l’Ouest Grand Prix, a 2400-metre race. His mount was Marceti, a 42/10 chance.
The Irish Derby will be run on June 27. The three-day Derby festival begins on Friday, June 25. A watering program is in effect. Dublin has been having rain-free days. No rain is in the forecast in the days leading up to the Derby. The Curragh authorities are trying to lure Workforce, the Epsom Derby hero, to the Irish Derby. Workforce’s connections are keeping an open mind.
There is a proposition bet that I am compelled to mention. Aidan O’Brien has drawn a blank in the first three days at Royal Ascot. There is a 11-4 offer that O’Brien will not break the duck. I believe that O’Brien will not leave Berkshire empty handed.
Two names with a huge Indian flavor are running at Royal Ascot on Friday. Anna Salai (Mount Road in Chennai) is in the Coronation Stakes. Bangalore Gold will take his chances in the Buckingham Palace Stakes. In a 25-runner field at the Curragh, Bangalore Gold, ridden by Colm O’Donoghue, won last time out. Dettori replaces O’Donoghue on Friday.