06/16/2009 12:15PM

Master Blaster


The Royal Ascot races are upon us, and their broadcast this week by TVG gives American racing fans a chance to tap into their inner Hugh Grant, or Keira Knightley. I'm not big on wearing the rented formal clothing required for full Ascot appreciation -- they say when you put on those pants you're brushing up against everyone who's worn those pants before -- but the costume party looks like a blast. This does not explain why TVG hosts Simon Bray and Todd Schrupp were wearing each other's top hats. But hey...what happens in Berkshire stays in Berkshire.

They should be drinking Kentucky bourbon in the local pubs tonight instead of Guinness in tribute to the victory of the American owned and trained Strike the Tiger in the listed Windsor Castle Stakes for 2-year-olds. Owned by Mitch Dutko, Ray Sainz and trainer Wesley Ward, Strike the Tiger cashed at 33-1, winning by a neck over the 5-furlong Ascot straightaway.

Earlier Tuesday, the St. James's Palace Stakes was the highlight of opening day, and if there is going to be a better one-mile grass race anywhere in the world this season I would like to make plans to be there right now. Favored Mastercraftsman, who had spent his young life on straightaways, tracked the pacesetter and took the lead not long after making the right-hand turn into the stretch. Second choice Delegator went after him and actually bobbed his head in front for a few strides. Then came the last little uphill piece of the course, and Mastercraftsman came back on to win.

Aidan O'Brien trains Mastercraftsman, which makes the result dog-bites-man kind of news. But recall that O'Brien came to Santa Anita in full force last fall for the Breeders' Cup, with 2008 St. James's Palace Stakes winner Henrythenavigator leading the way. Henry finished second to Raven's Pass in the Breeders' Cup Classic, so do not be surprised if Mastercraftsman also has a Classic in his future. The son of Danehill Dancer is out of a mare by Black Tie Affair, winner of the 1991 Breeders' Cup Classic. Yeah, yeah, I know--the '91 Classic was run on cherished Churchill Downs dirt, while the Santa Anita version is over the synthetic Pro-Ride stuff. But remember, it's not necessarily all about the ground. The most competitive Europeans in the U.S. have the natural speed to be forwardly placed when necessary, on any surface. Mastercraftsman gets that in spades, along with his exotic roan coat, from Black Tie Affair.

The American fascination with British racing dates back to 1881 when Iroquois, owned by tobacco tycoon Pierre Lorillard, became the first colt bred in America to win the Epsom Derby.


When the news broke over here--the telegraphs were afire!--traffic stopped in New York City, horns honked and the stock exchange paused to celebrate. Iroquois was American in name only, though. He was trained in England from the time he was a yearling, raced 12 times there as a 2-year-old, and was ridden in the Derby by British champion Fred Archer (Archer, a five-time Derby winner, shot himself in 1886 at age 29). Iroquois later won the St. James's Palace Stakes at Ascot and the St. Leger, then was repatriated to the U.S. as a 5-year-old. He went to stud in Tennessee, eventually siring 1897 Kentucky Oaks winner White Frost and Huron, who lost the three-horse 1892 Kentucky Derby to Azra by a nose.

The Windsor Castle wasn't exactly the Derby. But for his effort, Strike the Tiger ought to get at least a shout-out on Louisville's evening news.