Reigning champ Stradivarius is the one they all have to beat in the feature race on day three of Royal Ascot this Thursday, the Group 1 Gold Cup over 2m 4f (16:20).
John Gosden’s star stayer swept all-comers aside last season when landing all five of his starts, including this 12 months ago, and looked as good as ever when notching a sixth successive victory on reappearance.
Stradivarius is also two out of two at the royal meeting, winning the Queen’s Vase two years ago. Connections took aim at the WH Stayers’ Million bonus last term and landed it.
The son of Sea The Stars qualified for that mega prize when scoring in the Yorkshire Cup over 1m 6f in ready fashion.
Stradivarius was value for more than the three-length winning margin and followed-up when accounting for top French stayer Vazirabad here.
He stayed on gamely in the Gold Cup last year for a three-quarters of a length victory, then retained his Goodwood Cup crown at the glorious meeting when proving half-a-length too good for Torcedor.
That £1,000,000 bonus came with the four-timer back at York in the Lonsdale Cup during the Ebor Festival.
Stradivarius’ superior stamina kicked in after it initially looked as though he was outpaced, but he stamped his authority on the division with a 1 1/2 lengths success.
Even on less than ideal soft ground in the Long Distance Cup on British Champions Day here over 2m in October, he managed to grind out victory.
Regular jockey Frankie Dettori found a gap up the inside rail for Stradivarius to squeeze through and complete an unbeaten campaign.
Legacy can be cemented with Gold Cup repeat
There has been nothing flashy about his wins. Stradivarius simply does what is required of him and that’s a mark of greatness.
Dropping back to 1m 6f to again qualify himself for the bonus in the Yorkshire Cup was sharper than ideal, but he still delivered on the Knavesmire.
It’s very telling that connections of runner-up Southern France don’t bother to re-oppose.
Aidan O’Brien has arguably left some of his horses that have shaped best as stayers out of the Gold Cup this year, and that suggests the Coolmore team fear Stradivarius.
They do so with good reason. He has a career strike rate of 67 per cent and can confirm himself the greatest stayer of his generation by becoming the first horse since Ballydoyle icon Yeats to retain the Gold Cup.
If the betting is any indicator, then Stradivarius is on all known form a worthy 11/10 favourite with Betfred to do just that.
Although still top of the ratings here off 120, that official mark in relation to challengers does not reflect his dominance.
Stradivarius looks sure to come on for his return to action at York, and handler Gosden came into Royal Ascot 2019 operating at a better than 20 per cent strike rate in the 14 days leading up to the festival.
This looks to be his to lose, so it will be a major shock if the colours of owner Bjorn Nielsen’s horse are lowered as there are some form doubts hanging over the competition.
Concerns about Cross Counter and fellow danger Dee Ex Bee
The main opposition to Stradivarius comes from four-year-old pair Cross Counter and Dee Ex Bee.
Those two met in the Group 3 Gordon Stakes over 1m 4f at Glorious Goodwood where the former romped home in record time despite winning eased down.
Cross Counter has since catapulted himself into racing history as the Godolphin owned, Charlie Appleby trained gelding became the first British-based horse to win the Melbourne Cup.
That success Down Under in “the race that stops a nation” commands him the utmost respect at 9/2 with Betway.
Cross Counter was hampered more than once in-running, but still showed a superb turn of foot to get up and win going away by a length at Flemington.
His international exploits continued with victory in the Group 2 Dubai Gold Cup also over 2m on World Cup night at Meydan in March.
Although still unexposed a stayer, Cross Counter has worryingly seen the horses closest to him in-behind let the form down. Runner-up Ispolini was a one-pace fourth to Stradivarius at York and beaten seven lengths.
French stayer Call The Wind, meanwhile, flopped back on home soil in a Group 2 and ran no sort of race. That makes Cross Counter opposable here.
Sandown form just doesn’t stack up
While the fourth home at Meydan – Gold Mount – has come out and won a Listed contest at York, that victory in turn knocks form lines attached to Dee Ex Bee.
Trained by Mark Johnston, the 2018 Epsom Derby runner-up and St Leger fourth has improved for stepping up in trip by winning two Group 3s over 2m.
In the first of those here on Royal Ascot Trials Day last month, Dee Ex Bee led before even reaching the two marker and then asserted entering the final furlong.
He only needed pushing out to score by 3 3/4 lengths from the re-opposing Raymond Tusk.
A few sorts disappointed in the Sagaro Stakes, however, and although doing nothing wrong when following-up in the Henry II at Sandown, the form looks weak.
Dee Ex Bee made all galloping on relentlessly for a 1 3/4 lengths victory over Mekong.
The second, third and fourth home all re-opposed in the aforementioned Listed contest at York won by Gold Mount and filled last, fourth and sixth respectively.
While there could be more to come from Dee Ex Be stepped up even further in trip, the fact his form isn’t working out well is a concern. Punters taking odds of 11/2 with Unibet do so with some trepidation as a result.
Flag Of Honour looks best of Irish contingent
Having opted against running St Leger winner Kew Gardens against Stradivarius, the Irish team doesn’t look that strong, but the pick of those who do come over may be Flag Of Honour.
Trained by O’Brien, this four-year-old hit a hat-trick of 1m 6f successes at The Curragh last season culminating in victory in the Irish St Leger.
Flag Of Honour can be forgiven for finishing a 2 3/4 lengths fourth to Stradivarius in the Long Distance Cup here on his first start over 2m on soft ground.
He was then spooked, but a close-up fifth in the Group 1 Prix Royal-Oak at Chantilly on his final start of last season.
As he’s chased thriving stable companion and filly Magical home three times this term, Flag Of Honour has perhaps been running over too short a trip. This stamina test may suit him better than racing over 10 furlongs.
He is preferred to yet another Ballydoyle inmate Capri, because that five-year-old has been way below par with only one victory in eight starts since his 2017 St Leger success.
O’Brien stable jockey Ryan Moore rides Flag Of Honour and not Capri, so there looks some each-way value in odds of 14/1 with BetVictor about him in the Gold Cup.
Master Of Reality was a shock winner of the Group 3 Vintage Crop at Navan, but the Joseph O’Brien trained gelding didn’t take a step forward when eased in grade and beaten over five lengths in the Saval Beg.
It’s hard to fancy anything else. Veteran pair Magic Circle and Thomas Hobson are thoroughly exposed in this company, and the former has had interrupted preparations.