By Samantha Martin (@sam_angelina22)
By name, the Ascot Gold Cup is the feature of the meeting, yet, in recent years, other races have stolen the limelight. This time, the race very much looks like the race of the meeting – a fascinating clash between Stradivarius, who looks to equal Yeats’ incredible four wins in the race, and six four-year-olds threatening his crown.
If anything, many racing fans were resistant to give Stradivarius the credit he deserved at the beginning as his career came so soon after Yeats. Now, one day short of twelve years since Yeats’ fourth win, Stradivarius looks to equal his record. There has been significantly more funding put into the division since the time of Yeats with the £1 million bonus and £213,017 to the winner of the Ascot Gold Cup in 2021. It would be excellent to see Stradivarius equal the great horse’s record but I’m sure plenty of devoted Yeats fans will wish that one of his twelve rivals manage to pass the post before him.
Stradivarius sets the standard amongst the runners and it will take a lot to beat him. He has won seven group ones but things didn’t necessarily go to plan in 2020. He started the season finishing third to Ghaiyyath and Anthony Van Dyck, before winning this and the Goodwood Cup over two miles. Once again, he was beaten by Anthony Van Dyck over one mile four before a tilt at the Arc, when he finished seventh. He flopped dramatically on Champions Day when finishing twelfth of thirteen runners. The race report said that the ground went against him but he had plenty of experience on Ascot soft ground by this point. Trueshan and Spanish Mission were ahead that day. First time out this season, he won snugly in a group three over two miles at Ascot. Nayef Road was third that day and he was beaten one and a half lengths. In this last year, he was beaten ten lengths. Stradivarius is going to have to put up a stronger performance than that day in order to assure victory in this.
Nayef Road has made a bit of a habit of following in John Gosden runners. At three, Logician was too good and, from four starts at four, he followed in Stradivarius and Enbihaar on three of them. This season, he finished third to Stradivarius but has finished last of five on two occasions beaten twenty-one and thirty-seven lengths respectively. He has a lot to find on that form.
Trueshan improved immensely throughout last season and has made a great partnership with Hollie Doyle. On his second start of that campaign, he won a listed race over one mile four before finishing eighth in the Ebor with a massive weight. Next time, over one mile six, he put in a good performance to win a conditions race at Salisbury. It all came together for him to absolutely bolt up on Champions Day in the Long Distance Cup. He travelled really strongly and kicked clear in a way that suggests he’ll enjoy this trip. Dropped back to one mile five and a half furlongs for his seasonal reappearance, he didn’t go down without a fight to Japan but that horse hasn’t boosted the form. It looks as though it will rain at some point in the early hours of Thursday morning but the ground has been good to firm for the first two days. It will take a lot to change the going description but this horse does seem to need a bit of cut in the ground but at least it won’t be such a stamina test.
Connections won’t want the rain to come for Spanish Mission. He was sixteen lengths behind Trueshan and even further ahead of Stradivarius. Before that, he’d won a listed race and a group two, which was over two miles two. He went abroad in the early part of 2021 to run at Riyadh on good to firm ground to be second, beaten one and a quarter lengths and taking home a cool £364,963. Next time, he went to Meydan and finished fifth behind Subjectivist beaten nine and three quarter lengths and £16,432 in his pocket, in a group two. Returning to England and York, he ran really impressively over one mile six by two and three quarter lengths to Santiago with Nayef Road back in fifth. He hasn’t tackled a trip like this before but, on all evidence, it would look as though he’ll stay. The Andrew Balding horses are flying.
Santiago is part of a trio of Aidan O’Brien runners. He won over a mile at two and then upped in trip all the way to one mile six furlongs for the Queen’s Vase on his first start as a three-year-old. He won by two and three quarter lengths that day and followed it up in the Irish Derby. He then raced against Stradivarius, carrying one stone one pound less than him, in the Goodwood Gold Cup. Nayef Road was second that day, one and a quarter lengths in front of Santiago. In the St Leger, he was fourth and probably should’ve won. On his return this season, he was very keen and wasn’t given a hard time behind Baron Samedi, who has won a Belmont group two, Master Of Reality and Emperor Of The Sun. Last time, he was two and three quarter lengths behind Spanish Mission after not getting the clearest of passages. The extra trip is a slight concern and Seamie Heffernan gets back on for the first time since the Irish Derby.
The first and third in last season’s Epsom Derby both take their chances here and add a fascinating spin to the race. Serpentine won the race easily after one win in a maiden at the Curragh from three starts. After the Derby, he was fourth in the Grand Prix du Paris behind his stablemate Mogul and he was then fourth over one mile two furlongs in the Champion Stakes. In 2021, he started out over half a furlong further than the last day in the Tattersalls Gold Cup. He really didn’t go to the races that day. The soft to heavy ground won’t have helped. However, he goes dramatically up in trip to two mile four from one mile four. The way he won the Derby suggests he’ll get further and Aidan O’Brien wouldn’t be running him if he didn’t have a chance. It’s going to be fascinating to see where they position him in the race to get the trip.
Amhran Na Bhfiann has only had six starts. He didn’t win at two and was fourth in a maiden before his third-place finish in the Derby. He looks like he thoroughly enjoyed the trip and, when dropped back to one mile two furlongs, he was second at 8/15 in a maiden at Naas. He returned to racing after a health scare at Dundalk in April and won by thirteen lengths over one mile four. He had a turbulent passage and was never comfortable in the Levmoss Stakes over one mile six. He did plug on when he got daylight, suggesting he’ll stay a bit further than that trip. His full sister, Was’s, foal, Knight Of Malta, has been running in two mile hurdle races. Amhran Na Bhfiann gets blinkers for this.
Aidan O’Brien is taken on by his two sons, who each have one representative. Donnacha’s runner Emperor Of The Sun is the shortest price of the two. He is a half brother to the speedster Zoustar yet tackles two and a half miles in this. His full brother Kondo Isami runs in the King George V Stakes. Emperor Of The Sun started his career with Aidan and won a Galway maiden for Ballydoyle. He raced in handicap company over one mile four last season, including finishing a half length behind Princess Zoe despite carrying less weight. He also didn’t disgrace himself in listed company and was beaten five lengths by St Leger winner Galileo Chrome. This season, he contested group three company and he was one and a quarter lengths behind Baron Samedi, the Belmont group two winner for Joseph O’Brien, and Master Of Reality with Santiago in fourth. Emperor Of The Sun manged to reverse the form with Master Of Reality at Leopardstown when he won a listed event over one mile six with Twilight Payment and Amhran Na Bhifann in behind. He won by three and a quarter lengths that day and he goes up massively in trip. This is a huge opportunity for Gavin Ryan.
Joseph O’Brien runs the eight-year-old Twilight Payment. He’s been an amazing horse for connections, winning eight of his thirty-three starts and over £2.5 million in prizemoney. He won the Melbourne Cup in November and had won a group two and a group three earlier in the season. On his seasonal reappearance, he ran well to be third over one mile two, which is far too short, and didn’t disgrace himself at Leopardstown behind Emperor Of The Sun. It’s safe to assume this horse, who was bred by man of the moment Jim Bolger, will stay the extra four furlongs.
Subjectivist is one of the four-year-olds and, in the lead up to the race, has been talked about like the horse who will give Stradivarius the most to think about. He was third on his first outing last year, which came at Royal Ascot, only beaten one and a quarter lengths by Hukum and Kipps. He was beaten next time before running at Hamilton in a strong listed race. He followed in Mogul and Pyledriver before romping in by fifteen lengths at Goodwood. In the St Leger, he was too keen and was out of his depth, finishing behind Santiago. He went to France and won a group one over two miles with Princess Zoe in fourth. That was on heavy ground so it suggests he has enough stamina for this extended trip. He has had one run so far in 2021 where he won a group two by five and three quarter lengths. He is occasionally inconsistent but he has the ability to feature here.
Princess Zoe’s connections will be doing a rain dance and praying that the possible 28ml of rain will fall. She won two races from fifteen starts when trained in Germany before she joined Tony Mullins. Somehow, she got beat on her first start for Mullins but she won at the Curragh next time and then achieved a hattrick at Galway over one mile four and two miles one. It was fairy-tale stuff for connections next time out when she won a French group one under Joey Sheridan over two and a half miles. Unfortunately, she couldn’t back it up later in October when fourth to Subjectivist over two miles. She really does stay all day so races over one mile four and one mile six this season were hardly ideal. She’ll run much better over this trip with the mares’ allowance but does seem reliant on the rain.
The last two horses to mention are Ben Lilly and Rip Van Lips. Ben Lilly has won seven of his seventeen outings and, in 2020, won five races in a row between 8th September and 16th October. It was a remarkable training performance and he went from a mark of 52 to 77. He won again off 85 and 87 and he races off 92. He’s ridden by Graham Lee after Kevin Stott was unfortunately injured on Tuesday. Without a doubt, Ben Lilly has a bit to find.
The market doesn’t give Rip Van Lips much of a chance either. From the small bit of video footage I’ve seen of him, he looks a gorgeous big horse. He was a convincing winner at Hoppegarten in a group two on good ground and went really strongly through the line. He’s by Rip Van Winkle and out of a one mile three winning mare called Red Lips, which explains his name. She is a half sister to three winners between two miles three and two miles five over obstacles. His trainer Andreas Suborics had a very nice group two winner at the weekend and the horses are going well. It’s difficult to know how his German and French form will stack up to that of the English and Irish horses but it’s so good to have European raiders and I think he will out-run his odds.
It may seem like I’ve given a chance to a lot of the horses and I have because this is just the nature of this race. It’s great to have such an open race in this division because over the last four years Stradivarius has just looked a certainty for so many races. He’s vulnerable today though. I’m fascinated by the Aidan O’Brien trio, more so Serpentine and Amhran Na Bhfiann as you kind of know what you’re getting with Santiago at this point. Talking from my heart, I would love to see Serpentine bolt in, like he did in that sensational Derby. I love the horse but I have lost my enthusiasm I had for his chances since the initial entries stage. I’m much keener on Amhran Na Bhfiann as I think he is still quite unexposed and looks like a stamina test will suit him. The German raider Rip Van Lips is very interesting as well. There are more horses that could hit the frame and I’ve explained their individual chances but my predicted first four home are as follows…
1st Stradivarius (6/5)
2nd Amhran Na Bhfiann (50/1)
3rd Rip Van Lips (100/1)
4th Serpentine (16/1)