St James's Palace Stakes (Group 1) | 1m | 3yo | colts | ITV/Sky
As a two-year-old Phoenix Of Spain was very good. As a three-year-old he could be much more than that. He seeks to hammer home that point when venturing to Royal Ascot with the chance to stamp himself king of the Classic milers.
On two autumn afternoons at Doncaster the Charlie Hills-trained Acomb Stakes winner found himself faced against a rival too strong. On a spring afternoon at the Curragh he dished out a drubbing to both those rivals – Too Darn Hot and Magna Grecia – in the Irish 2,000 Guineas.
Having largely been held up in his juvenile outings, the son of Lope De Vega made all at the Curragh and did so wonderfully well, powering clear for a three-length defeat of Too Darn Hot under Jamie Spencer.
Back-to-back Group 1 victories is now his mission as he reopposes Too Darn Hot and Curragh fourth Skardu in a race that also features three runners trained by Aidan O'Brien.
Hills said: "If he runs the race he ran in Ireland he'll be hard to beat but we can't be sure how hard a race he had because to run to 120 first time out is pretty massive. However, although we haven't tested him since the Curragh, he has done everything we've asked him to do.
"He has the most amazing temperament. Nothing fazes him. He is bomb proof. He is also such a strong galloper and he has the biggest stride. He can gallop all day long at his relentless pace. I'm sure he will get a mile and a quarter one day but we don't want to do that just yet."
Pros The horse to beat after his dazzling Irish 2,000 Guineas display
Cons That Curragh win stands out from his previous form and he must show the effort has not left a mark
Too Darn Hot tries to turn up heat at last
Too Darn Hot at three has not been the same Too Darn Hot we saw at two. John Gosden blames himself for that but feels last season's champion juvenile might now be back to his former sizzling form.
Neither Gosden nor Andrew Lloyd Webber's racing manager Simon Marsh could be blamed for the 2,000 Guineas being missed. That was caused by the Dewhurst Stakes winner popping a splint during the dry spring, but the trainer's hands were up last week when he revealed he had been wrong to reintroduce Too Darn Hot in the Dante Stakes.
The son of Dubawi finished second at York, thus ending his Derby dream. That run may also have ended his chance of winning the Irish 2,000 Guineas, in which he finished three lengths adrift of Phoenix Of Spain.
Speaking last week Gosden described Too Darn Hot as, "the worst managed horse of the year". Speaking on Monday he was still blaming himself.
Gosden said: "We obviously regret running him in the Dante and, with hindsight, we should have gone straight to the Irish Guineas and then here. He had a flu vaccination just a week before the Curragh, which wasn't ideal. Hopefully he is back on track. He has pleased us in his work over the past ten days."
Frankie Dettori stays loyal to his old friend and predicts: "I think at Ascot we'll see the real Too Darn Hot."
If we see the real King Of Comedy – who like the stable's 2018 St James's Palace winner Without Parole went from Yarmouth to taking the Heron Stakes – then the Gosden second string could be a player.
The trainer, who will leg up Adam Kirby, said: "King Of Comedy likes to stop and think about things, as he showed before winning at Sandown, but he's a very genuine horse and did it nicely in the Heron. That race is a nice fit for this and we've stuck to the plan."
Too Darn Hot pros Trainer and jockey are adamant he can do better than he showed in the Irish 2,000 Guineas
Too Darn Hot cons Has three lengths to find on Phoenix Of Spain and may simply have plateaued since last autumn
King Of Comedy pros Follows the same route to Ascot as last year's winner Without Parole and clearly well regarded
King Of Comedy cons Could have temperament issues and does need to find improvement
O'Brien bids for eighth Palace success
Aidan O'Brien holds the training record in the St James's Palace Stakes but he is not among the favourites to make it eight wins in the race, with Circus Maximus – supplemented after finishing sixth in the Derby – leading a team that is completed by Van Beethoven and The Irish Rover.
O'Brien said: "We've been happy with Circus Maximus since the Derby. As he's dropping down a good bit in trip we're using blinkers for the first time. He did have good form over a mile last season.
"We're hoping Van Beethoven can improve on recent efforts and the better the ground the more he'll like it. The Irish Rover will be going over the distance for the first time."
Shaman goes after rare French win
Since 1960 only one French colt has landed the St James's Palace Stakes, meaning Shaman has history to overcome when seeking to emulate 1993 victor Kingmambo.
He does so having finished a close second to Persian King in the Poule d'Essai des Poulains for trainer Carlos Laffon-Parias, who is trying to secure his first Royal Ascot success.
"He is versatile in terms of ground and it is now a case of whether he is up to this level," said Laffon-Parias. "He comes here off a good performance and I am confident he will run well."
Skardu has another go at Group 1 glory
Only two of the 11 runners contested the 2,000 Guineas and Skardu fared best, finishing third overall and first of those 16 horses who raced towards the far side.
However, James Doyle's mount failed to build on that effort and must now reverse form with Phoenix Of Spain and Too Darn Hot, having finished only fourth in the Irish 2,000 Guineas.
Trainer William Haggas said: "I was disappointed with him at the Curragh but because of his low draw we were frightened of getting boxed in, so I think we ended up being too prominent. He certainly wasn't as good in Ireland as he had been at Newmarket.
"If he hadn't run in Ireland he would be right up there as one of the favourites.
"I think the horse is really well, and this is the logical race for him, but the Newmarket form is just wobbling a bit, so we'll have to see. I wouldn't want it to be too soft for him."
Hannon thinks Champion is underrated
King Power Racing's Fox Champion has won his last four starts and most recently claimed the German 2,000 Guineas, yet bookmakers rate him a big outsider, which Richard Hannon feels is misplaced pessimism.
"He's a very talented colt who I think is a massive price," said Hannon. "He is not a horse who goes and wins by two or three lengths, but he's upped his game every time he's run. He's not drawn great, but he doesn't need to front-run and won't be making it here.
"It's a very hard race but he deserves his chance and he has been working super."
Godolphin hopes rest on Marine
Saeed Bin Suroor knows what it takes to win the St James's Palace but not at Ascot, as his sole success in the race came with Shamardal at York in 2005.
He attempts to end his 14-year wait for a second victory with Royal Marine, a Group 1 winner at Longchamp as a juvenile but only 13th last time out in the 2,000 Guineas.
Bin Suroor said: "He was disappointing in the 2,000 Guineas, so we gave him a little break, but he is back working nicely at home. We wanted to give him another chance in a Group 1 race and he looks to be in good condition."
Bell has place claims says Balding
Bell Rock finished some way behind King Of Comedy in the Heron Stakes, so trainer Andrew Balding understandably is not predicting a shock success but he does feel Oisin Murphy's mount can be placed at huge odds.
"This is a big step up," said Balding. "Unfortunately he had a setback earlier in the spring, but before that he'd looked very smart at home. He needed the run at Sandown last time from every angle.
"A place is the best we can realistically hope for but he's capable of that if he puts his best foot forward."