West London doesn’t have a racecourse, but Ascot is the next best thing. Each year, thousands of Londoners flock across to Ascot for one of the major events of the racing calendar.
The Cup division on the Flat last season was all about one horse. Stradivarius was spotless in five consecutive victories ranging from between one mile six furlongs and two miles four furlongs for trainer John Gosden and owner Bjorn Nielsen.
Weatherbys Hamilton offered their Stayers’ Million bonus up to any horse that could win a qualifying race, then the Ascot Gold Cup, go on to Glorious Goodwood and win there, and also land the Lonsdale Cup during York’s Ebor Festival. Stradivarius did exactly that. He even managed to add the Long Distance Cup on British Champions Day back at Ascot on unfavourably soft ground when jockey Frankie Dettori squeezed him up the rail to round off an unbeaten season.
The Stayers’ Million series is back this year and, now that the qualifying races have ended, a fresh crop of challengers to Stradivarius have emerged. Will he find retaining his crown at five more difficult than winning it as a four-year-old?
These two horses, in particular, are ones to be wary of and are set to clash with Stradivarius in the Ascot Gold Cup during the royal meeting on Thursday, 20 June.
Godolphin-owned gelding Cross Counter had a memorable and historic campaign of his own last season. Trained by Charlie Appleby, the four-year-old smashed the course record for one mile four furlongs at Goodwood before finishing a gallant head runner-up to stable companion Old Persian in the Great Voltigeur at York.
As he’s not a colt, Cross Counter couldn’t go on to the St Leger like many horses that ran in that Ebor Festival event. Instead, he was sent Down Under to Flemington and contested the race that stops a nation, the Melbourne Cup.
No British-trained horse had ever won the valuable Group 1 staying handicap over about 2 miles, but Cross Counter got up close and scored by a cosy length despite getting hampered more than once in-running. It was a historic effort that pointed to Sheikh Mohammed having a hand to play in the Cup division this year.
Cross Counter confirmed that by becoming the first horse to qualify for the WH Stayers’ Million when comfortably beating another Appleby inmate, Ispolini, in the Dubai Gold Cup on World Cup night in Meydan at the end of March.
As he remains unexposed as a stayer despite those two high-profile successes over 2 miles, Cross Counter is a clear and present danger to Stradivarius in the Ascot Gold Cup. At best ante-post odds of 9/2, it could be well worthwhile using on him against the favourite and reigning champ.
Dee Ex Bee
Mark Johnston is British racing’s most successful Flat trainer, and among his many triumphs are three in the Ascot Gold Cup. Last season’s Epsom Derby runner-up Dee Ex Bee has really come into his own when upped in trip and is another horse that can give Stradivarius plenty to think about.
Like Cross Counter, Dee Ex Bee is a year younger than the favourite. He enjoyed a busy campaign without success last season, but still ran some fine races in defeat.
Johnston always maintained that Dee Ex Bee would really shine when given a true test of stamina. and he’s come out and won two of the WH Stayers’ Million qualifiers. The first of those was the Group 3 Sagaro Stakes over two miles at Ascot, and that has given him vital course experience.
While Dee Ex Bee has been in many times in his career, he has repaid backers in both the Sagaro and Henry II Stakes at Sandown. He took on two other Johnston inmates in the latter, giving weight all-round and galloping on relentlessly to follow-up on his Ascot victory.
As he’s relatively unexposed as a stayer compared to dual Goodwood Cup and Yorkshire Cup winner Stradivarius, Dee Ex Bee has to come into the equation for Royal Ascot. However, he is at a current top-price of 13/2 for the two-miles four-furlongs test, so Dee Ex Bee is certainly one to watch.