Jockey PJ McDonald is hoping to break his Royal Ascot duck in style next week when his rides will include five-time Group One winner Laurens and the rapidly improving sprinter Invincible Army.
The 37-year-old’s near 900 career winners in Britain include a victory in the Scottish Grand National, in 2007, but he switched to the Flat soon after and is now established as one of the most successful riders on the level.
However, a victory at the biggest meeting of the year has eluded him.
McDonald will get a chance to put that right in the first race on Tuesday June 18 aboard Laurens, trained by Karl Burke, in the £500,000 Queen Anne Stakes. And on the final day he will attempt to preserve his 100 per cent record on Invincible Army for James Tate in the £600,000 Diamond Jubilee Stakes.
Both Group One contests form part of the 35-race QIPCO British Champions Series. In total, eight QIPCO British Champions Series will take place at the five-day meeting.
“It’s the toughest racing of the year. I think I’ve ridden a couple of placed horses in handicaps at the meeting for Mark [Johnston] but I’ve never ridden a fancied horse down there,” Yorkshire-based McDonald said. “It’s exciting to be going there this year with horses who I wouldn’t want to swap.”
McDonald has ridden Laurens to three of her wins at the highest level and he was delighted with her reappearance effort in the Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes at Newbury last month, when she finished runner-up to the Sir Michael Stoute-trained Mustashry.
It provided confirmation to him that she retains all her verve and that a below-par run on her final outing last year, at Ascot on QIPCO British Champions Day, was not an indicator that she had lost her renowned fighting spirit.
McDonald said: “After she flopped on QIPCO British Champion Day you are always worried ‘does she come back?’ because she’s had to battle every time she’s raced.
“She’s never had an easy race. She has had to knuckle down and battle every day she has been on the racetrack, even when she won her maiden. That can take its toll on horses. Some just don’t have the constitution to deal with that time and time again.
“We were confident on her homework that she’d trained on and still wanted to do it, but until you go to the races you never know. When she hit those lids, travelled with such enthusiasm and picked up and looked like she was going to win, it dispelled those fears. She felt every bit as good to me.”
McDonald says Laurens will improve for her Newbury exertions, not least because the imposing filly is difficult to get fully fit at home because she finds her homework so easy.
“I sat on her Tuesday morning and she did a nice piece of work. She’s come out of the Lockinge well and we couldn’t be much happier going into the race. She looks amazing, feels amazing and is going into Ascot as well, if not better, than when she has gone into any of her previous races,” he said.
“It’s very competitive and she’s taking on the boys again. She will have to find a bit with Sir Michael Stoute’s horse [Mustashry] and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him improve again – he’s trained by an absolute genius – but I’d be very confident our filly will improve from the Lockinge.
“She was fit enough to go and have her run but there is only so much you can do with them at home and she finds her work so easy that she’s never really in the red zone. There is nothing that can take her there or lead her there.”
Laurens, owned by John Dance, has developed a growing fan club and McDonald said: “Everybody loves a battler; she wears her heart on her sleeve. I feel privileged to have ridden a horse of her calibre and even if she never wins again she owes us nothing and been an absolute inspiration to all of us.”
McDonald’s fruitful association with Tate this year has yielded 15 wins from just 37 rides – a strike-rate of 41 per cent. He is unbeaten in two starts on Invincible Army, the combination impressing when gaining decisive wins at Doncaster and York, latterly in the Group Two Duke Of York Clipper Logistics Stakes, and they are targeting the Diamond Jubilee Stakes on Saturday 22nd.
“He’s done nothing wrong this year. On that Duke of York run he doesn’t need a whole lot more to be competitive in Group One company and I’m sure he can improve again as that was only his second run of the year,” McDonald said.
“For me, he’s the least exposed horse in the race. The rest are very good, battle-hardened horses who are more than capable of doing their job on the day, but I would like to think our horse is improving.
“Mentally, he is in the exact place you would want a sprinter to be and James’ horses are absolutely flying. He has his team in great order and there’s a great buzz about the yard.”
McDonald added: “I’ve only sat on Invincible Army three times: before he went to Doncaster, at Doncaster, and then York. I’ve been very lucky to have got on him at the right time and that both occasions I’ve ridden him on the track everything has gone to plan.
“He switches off, takes up his position and seems to have a very good turn of foot and he doesn’t stop. When I gave him a squeeze at York he came alive underneath me and showed me what he is capable of.
“Ascot should suit him – he’s a winner there – and you have to remember James has always held this horse in high regard. You can never put your life on pedigrees but his suggests this year should be his best if he is going to follow his mum and dad.
“I can’t do any more than I’m doing at the minute – I’m just rocking up every day and trying to ride as many winners as I can.
“The most important thing for me is to stay fit and keep the people that are supporting me happy. Everything else is out of your control after that.
“I might end up with no winners at Royal Ascot, or could end up with a couple. All I know is that I’ve got good chances and would not be swapping any of the rides I’ve got going into the week.”