It’s 20 years since the mighty Choisir showed the world what Australian horses could achieve on the international stage when he took out the King’s Stand Stakes and Jubilee Stakes in the space of five days at Royal Ascot.
Since then, a steady stream of Australian-trained runners have followed in Choisir’s hoofprints, including greats such as Miss Andretti and Black Caviar, while last year witnessed a sensational performance by Nature Strip in the King’s Stand Stakes.
Artorius couldn’t add his name to the roll of honour in 2022, finishing third, beaten three-quarters of a length, in the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Stakes, but the now four-year-old, winner of the Canterbury Stakes in March before a close fourth behind superstar Anamoe in the George Ryder Stakes, is back for what will be his swansong before he embarks on a stallion career.
“The whole plan from coming home last year was to return to Royal Ascot for this one race,” says Henry Field, Managing Director of Newgate Stud, which owns the sprinter with China Horse Club and partners, including New Zealand businessman Sir Owen Glenn.
“We avoided the races during the Spring Carnival in October/November. At this stage he’s right on song. So long as he travels well and is healthy and happy, we’re very confident. If the field is of the same quality as last year from a European perspective, he is the horse to beat.
“The Jubilee will be his last run. We feel he has all the ingredients to be effective on a straight track. He has an electrifying turn of foot and can run a strong seven furlongs, which are two attributes Australian horses must have to win the Jubilee. It takes a very, very good horse to fly from Australia and win that race. Many have tried and only the good ones have done it. Our horse is the real deal. He can reel off sectionals like no other horses in Australia.”
Field continues: “There’s no agreement yet with a European stud. We would like him to win the Jubilee and go to stud as a European Group 1 winner so that the market can get behind him. We want Artorius to show himself off like we think he can and then we will find a northern hemisphere partner to shuttle the horse.
“It’s difficult to get the best mares to any first-season stallion. We want a level of mare that will give him a realistic opportunity to succeed as a stallion. If he can win the Jubilee – and win it well – I know we’ll be able to work out a joint venture with a farm.”
Field hopes Artorius’s biggest weapon, his potent turn of foot, will carry him to victory in the six-furlong contest, when he will be partnered by New Zealand ace James McDonald.
“Artorius’s trademark in Australia is his last 50 metres when he puts on the afterburners. That’s the most powerful part of his race,” Field explains. “According to [trainers] Anthony and Sam Freedman he’s never looked better or gone better. We’ve booked James McDonald, who is a world- class rider and has ridden a lot of work on him and knows the horse very well.
“His racing pattern is he gets back and finishes hard – obviously those horses tend to get beaten more than they win. In the last two years he’s been racing, he’s won or placed in many of the most prestigious Australian sprint races.
“He’s definitely made physical improvement and significant improvement on the ratings since last year so we’re going into this race in very confident mood. He has such an incredible turn of foot
and will be a terrific outcross for the European broodmare band. We’d love to give him the chance in Europe.”
Field continues: “We learnt last year that we brought the right horse and Artorius will be better for having had experience of the track. The Freedmans are very good operators and I’m sure they will have refined the process since last year.
“This will be the last run of his career. The intention is to leave no stone unturned – we’ll throw the kitchen sink at it.”
Field has already tasted Royal Ascot success with 2022 Prince of Wales’s Stakes victor State Of Rest, now ensconced on the Newgate Stud roster and a shuttler to Rathbarry & Glenview Studs in Ireland. He adds: “For our ownership group, although we bought into State Of Rest when he was trained by Joseph O’Brien, the joy that gave our partners and families was one of the highlights of any day’s racing we’ve ever had.
“From a racing standpoint, we feel it’s very important to showcase our best horses and from a bloodstock perspective show how far we’ve come in the last 20 years, and how high the quality of our horses is, especially our sprinters.”
John O’Neill might easily be described as one of the luckiest racehorse owners in Australia. To date the Melbourne-based CEO of QMS Media, a digital billboard company, has enjoyed 45 Group 1 winners, all owned in a variety of partnerships, including Melbourne Cup heroine Verry Elleegant.
His latest star is three-year-old filly Coolangatta, a dual Group 1 winner in her homeland with victories in the Moir Stakes and Black Caviar Lightning, both over five furlongs against older horses.
O’Neill says: “It’s always been a dream of mine, and for the ownership group, to have a horse that would be good enough to go to Royal Ascot.
“I used to have a lot of horses trained by Lee Freedman and came over with him when Miss Andretti won the King’s Stand Stakes in 2007. I’ve experienced the wonder that is Royal Ascot, spending time in the car parks and being in the Royal Enclosure. I also travelled over to Coolmore in Ireland with Lee, which was unbelievable.
“This will be the first time I’m coming over as an owner. I also have a share in Light Infantry, who could run on the same day [entered in the Queen Anne and Prince of Wales’s Stakes] with the same people involved in Coolangatta.
“Over 1,000 metres she’s a quick filly so we’ll give her the opportunity to go to Royal Ascot and compete against the world’s best. There’s two [all-aged] Group 1s over that trip in Australia and she’s won them both.”
He continues: “All my horses are owned in partnerships. Ozzie Kheir and I probably own about 60-70 horses together. In the last 18 months or so Verry Elleegant won the Melbourne Cup and we also enjoyed big wins with Incentivise, Sierra Sue and Coolanagatta.
“Verry Elleegant was a once-in-a- lifetime mare. Winning the Melbourne Cup is something you always want to achieve. Obviously by the time she ran in the UK and France she had things on her mind other than racing. She’s now in foal to Sea The Stars.
“Our group have such a big love for the horses. We tend to all jump in as many as we can, depending on funds and what’s available. It’s about the group getting together and enjoying the ride.”
At the time of writing, Coolangatta was a clear favourite for the King’s Stand Stakes and O’Neill has confidence that the daughter of Written Tycoon out of Piping Hot – recently sold for A$3 million at Magic Millions – has the right profile to get the job done under James McDonald.
He says: “She is a very sensible filly, very smart, and has a beautiful action. She’s not overly big but she has matured a lot in the last six months. She won’t lead, she’ll sit off the pace, although the draw might be a factor.
“We’re humbled just to be included in the race but we’re not coming to make the numbers up. We want to be competitive and enjoy the ride. As long as she comes back safely, we’ll be satisfied.”
Is it written in the stars for The Astrologist?
Another Australian sprinter hoping to grab a slice of the action at Royal Ascot is gelding The Astrologist in the silks of Bennett Racing, entered in the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Stakes.
The Astrologist, a dual Group 3 winner in Australia and beaten just a head by Danyah in the Al Quoz Sprint at Meydan in March, has already run in Britain this season, finishing seventh in the Duke of York Stakes, and was due to take in the John Of Gaunt Stakes at Haydock this month. Although that York performance didn’t suggest The Astrologist would be one of the leading contenders for Royal Ascot, Nathan Bennett feels his charge will improve plenty from his first UK start.
“We were happy enough with his York run,” he explains. “We knew he would need it with seven weeks between Dubai and York. There’s such a different way of training at Newmarket compared to Flemington. He has struggled a bit with the undulations, and he really needed the run.
“Ryan Moore said he started to feel the pinch in the last 100 metres, but he would benefit big time from the run. He’ll head to another race at Haydock on June 10 over seven furlongs and he should be rock- hard fit for Royal Ascot. He’s a big strong gelding and he needs work and racing to keep fit.”
Around 70 syndicate members are involved in The Astrologist, with around 60 set to come over for Royal Ascot, where Bennett Racing, set up six years ago, could also field runners in the Hardwicke Stakes and Chesham Stakes.
Bennett says: “It’s exciting to be in a Group 1 with The Astrologist. It’s an honour to be in a race named after Her Majesty. If we can run top three that would be amazing, which I think he can.
“If we can get three runners to Royal Ascot that would also be very exciting in itself and a huge effort by everyone involved.
“We have Ardakan with Marco Botti, entered in the Hardwicke. With Ardakan we’re trying to get him on a Caulfield Cup/ Melbourne Cup campaign, looking towards Australia in the spring. We also purchased a Highland Reel colt from the breeze-ups, now with Joseph O’Brien, that we’re trying to get to the Chesham Stakes on Saturday.
“It would be the two-year-old’s first start, but he breezed well and showed he’s a horse that will run 1,400 metres. It’s always exciting to see a younger horse come out of the blocks.”
Bennett adds: “It’s good for racing to see everyone coming over and having a crack. All the owners are pumped about it – we’re all getting out top hats and tails ordered. The heritage and history behind Royal Ascot – it’s so exciting for everyone. Getting our name on the roll of honour? That would be a dream.”
Lady returns with a Rascal
Lady Aurelia already has her place sealed in Royal Ascot history, having scorched a trail in the 2016 Queen Mary Stakes and returning a year later to take the King’s Stand Stakes in brilliant style.
Now Lady Aurelia supplies a runner in the form of her two-year-old son American Rascal, by two-time US Horse of the Year Curlin, who blitzed his rivals by over ten lengths on his sole start at Keeneland and looks set for the Norfolk Stakes, a race his trainer Wesley Ward has won twice before.
Barbara Banke, whose Stonestreet Stables raced Lady Aurelia and Curlin, knows what it’s like to lead in a Royal Ascot winner – Campanelle was also a dual winner for the owner at Royal Ascot – and cannot wait to test her exciting colt against Europe’s finest.
“We’re very excited about American Rascal,” says Banke, Chairman of Jackson Family Wines in the US, who owns around 120 broodmares in Lexington, Kentucky. “There’s a rumour that he was named for the trainer, Wesley Ward – I am neither confirming nor denying that statement!
“Lady Aurelia had super speed, which she showed at Royal Ascot two years in a row. Curlin was Horse of the Year in the USA in 2007 and 2008. American Rascal is very well bred and seems to have the speed factor. He’s heading to the Norfolk Stakes.
“Curlin can get a two-turn type of horse that takes time to develop but this horse was always very precocious, like his dam, and showed his speed early – even as a weanling he was running all over the place. He looks like his mother.
“I’ll be proud to show him off and looking forward to seeing him run. It’s going to be a fun Royal Ascot. We’ve trained him on both dirt and turf – he likes the grass and trains very well on it.”
Banke could have up to four runners at Royal Ascot, with fillies Twilight Gleaming, runner-up in the 2021 Queen Mary Stakes, and Love Reigns, fourth in last year’s Queen Mary, contenders for the Group 1 sprints. Two-year-old colt Fandom, a son of Showcasing bred by Andrew Black’s Chasemore Farm who cruised home on debut at Keeneland, is set to be on the plane too.
Banke says: “Love Reigns and Twilight Gleaming are training extremely well. Twilight Gleaming looks wonderful and is very much a sprinter. Love Reigns may go in a different race as I don’t want them to run against each other.
“Fandom also made a spectacular debut at Keeneland. He’s a beautiful looking horse and we’ll be bringing him over, but he won’t run against the Rascal.”
Banke adds: “I believe international competition is very important. In the case of American Rascal, he is Kentucky bred. It’s important to showcase what Kentucky can do. Everyone is familiar with the dirt runners, but we produce some great turf horses too.
“As for Wesley, he loves the meeting. It’s like his Triple Crown. He’s geared towards the meeting, starts the young horses off early and teaches them how to break well. We wouldn’t send him a horse that isn’t precocious. He’s a master at getting them ready for Royal Ascot.”
Weaver tries again
Trainer George Weaver has only made the trip to Royal Ascot once before, sending Cyclogenisis to contest the 2015 Commonwealth Cup. The horse didn’t see which way Muhaarar went that day, but his handler vowed to return.
True to his word, Weaver, who sent out Vekoma to score twice at the top level in the States, is back with two-year-olds No Nay Mets and Crimson Advocate, both victorious in ‘win and you’re in’ stakes races at Gulfstream in May. He expects much better this time.
“The races at Gulfstream were prep races and there’s no reason not to come over,” Weaver explained. “There’s limited opportunities for winners here in the US, especially on the turf at this time of the year. Both these horses are sharp and precocious and deserve their chance.”
He continues: “We came over in 2015 and got our ass kicked pretty good!
“I learned a little bit and got the lay of the land, with the training set-up in Newmarket and understanding the logistics. We enjoyed the trip and have fond memories. I thought it would be really cool to come back with a horse that had a chance to win over here. These two horses I have this year are crackerjack horses and we’re looking forward to coming over.
“The reality is that these are young horses and in their training in the morning I never saw the bottom of them. It’s different later in the summer when you work your two-year-olds against older horses, and you have a little more of a feel for what you have under the hood.
“I like both these horses, they’ve done everything I’ve asked them to do, they give me a really good feel and they’ve got some experience under their belts now. They both act like they have quality to them.
They’ve got bigger and better things in front of them.”