Henrythenavigator, Mastercraftsman, Canford Cliffs, Frankel; The last four victors of the St James' Palace Stakes have flattered the race and heralded it as almost the true mile test for a three year old champion. Victory for Henrythenavigator in 2008 saw him follow up an exceptional 2000 Guineas double (English & Irish) where he defeated the subsequent 2008 Epsom Derby victor, New Approach, into second-place on both occasions. However, the 2008 St James' Palace Stakes was just the second episode of the Henrythenavigator and Raven's Pass show; these two horses would renew their eclectic rivalry on three further occasions with Raven's Pass eventually gaining the upper hand back over course and distance in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes before victory over his adversary in the Breeders Cup Classic. A rivalry to die for and a year to remember for the Classic generation built on the foundations of an incredibly talented English 2000 Guineas line up.
Photo: Emma-Louise Kerwin/Goodtosoft.co.uk
In what 2009 lacked on quality it made up for in excitement with Mastercraftsman - the two year old champion - being headed by English 2000 Guineas second-place Delegator in the final furlong only to battle back on his inside in the dying strides. Mastercraftsman would go on to be the only horse to give Mick Kinane and the legendary Sea The Stars a real fright in the Juddmonte International at the 2009 York Ebor Meeting in a year where Mastercrafstman arguably underperformed below the expectations his trainer, Aidan O'Brien, believed he was fully capable of. 2010 saw the O'Brien stranglehold over the race come to an end with his raider, Steinbeck, a disappointing 8th behind Canford Cliffs and who can forget 2011? After demolishing an English 2000 Guineas field in a style rarely seen this side of the Atlantic Ocean, Frankel (below) reappeared at Royal Ascot to reconfirm his superiority over his age group. O'Brien was back with fresh blood this year and nearly regained that oh-so-familiar St James' Palace Stakes trophy with a late thrusting surge of Zoffany yet it wasn't to be. Frankel may have given his fans a slight heart palpitation yet this was the beginning of something incredible for Frankel and it's yet to be seen just what Frankel is entirely capable of. Day 1 of Royal Ascot will be opened by Frankel himself on one of his final starts over a mile.
Oh for the memories of the recent renewals of the St James' Palace Stakes and one is sure to be written on Tuesday as we draw ever closer to the 2012 renewal where Aidan O' Brien is back yet again with his Irish 2000 Guineas victor, Power. The 2011 Coventry Stakes victor and an overwhelming favourite he is sure to be, but I'm not alone in believing Power was slightly flattered by the Irish 2000 Guineas result where Trumpet Major came back coughing and put in no kind of effort inside the final few furlongs eventually finishing a well-beaten last. Ballydoyle filled three of the front four positions that day after Daddy Long Legs - returning after a very disappointing performance in the Kentucky Derby - stretched the whole field and looked like holding on for the majority of the race before tiring late. Power came with a late rattling run to catch his stable mate and then pull away despite the finishing efforts of Foxtrot Romeo and Reply - who laughed at their prices of 33/1 and 25/1 respectively. However, Power was far from impressive in the English 2000 Guineas, finishing a well beaten 17th or 18 and I feel that Foxtrot Romeo may just have his measure this time in a more genuinely run race. It's entirely possible that Power's inaugural partnership with Joseph O'Brien at the Curragh three weeks ago saw him return to his two year old season form but I feel that the race at the Curragh was a very muddling affair which saw Ballydoyle fortune and there are a few who are far more unexposed going into this race; none more so than John Gosden's son of Three Valleys - The Nile. The Nile makes the large step up into Group 1 company on Tuesday having recently finished second to Aljamaaheer - a horse who will feature prominently in Wednesday's Jersey Stakes (7f) - in a Listed contest at Newmarket last time out. The Nile looked to throw his chance away last time by hanging when beginning to deliver his challenge and albeit he ran on late in the race he couldn't quite match the finishing speed of Aljamaaheer. That race was over seven furlongs and this return to the mile - where he last won a maiden by eleven lengths - could be just the tonic he needs. A three-time-raced son of Three Valleys out of a Zafonic mare, The Nile certainly has the regal pedigree to be a champion at Royal Ascot. Could it be triumph for Juddmonte yet again just twelve months after Frankel? Of the others, few will be put off by the talent that Mikel Dezangles' Irish import Dragon Pulse harbours. His victory over Dabirsim in the Prix de Fontainebleu in April was eclipsed by a 9th placed finish in the 'main event', the Poule D'Essai des Poulains. However, whilst a 9th placed finish does not look impressive on the face of it, he was just two lengths behind the victor, Lucayan, in a messy race with many a hard luck story in the final furlong. Dragon Pulse would be entirely capable of turning the form around with Lucayan and it's intriguing to see Gregory Benoist - his regular rider in France - replaced with Fran Berry who partnered Dragon Pulse to Group 2 victory in Ireland when based with Jessica Harrington. It's key to note that Dragon Pulse was also a half-length second to Power in the Group 1 National Stakes last year over seven furlongs where he just ran out of race track when staying on terrifyingly well in the closing stages of the race. The rendezvous with Berry could be all this son of Kyllachy needs to produce that Group 1 performance; Dezangles' is capable of getting a horse ready for that - remember Makfi?
Can Wrote finally reproduce the Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf form that made him a stand out prospect for 2012? Can Johnny Murtagh finally exert that Sea The Stars-esque ability from Born To Sea? Will Hermival finally get his head in front? or could Brian Meehan really have a exceptional horse in Cogito? Many a question is to be answer at Royal Ascot in what is the most open St James' Palace field for many a year. I can't wait.
Photos Courtesy of Emma-Louise Kerwin (Goodtosoft.co.uk)