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Circus Maximus, Battaash, Frankly Darling star on Day 1 of no-fans Royal Ascot

Circus Maximus, Battaash, Frankly Darling star on Day 1 of no-fans Royal Ascot

There were no actual Royals at the first day of Royal Ascot on Tuesday due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the first Group 1 race of the five-day event featured nothing but blue blood in a dramatic showdown.

As the finish approached in the Queen Anne Stakes, the 1 mile came down to a 1-furlong battle: Circus Maximus, representing the Irish-based Coolmore “lads” with trainer Aidan O’Brien and jockey Ryan Moore, versus the Dubai-based Godolphin juggernaut with Terebellum, trained by John Gosden and ridden by Frankie Dettori.

Through the first half, Circus Maximus, a 4-year-old colt by Coolmore’s superstar stallion Galileo, battled for the lead with long shot Marie’s Diamond. After disposing of that rival, he found Terebellum, a 4-year-old filly by Sea the Stars, as the only remaining competition.

Terebellum edged to a short lead, but Moore managed to coax just enough from Circus Maximus in the final yards to put a head in front under the wire. Marie’s Diamond held on for third.

“He just got down and battled away,” Moore said of Circus Maximus, who a year ago won the Group 1 St James’s Palace Stakes for 3-year-olds.

In a season shortened by COVID-19 shutdowns, Circus Maximus was making his first start since finishing fourth in the Grade I TVG Breeders’ Cup Mile last November at Santa Anita. Tuesday’s victory earned him a “Win and You’re In” ticket to this year’s renewal of that event at Keeneland.

The atmosphere at Ascot Racecourse was far from normal as pandemic precautions prevented any fans from attending. That means no fashion, high-end food and drink and general social hoopla. Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, also watched from afar.

“We’re very happy were here and racing,” Moore said. “That’s the main thing. But, obviously, it’s not the same.”

Dettori, as usual, was more effusive.

“Before the first race, it was very hard to pick myself up,” the perennial Royal Ascot star said. “I usually walk in and am signing autographs, everybody is slapping me on the back and shouting my name. It was the opposite today. I think I had to have two or three espressos to get me going for the first race.”

Rain softened the course overnight before the races and returned heavily just prior to the day’s second Group 1 event, the 5-furlongs King’s Stand Stakes. That was no issue for the big favorite, Battaash.

With Jim Crowley riding, the 6-year-old, second in this event for the past two years, was away quickly and never challenged, winning by 2 1/4 lengths. Equilateral was second and Liberty Beach third.

Battaash has been a bad actor in the past, but trainer Charlie Hills said the gelding’s antics were not on display Tuesday.

“I think he’d got to the point really when we needed to get a race into him,” Hills said. “The race will do him the world of good, we can train him off today.

“Obviously we will have to speak with Sheik Hamdan, but I am really looking forward to going back to Goodwood to try and win the King George there for the fourth time. I think that would be some achievement to do that.”

Royal Ascot famously turns up stars of the future as well as celebrating those already center stage and by all appearances Frankly Darling is one of the former.

The 3-year-old Frankel filly, benefitting from the Gosden-Dettori connection, drew off smartly in the final furlong to win the Group 2 Ribblesdale Stakes and rise among the ranks of Oaks contenders.

Dettori rode Frankly Darling confidently after some mess in the early stages and had no issue scoring her second straight win.

Gosden said he was gratified with the performance as Frankly Darling looks his sole Oaks hope.

“I don’t think I am [spoiled] for choice for the Oaks,” Gosden said. “If I have an Oaks filly, it’s her. … She will be freshened up now, but she’s a Listed winner, which is fantastic. I think we have one Oaks filly only and we don’t have anything remotely related to a Derby horse. That is the way it is.”

A potential Derby contender popped up unexpectedly in the Group 2 King Edward II Stakes as Pyledriver saw off a better-fancied Coolmore pair to win by 2 lengths. The Harbour Watch colt, who has bounced back and forth from the grass to the all-weather, scored his third win from six starts.

“This is only the start of him,” trainer William Muir said. “He’s a big, weak baby. … He’s got three weeks so I won’t say he won’t be in the Derby.”

In the Group 2 Duke of Cambridge Stakes for fillies and mares, Nazeef was along in the final furlong to nail Agincourt, winning by a head with the joint favorite, Queen Power, third.

Nazeef, a 4-year-old Invincible Spirit filly trained by Gosden for Sheik Hamdan, scored her fifth straight win against only a single defeat and gave Sheik Hamdan and jockey Crowley their third winner on the day.

Things got off to a typical Royal Ascot start, at least race-wise, as Motakhayyet posted a mild upset in the 7-furlongs Buckingham Palace Handicap at 7 furlongs, taking the lead inside the furlong marker and winning by 1 1/4 lengths from Jack’s Point.

Twenty-three lined up for the opener. Motakhayyet, a 4-year-old colt by Heeraat, another of Sheik Hamdan’s bunch, won for the fourth time in six trips.

The finale also was a crowd scene with 19 facing the starter in the Ascot Stakes at 2 1/2 miles. Cour de Lion caught the favorite, Verdana Blue, in the final strides to wrap things up.

Instead of the traditional post-race singalong in back of the stands, Ascot published a songbook online and encouraged home-bound fans to warble in small groups.

Wednesday’s program will feature a short, but stellar, field for the Group 1 Prince of Wales’s Stakes for 4-year-olds and up at 1 1/2 miles.

Coolmore’s hot star Japan is the even-money antepost favorite with Godolphin’s veteran Barney Roy, Juddmonte Farms’ Headman and Sheik Ahmed’s Addeybb held in high regard by the bookmakers. The Prince of Wales’s is a “Win and You’re In” for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf.

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