They’re not wasting any time in giving the well-heeled racing fans at Royal Ascot the meet’s main attraction. On Tuesday’s first day of the 2022 Royal Ascot meet, those fans get Golden Pal vs. Nature Strip in the Group 1 King’s Stand Stakes.
Only the top North American turf sprinter against his Australian counterpart in a Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series” race. The winner gets an all-expense-paid berth in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint.
He also gets the undisputed title as the world’s best turf sprinter. That title is currently held by Nature Strip — according to the Longines World’s Best Racehorse rankings.
With good reason. Nature Strip has eight Group 1 victories, including The Champions T.J. Smith Stakes three times, and the Lightning Stakes. The list also includes last year’s The Everest, an ungraded race with a $15 million purse that’s the richest turf race in the world.
Australia sits for the King’s Stand
He is considered Australia’s best current runner. Expect that racing-mad country to maybe not shut down, but slow down, for this one.
“We are fully aware of Ascot every year and we want to bring the best, which is not always easy for us to do,” trainer Chris Waller told Ascot. “We’ve got horses with the right credentials this year, and it fits in well for both horses. In Australia, there aren’t many boxes left to tick for Nature Strip, as he’s won everything there is in terms of the feature sprints, and it’s just a great experience for the ownership group, my stable, and my team.
Waller’s other horse is Home Affairs, who runs in the Platinum Jubilee. The standout trainer is charged with bringing Australia its first Royal Ascot title in 10 years, or since Black Caviar captured the Group 1 Diamond Jubilee.
Waller missing a Royal Ascot brick
It would also be Waller’s first Royal Ascot victory with his second runner. His first, Brazen Beau, was denied by Ward’s Undrafted in the 2015 Diamond Jubilee.
“It’s always hard when you’re coming from the other side of the world, but it sounds like Golden Pal is very quick,” Waller said. “But what Nature Strip and Home Affairs have is that they are good straight track horses, so they only need to replicate their Australian form to be capable of fighting out the finish with the best in the world,” Walter said. “Royal Ascot is something unique and it will all be about which horse copes with the occasion and the pressure of the race. I doubt golden Pal will have been under the pressure he is about to be under, with the same applying to our horse as well. These races make champions and talking points.”
Golden Pal comes into Royal Ascot 0-for-England
Ward knows that all too well. In Golden Pal, he has a two-time Breeders’ Cup winner of the Juvenile Turf Sprint in 2020 and the Turf Sprint last year. That Turf Sprint came with a 107 Beyer Speed Figure and 126 Equibase Speed Figure. It was considered one of the best individual performances at the 2021 Breeders’ Cup.
He also has a 4-year-old who won six of his last seven races, and who is 6-for-9 overall. Two of the blips, however, came in England: a second in the 2020 Norfolk Stakes at Royal Ascot and last year’s uncharacteristic seventh in the Nunthorpe Stakes at York last summer.
“After the Nunthorpe, we were searching for an answer, but found no physical issues,” Ward said. “I wasn’t concerned about his draw, but he was coming off a resounding win at Saratoga (in the Grade 3 Quick Call) and York might have been too close to such a powerful performance.”
Nature Strip is the favorite
That “powerful performance” was a 2 1/4-length victory as the 1/5 favorite in the Grade 3 Quick Call. Then, came a 2 1/4-length win as the 1/2 favorite in the Grade 2 Woodward Stakes last October at Keeneland. That dominating Breeders’ Cup score followed a month later. And Golden Pal opened his 4-year-old season in April with a nearly five-length victory at 3/5 in the Grade 2 Shakertown at Keeneland.
“He’ a very special horse and he’s shown that in his races,” said Ward, who brings five horses to Royal Ascot this year. “I think what separates this guy is that he is very quick out of the gates, goes fast early, and just keeps going. Most sprinters that go as fast as him can’t maintain that speed.”
Due to the pandemic, it took Waller three years to get Nature Strip to Royal Ascot. Now that he’s here, the gelding is a slight favorite, according to Oddschecker. He’s carrying odds anywhere from 15/8 to 2/1 on the overseas books. Golden Pal is listed anywhere from 11/4 to 7/2. The next closest parimutuel pursuer is Twilight Calls at 7/1.
King’s Lynn will draw money for more than his 16/1 odds. He’s Queen Elizabeth II’s first entry in the Platinum Jubilee year of Royal Ascot. He was seventh in this event last year, but returns off a head victory over Twilight Calls in the Group 2 Temple Stakes at Haydock.