David Carr on the potential storylines on the final day of the royal meeting
Strange times indeed. On the greatest Royal Ascot Saturday in history, one of the cheapest horses to grace its stage in modern times could steal the show.
A one-off rejig in Covid-19 year means the week ends with three Group 1 races, the top level events that showcase the choicest assets of the bloodstock billionaires.
Champion juvenile Pinatubo plus four other Classic-placed three-year-olds will be out to give another huge boost to their asset value as part of one of the sport’s breeding empires.
Yet £2,800 buy Sceptical, who cost less than one per cent of the asking price of the cheapest house in Ascot currently offered on Rightmove, threatens to upstage them all.
Bought for a sum that local adverts suggest would just about stretch to securing a 2013 Smart car, he has since shown he has the gears of a top-of-the-range Ferrari.
Of course, like many an auction bargain, he was a fixer-upper. The Irishmen who stumped up their share and sent him to County Tipperary trainer Denis Hogan knew they would need to get the then-unraced three-year-old’s wind operated on.
Which has proved a rejuvenating process worthy of The Repair Shop. Sceptical has bounded up by a combined total of 15 lengths in his last four starts and is now favourite for a Diamond Jubilee Stakes featuring four proven Group 1 winners.
Only shame for the Sceptical team is that apprentice Joey Sheridan misses the ride due to the temporary bar on 7lb claimers – although his replacement by Frankie Dettori scarcely reduces the box office appeal of a story that is pure Hollywood.
Of course, there are two sides to every deal and the ‘one careful owner’ who let a potential champion go for virtual scrap value in the sale ring at Doncaster last August was Godolphin.
But should Sceptical take the Diamond Jubilee, their regret at what they could have won will be much more bearable for if they get their own hugely important win 35 minutes earlier.
Pinatubo is just sort of horse that Sheikh Mohammed set Godolphin up in the hope of producing, a son of his own Shamardal who died in April – just as his reputation as a sire was at its height – and an undisputed champion.
None could doubt the precocious talent of a colt who won all six races as a two-year-old, scorching the turf in taking the National Stakes at the Curragh by fully nine lengths and following up readily in the Dewhurst at Newmarket.
Now, juvenile champions are all very well but it is Classic winners and those who prove themselves at three and older that top stallion prospects are usually made of.
Which is why Pinatubo’s defeat in the 2,000 Guineas, a race for which he had been favourite for the best part of a year, was at least as painful for his owner as for punters banking on an odds-on shot on the first weekend of racing’s resumption.
Did he need the outing to bring him to his very best? Remember, he thrived on a relatively busy two-year-old campaign and progressed with each race.
Was he outstayed late on by Kameko and Wichita, paying the price for his earlier speed, on his first attempt at a mile?
Or, whisper it quietly, is the horse who launched a thousand Tote Ten To Follow entries, not as good as he looked on that memorable day at the Curragh? Have his contemporaries closed the gap in the nine months since?
Those questions – and many others – will be answered when he takes the runner-up on again in a fascinating St James’s Palace Stakes.
This traditional last chance for three-year-old milers to grab Group 1 glory before taking on their elders will also show whether Palace Pier is as good as the stunning burst of speed he showed at Newcastle made him appear – and if Threat is as good as the quotes of bullish trainer Richard Hannon make him sound.
Hannon also has a live chance in the Coronation Stakes, the fillies’ Classic rematch, with 1,000 Guineas second Cloak Of Spirits out to confirm Newmarket superiority over third-placed Quadrilateral.
Alpine Star travels across from Ireland in an attempt to give Jessica Harrington her second win in three years, while Graham Motion has not sent Breeders’ Cup winner Sharing across from Maryland just to remind himself what English weather is like.
The winners of both races will stamp themselves among the very hottest breeding prospects around. It is a fair bet you will not be picking up any of their offspring for £2,800 any time soon.