As ever, day one of Royal Ascot is jam-packed full of quality, and – in truth – unless you were specifically told which was the feature race, you wouldn’t be surprised if it was any of the Queen Anne, King’s Stand or St James’s Palace Stakes. All three have high-quality clashes and intrigue aplenty, but rather than untangling the Lockinge form or attempting to split last year’s King Stand 1-2-3, it’s the last-named race which makes most appeal from a betting perspective.
Unlike the Queen Anne, the St James’s Palace takes place on the round course, which tends to favour prominent racers slightly more than the straight course, as the image below shows (45% of horses with an Early Position Figure of 1 or 2 run to form, compared to 41%).
That won’t be lost on Jamie Spencer, who gave Phoenix Of Spain a fine front-running ride when the Charlie Hills-trained colt won the Irish 2000 Guineas at the Curragh on his seasonal reappearance. He had the run of the race there, but was well on top at the finish (Too Darn Hot, who had beaten him in last year’s Champagne Stakes, was three lengths adrift in second). Though some may argue that Phoenix of Spain was flattered by that win, he did nothing but improve last season, is fresher than most after missing the 2000 Guineas and the Poule d'Essai des Poulains due to a minor setback, and the stiffer uphill finish here should suit.
As well as Too Darn Hot, Timeform’s leading juvenile of 2018 who has his best chance of the season here having been seemingly outstayed in the Dante Stakes at York before running just nine days later in Ireland, Skardu was also behind Phoenix of Spain at the Curragh. Third in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket in May following on from a win in the Craven Stakes there 17 days earlier, Skardu ran to a similar level when fourth at the Curragh. Though he appeared to have no excuses, it’s important to note that he was ridden more prominently than on previous starts, and due to the tactical nature of the race was forced to make his challenge earlier than ideal. He’s come a long way in a short time and it would be far too presumptuous to rule out further improvement here, especially with the likes of Fox Champion, Shaman and The Irish Rover (a sprinter, who looks to be in here to help ensure an honest pace for stablemate Circus Maximus) all likely to go forward.
Circus Maximus steps in as a substitute for Magna Grecia, the 2000 Guineas winner who will be saved for Glorious Goodwood instead. Dee Stakes winner Circus Maximus improved again when sixth in the Derby at Epsom last time, doing best of those who raced close up, but his running style doesn’t make him an obvious contender for this half-mile drop in trip (he looked a stayer all last year). First-time blinkers replace cheekpieces, but O’Brien’s record when fitting horses with new headgear at this meeting is only 9% (£-8.50). Stablemate Van Beethoven has even more to find.
Shaman bids to become the first overseas (not including Irish) winner of this race since Sendawar won the 1999 renewal for Alain de Royer-Dupre. Seventeen horses have tried since, the majority of which were trained, like Shaman, in France. He has more obvious claims than many, however, having improved on his Group 3 win in April when returning to Longchamp for the Poule d'Essai des Poulains there a month later. He only found Persian King too strong, and though that horse has been beaten since, his Prix du Jockey Club runner-up effort was full of merit (trainer of the opinion that he didn't stay).
Fox Champion has progressed with each start this season, and found plenty for pressure when making all in the German 2000 Guineas at Cologne last time. British or Irish runners took the first seven places there, and while his neck defeat of the smart Arctic Sound leaves him with plenty to find, he’s clearly on an upward curve.
King of Comedy, a stablemate of Too Darn Hot, is a half-brother to several winners, including Star of Seville. She didn’t run at this meeting, but won the Prix de Diane the weekend before, and was a very straightforward sort who took plenty of passing. In contrast, King of Comedy has looked a little more quirky, having to be dismounted and walked to the start before his listed win at Sandown last time. Clearly the huge occasion here will need to be considered before backing him, but he showed a good turn of foot last time, following on from an impressive win in the same Yarmouth maiden that Without Parole took en-route to winning this race last year.
Royal Marine and Bell Rock complete the field, but neither holds outstanding claims. The former was impressive last season as a two-year-old, his wins including the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere at Longchamp (by a neck from Broome), but he has been a real flop since, and has plenty to prove after losing touch early on in the 2000 Guineas when last seen. Bell Rock, who is from the family of the 1000 Guineas winner Speciosa, has a more appealing profile, but was too keen when only sixth behind King of Comedy on his reappearance.
While clearly a fine rider from the front, the majority of Jamie Spencer’s wins at Royal Ascot have come under hold-up tactics (0/13 on prominent racers/front-runners over the past five seasons), and it’s a concern that Phoenix of Spain faces much more competition for the lead than in the Irish 2000 Guineas last time. That may not prove enough to stop this progressive individual, but there are enough lingering doubts to take him on at the current prices.
Instead, with the prospect of a more truly-run race, preference is for an each-way bet on Skardu at 11/1. He was only fourth at the Curragh, but James Doyle may be able to delay his challenge for longer here and it’s worth remembering that he ‘won’ his race in the main group of the 2000 Guineas (third overall). That Frankie Dettori has chosen to stick with Too Darn Hot should come as no surprise, but it might be something of a body blow to supporters of King of Comedy, who retains with plenty of potential but will need to show more maturity on this big occasion than he did at Sandown last time.
Back Skardu each-way in the St James’s Palace Stakes at 11/1