The Gold Cup at Ascot looks beautifully poised after Stradivarius made a winning seasonal return at York - Matt Brocklebank was our man on the Knavesmire to round-up all the essential pointers from Friday's action.
The pick of Friday's action
- Stradivarius all class in Yorkshire Cup battle
- Magnetic Charm pulls it off for Haggas
- Rest of York review: Good Vibes for Value Bet backers
Warning shots fired
You hear it a lot ahead of the Derby. Aidan O'Brien firing his B-team bombs over to the Derby trials at Epsom, Lingfield and Chester, knowing all along that he's got stronger candidates housed at home lying in wait for the big day.
It rarely works out that way, but there's a chance we could have seen something similar playing out here on the Knavesmire this afternoon.
O'Brien was to the fore, naturally, with supposed Ascot Gold Cup third-choice Southern France laying down a significant challenge to staying king Stradivarius, going down by three-quarters of a length in a tussle all too close for comfort.
The team at Ballydoyle will take heart from this, with Capri, Kew Gardens and Flag Of Honour all shorter than him in the betting for Ascot prior to today's race.
He's suddenly a significant player in the division, but Charlie Appleby and Mark Johnston also took positives from what unfolded in the Matchbook-backed marathon.
Appleby, whose Melbourne Cup-winning Cross Counter is the chief threat to Stradivarius according to the antepost books for Ascot, was anything but downbeat after Ispolini came home fourth.
"The ground was always a bit of a concern," he said. "It's on the quicker side and out in Dubai it was good ground he was racing on. James has said he just wasn't as comfortable going around here. He travelled into it but wasn't really letting himself down. We'll look for a bit of decent ground with him.
"The winner's an impressive horse and a justifiable favourite for the Gold Cup. We've all got to try and beat him and Cross Counter's in good order. He's a dour stayer and we look forward to meeting him (Stradivarius) in a few weeks' time.
"The plan has always been to go straight to the Gold Cup so all those horses we've got in mind for Ascot will start winding up around now and we look forward to it."
Third home Mildenberger, trained by Mark Johnston, was seemingly a good sighter for stablemate Dee Ex Bee, who pushed Cross Counter close at Goodwood last season and punched his Gold Cup ticket with a resounding success in the Sagaro at Ascot's Trials Day last month.
Charlie Johnston said of Mildenberger: "He's in against the best stayer in the land and he's run well. He's been competitive, but he's slightly below the level of the winner. It's hard to say with Mildenberger's trip but he's seen it out right to the line and he continues to run well in defeat.
"We'll definitely have another shot at the winner with Dee Ex Bee."
Stradivarius was said to be "ring-rusty" after his winning return, but he'll need every cog well-oiled if he's to keep the £1million bonus alive for the second year running at the Royal meeting.
Galadriel a leading lady in waiting
"We wouldn't rule it out, but it's something I'll have to discuss with Sheikh Mohammed Obaid Al Maktoum."
You get the impression we might start to hear that line quite a bit from Kevin Ryan as the season wears on.
The North Yorkshire trainer has been dealt a magnificent hand of choicely-bred, and expensively-purchased, young horses for the 2019 campaign and Sheikh Mohammed Obaid, whose yellow and black silks have been carried to victory in high-class races in recent years by the likes of Postponed, Barsanti and Sharjah Bridge, is a big-hitting patron for Ryan.
The trainer has had to sit on his hands with one or two of the budding stars in his yard this spring, waiting for suitable six-furlong targets rather than rushing his juveniles in unsuitable races, and that paid off handsomely with Repartee storming to a debut win here on the Knavesmire on Thursday.
Roll on 24 hours and it looked noteworthy that Galadriel was pitched into the Listed Marygate Fillies' Stakes for her first taste of racecourse action, and she justified the decision with an eye-catching - check, eye-popping - run in fourth behind David Evan's Queen Mary-bound winner, Good Vibes.
Galadriel, named after J.R.R. Tolkein's Elven queen, was taken off her feet early on but flew home liked a possessed Orc once the penny dropped, and Andrea Atzeni took a while to get to grips with her on the run-out after the winning post.
"It's a super run," said Ryan as he took in the replay on the big screen.
"Look, we knew she may have needed another furlong, but they learn so much coming here.
"She got the hang of things at halfway and then took off. They've gone a good gallop and there was no hiding place, but she took a lot of pulling up (after the finish), which is a very good sign."
Ryan wasn't ruling out Repartee from a possible Coventry Stakes assault at Royal Ascot, and on this showing you wouldn't be at surprised to see Galadriel join him in the box which sets off for Berkshire from Hambleton next month.
A right Royal occasion
Could there be anything more fitting than the Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot being won by Magnetic Charm, in the silks of Her Majesty?
That's a tantalising prospect for William Haggas and the team to consider after the daughter of Exceed And Excel lowered the colours of Twist 'N' Shake in the Michael Seeley Memorial Fillies' Stakes.
The one mile Group One for three-year-old fillies at her own big summer jamboree has thus far eluded The Queen, but Magnetic Charm is now at least entitled to have a crack, after edging out John Gosden's favourite Twist 'N' Shake, who bumped into another Haggas filly in Oaks-bound Maqsad at Newmarket earlier in the season prior to last week's confidence-boosting win at Nottingham.
Maureen Haggas, wife and assistant to her husband, said: "She was possibly going for the Sandringham (Handicap) but I suppose she's in the Coronation picture now.
"She (The Queen) doesn't go racing very often so it's nice for her to have runners when she does.
"We've got some very nice two-year-olds for her to look forward to as well."
Top hats at the ready, folks.
Derby dreams alive... in a sense
As ever, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating when it comes to the significance of this year's Al Basti Equiworld Dante Stakes - won in good style by Telecaster here on Thursday - but one also-ran still retains Classic potential.
Line Of Duty was easy enough to back given the strength of his juvenile form and duly ran as though he wasn't seen to best effect first time out on good to firm going.
His trainer Charlie Appleby explained: "We were a bit disappointed but the ground was quick enough. They've done a great job here at York and there's a good cover (of grass) out there but just for a few of these horses it's been a bit on the quick side.
"It was easy ground when he won at the Breeders' Cup and obviously when he won before that in France it was good to soft as well. I think we can safely say he'll appreciate a bit of give in the ground."
So, is the Derby out of the equation?
"Realistically, on yesterday's evidence you'd have to say it is, but we'll have to see how the horse comes out of it and he's in the French Derby as well where we know we're going to get his ground. I'd say that's now probably more of a live chance.
"But it's all up for discussion over then next week or so."