Royal Ascot may look a little different this year – there will be no Queen, no royal procession and no fans or punters, dressed to the nines, around the concourse. Instead, despite holding its regular spot in the racing calendar, the prestigious meeting will be held behind closed doors, with jockeys wearing facemasks and regular temperature checks being taken. An eerie silence will float around the racecourse, so often met with booming crowds and rapturous applause.
In fact, it was only last year that legendary jockey Frankie Dettori rode Stradivarius to victory in the Ascot Gold Cup for the second year running, once again topping the fast results page. At the finish line, the duo was met by a bumper attendance of 70,000 – all cheering and saluting the success – but not this year. However, Dettori and indeed Stradivarius are the hot favourite for the Gold Cup once more, as they look to make it a hat-trick of victories and go in search of the record set by the Aidan O’Brien-trained Yeats (who won the race four years successively, 2006-09).
Not only is Ascot often a happy hunting ground for Dettori, but Ladies’ Day too, and last year, he rode the first four winners on the third day of the meeting. After success in the Norfolk Stakes, the Hampton Court Stakes and the Ribbesden Stakes has not been the favourite, he continued his good form, riding the overwhelming favourite, Stradivarius. Despite Dee Ex Bee leading for a large proportion of the race, Dettori took his chance towards the end. It looked as though Stradivarius was boxed in on the inside with little room for manoeuvre, but the experienced jockey saw a gap and took the lead one furlong out, pushing on to win by a length. Retaining the Gold Cup, Stradivarius became the first horse to bag back-to-back victories, since Yeats’ feat in 2009.
12 months previous, in securing the Gold Cup, Dettori had claimed his 60th Royal Ascot winner – and sixth in that particular race – an achievement that stands him head-and-shoulders above the rest when it comes to being the most successful active jockey at the meeting. Starting as the pre-race joint-favourite, it was a thrilling encounter that went the distance, where anyone of three could have won it. After narrowly leading from one furlong out, Stradivarius was edged on the inside but managed to stay on and hold off the challenge of second-place Vazirabad, who lost by three-quarters of a length, and Torcedor, who finished ahead behind. While the 70,000+ crowd were delighted, Dettori treated them to his famous trademark flying dismount.
Looking ahead to this week’s race and Stradivarius’ odds recently shortened, following the news that another O’Brien-trained horse, Kew Gardens won’t be running. The five-year-old famously put an end to Stradivarius’ unbeaten run, becoming the first horse in two years to get the better of John Gosden’s stallion – winning the Long Distance Cup on British Champions Day, back in October. Many were looking forward to another grudge-race, another showdown between two rivals on the big stage. But a Tweet from Ballydoyle confirmed the news: “We weren’t 100% happy with Kew Gardens this morning and he will not be entered in the Ascot Gold Cup.”
Instead, the two-time Gold Cup winner will be up against Cross Counter, who finished fourth in last year’s race, and Technician, who was a Group 1 winner in France last season but will be ridden by last year’s Champion Jockey, Oisin Murphy as Ascot. With seven other runners in the mix, will it a monumental victory once more for all involved with the once-unbeaten Stradivarius?