Welcome to Royal Ascot 2021, bitesize off the track but still a luxurious banquet on it with a first-day main course of Palace Pier, the best miler in Europe, and Battaash, the firecracker sprinter defending his crown.
Twelve months ago, Covid-19 meant the most important Flat meeting of the British season was held behind closed doors.
Over the next five days we’ll have mini-Royal Ascot.
Frankie Dettori will be looking to prevail with Palace Pier on the first day of Royal Ascot
As a pilot event, 12,000 spectators each day, all of whom have to undergo a testing regime, can attend. That figure is well below the 300,000 who usually stream through the gate during the week.
There will be no royal procession but no shortage of pageantry, although the addition of a permanent seventh race each day and a 6.10pm finish might test the stamina of some racegoers more than the two and a half miles of the Ascot Stakes does for stayers.
Top hat and tail will have been dusted off, the National Anthem will be played before the first race and there will be traditional singing around the bandstand after the last.
The Queen looks likely to make her return to a racecourse, attending the meeting in a private capacity as an owner.
Given she has entries every day — starting with Andrew Balding-trained King’s Lynn in Tuesday’s King’s Stand Stakes — Buckingham Palace officials organising Her Majesty’s diary will have a close eye on final declarations.
Winning presentations will be made by a mixture of royal family members and celebrities, and Frankie Dettori, the sport’s best known face, can deliver a high-octane start on Palace Pier in the opening Queen Anne Stakes.
It will be a massive surprise if Palace Pier is beaten, with Dettori aiming for further glory
The 50-year-old was top jockey at last year’s meeting for the seventh time with his six wins taking him to 73 at Royal Ascot, level with the late Pat Eddery. One more and only Lester Piggott (116 wins) will be ahead of the Italian.
It will be a massive surprise if Palace Pier is beaten. The winner of last season’s St James’s Palace Stakes swept to an impressive win in last month’s Lockinge Stakes at Newbury with several of Tuesday’s rivals floundering in his wake.
Trainer John Gosden says the son of his 2014 St James’s Palace Stakes winner Kingman is more laid-back than star stablemate Stradivarius, who will chase a record-equalling fourth Ascot Gold Cup win on Thursday, but he is developing into an equally efficient winning machine.
Palace Pier’s only defeat came in heavy ground in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot in October when third to The Revenant.
Gosden said: ‘He is a proper miler. It went a bit wrong for him in the Queen Elizabeth Stakes but that wasn’t his fault. He got left, ripped a shoe off and cut his leg. He won the Lockinge well.’
Gosden defends an impressive record in the St James’s Palace Stakes. From 13 runners this century, three have won and another six finished in the first four.
Battaash, ridden by Jim Crowley, will be looking to make a major impact on day one
His contender Mostahdaf only made his debut on March 16, the same day as Honeysuckle was winning the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
The Jim Crowley-ridden colt is three from three and won the Heron Stakes at Sandown last time, a trusted pathway to the race for Gosden — which he used with 2018 winner Without Parole and narrow 2019 runner-up King of Comedy.
Gosden said: ‘It is a big jump in class for Mostahdaf and it will be a very competitive race. One of the main threats to him will be the horse he beat in the Heron, Highland Avenue.’
Jim Bolger’s Poetic Flame, winner of the 2,000 Guineas and runner-up in the Irish 2,000 Guineas, sets the standard but this is the most fascinating of the opening-day Group One races with Battleground, who flopped in the Guineas after being sent off favourite, and Chindit, who finished strongly in fifth, among the clutch of horses in with a chance.
Last season, Battaash made it third time lucky in the King’s Stand Stakes after frustrating near misses.
A hairline fracture detected in the 13-time winner over the winter was a blip which means trainer Charlie Hills does not have a prep race. But Hills said: ‘There are absolutely no signs that he’s lost any of his ability.’
Royal Ascot may be different this year but there are no signs it will be less enthralling.