ROYAL ASCOT PREVIEW: five days of breathtaking excellence

ROYAL ASCOT -- stand by for the finest five days of Flat racing anywhere in the world (PHOTO BY: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire).
ROYAL ASCOT -- stand by for the finest five days of Flat racing anywhere in the world (PHOTO BY: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire).
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Attached intrinsically it might be to pomp, pageantry and privilege, to majesty and millinery, top hats and tails, champagne and chic.

But peel away the gold-plated veneer and Royal Ascot reveals the finest Flat racing anywhere in the world.

Over five days and 30 races, consummate class collides with rich quality, and nothing gets in the way.

For fear of invoking cries of sacrilege among the National Hunt fraternity, Royal Ascot is Flat racing’s equivalent to the Cheltenham Festival. And now its spectacular grandstand is functioning properly, racegoers are treated to a week to savour.

When the stand first opened nine years ago, it might have looked good to the eye. But inside, it was a disaster. In terms of facilities, furniture and layout, it was cold, spartan and uncomfortable. Worst of all, viewing was diabolical.

Now, thanks largely to the sterling work of former supremo Charles Barnett, who was deservedly named in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List last week, the stand has matured into full value for money. Viewing is still not ideal, unless you’re lucky enough to be on Level Four, which houses the Royal Enclosure and where, incidentally, prices have rocketed to £75 for next month’s King George Day (no, you didn’t realise that, did you?) But viewing is perfectly acceptable, most importantly ‘downstairs’, where a decent spot can be found anywhere along the final furlong of the home straight.

The stand is home to five very different days of action. Tuesday and Wednesday are for the purists. Unbeatable equine fare in a delightful atmosphere, not spoiled by overcrowding. Thursday is the symbolic day of the Gold Cup, Ladies’ Day, the first day of huge attendances and the day favoured most by the coach trips. Friday has grown in popularity as a day when the twentyandthirtysomethings from London and the suburbs let their hair down, and why not? Saturday is a fusion of Thursday and Friday -- still regal and regimented by undoubtedly more raucous.

Take your pick which of the five days are for you. All have their own individual appeal. However, the unavoidable theme that runs consistently through each is the breathtaking excellence of the racing, which has been enriched further this year by a raft of challengers from around the globe.

We are well used to raiders from France and Ireland spicing up the top contests. But this week, connections from Australia, the USA, Japan, Hong Kong and even Sweden are dipping their toes. Their presence might annoy some punters who are unable to evaluate the form in comparison to ours. But equally, it adds fascination and international kudos to a meeting that is still growing in stature. And of course, it helps to determine the world order of thoroughbreds. I had to laugh when watching the YouTube replay of Hong Kong champion ABLE FRIEND’s latest win and hearing the commentator declaring: “This is the best miler in the world!” Err, hold on a bit, sonny. The best miler in the world has to beat more than the same horses in his own backyard at Sha Tin!

In fairness, connections have grasped the nettle and have brought him over to tackle a Queen Anne Stakes that is not only a suitable curtain-raiser to Ascot’s week, but will also go some way towards settling the best-miler argument. A truly international clash pits the six-year-old Able Friend against the brilliant SOLOW from France and UK flagbearer NIGHT OF THUNDER, the only horse to beat Kingman who was the next-best thing to Frankel. Richard Hannon’s charge is extraordinarily tempting value at 6/1 after winning the Lockinge Stakes.

A similarly fascinating contest with worldwide flavour is in prospect for the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes on Wednesday. No fewer than six countries are represented, including the USA, via Dirt superstar CALIFORNIA CHROME. Odds of 12/1 will surely have them choking on their hot dogs in Santa Anita.

Outside the Queen Anne and Prince Of Wales’s, most of the overseas raiders are sprinters, although American Wesley Ward sends over a sprinkling of two-year-olds aiming to emulate the success last year of HOOTENANNY. This speedy colt returns this time as the one to beat in a new race at the meeting, the 6f Commonwealth Cup for three-year-olds on Friday. It’s a shame the 7f Buckingham Palace Handicap has had to be sacrificed to make way, but the course has been rewarded by a sensational line-up for the inaugural running.

It all adds up to a heady cocktail -- and we haven’t even mentioned the Queen who, of course, is the meeting’s staunchest supporter. She may have only 25 horses in training in total, but seven of them have been lined up to run at the royal meeting this week and all boast genuine chances, most notably TOUCHLINE in the Sandringham Handicap on Wednesday and FABRICATE in the Queen’s Vase on Friday.

As for tips, you will, no doubt, be bombarded by a veritable whirligig of them as the week progresses, so you won’t require mine to add to the confusion. But as I write, these are the horses I have backed so far, many of them each/way in deference to the incredibly competitive nature of the racing:

TUESDAY -- Night Of Thunder, Round Two, Sole Power, Goldream, Opal Tiara.

WEDNESDAY -- Hathal, Rah Rah, Euro Charline, California Chrome, GM Hopkins.

THURSDAY -- Time Test, Pamona, Scottish.

FRIDAY -- Great Page, Balios, Anthem Alexander, Lucida, Arab Dawn, Yarrow.

SATURDAY -- Tonkinese, Mahsoob, Telescope, Mustajeeb, Algar Lad.