06/11/2008 12:00AM

Elite gather for Royal meet


With 17 group races worth a total of $6.1 million, next week's Royal Ascot rates as the richest meeting on the British calendar. Its five days, from Tuesday through Saturday, are a cornucopia of high-class international action with horses seeking a piece of the pie from France, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia, and New Zealand. Many of England's best will line up for the home defense in what promises to be a vintage renewal of the Royal Meeting at the track founded by Queen Anne in 1811.

Tuesday: The race named for the track's founder, the Queen Anne Stakes, returns to its place as the royal opener. A straight one-mile Group 1 race for older horses, it will be missing Godolphin's recent winner of the Group 1 Lockinge Stakes, Creachadoir, who fractured a leg during a workout on Wednesday morning and is out for the season and perhaps forever. His absence opens things up for the Aga Khan's brilliant filly Darjina; her Group 1 Prix d'Ispahan-winning stablemate, Sageburg; dual 1000 Guineas winner Finsceal Beo; and the Aidan O'Brien-trained Australian import Haradasun.

The Group 1 St. James's Palace Stakes over Ascot's right-handed mile will feature a clash between the English and Irish 2000 Guineas winner, Henrythenavigator, and the French 2000 Guineas winner, Falco. Don't be surprised if Stubbs Art, third in both the English and Irish Guineas, fills the same spot again.

Newly upgraded to Group 1 status, the five-furlong King's Stand Stakes might be the most competitive race of the meeting. Australian invader Takeover Target, first in the race in 2006 and fourth last year, is back for a third try. He will be facing the toughest British sprint trio seen in many a year: Kingsgate Native, winner of the Group 1 Nunthorpe Stakes last August as a 2-year-old against older horses; Prix de l'Abbaye winner Benbaun; and the flying 3-year-old filly Fleeting Spirit, recent winner of the Group 2 Temple Stakes.

Wednesday: Duke of Marmalade, placed in three Group 1s for Aidan O'Brien last year, is one of the most improved horses in Europe. The winner of the Prix Ganay in France and the Tattersalls Gold Cup in Ireland this spring, he will attempt to add a third Group 1 victory in the 1 1/4-mile Prince of Wales's Stakes, a race won in recent years by Manduro, Ouija Board, Fantastic Light, and Dubai Millennium. Godolphin will send out Ramonti and Literato, but the big danger looms in the Henry Cecil-trained Phoenix Tower. Seachange, a seven-time Group 1 winner in her native New Zealand, will challenge off her two-length sixth in the Dubai Duty Free.

Thursday: Long the traditional Royal Ascot centerpiece, the 2 1/2-mile Ascot Gold Cup is set for a vintage renewal featuring the two-time defending title holder, Yeats, and, perhaps, his O'Brien-trained stablemate Septimus, the reigning European champion stayer. They must both beware of Coastal Path, the undefeated Andre Fabre-trained 4-year-old son of Halling who has won his six career starts by a combined 20 1/4 lengths, but who will be making his first start outside of France.

Friday: With the English 1000 Guineas winner, Natagora, and the French 1000 Guineas winner, Zarkava, both having moved up to longer distances, the one-mile Group 1 Coronation Stakes for 3-year-old fillies looks like a battle between Halfway to Heaven, the O'Brien-trained filly who won the Irish 1000 and was third to Zarkava in the French 1000, and Modern Look, the David Smaga trainee who was fourth in the French 1000 but bounced back with a solid score in the Group 2 Prix de Sandringham.

Saturday: Expect to see Takeover Target come right back in the six-furlong Group 1 Golden Jubilee Stakes on just three days' rest after his King's Stand exertions on Tuesday. That is what he has done the last two years, when he was third in this race in 2006 and second last year. This time around he will be joined by Soldier's Tale, who beat him by just a head last year, as well as the recent winner of the Group 2 Prix du Gros-Chene, Marchand d'Or, a Freddie Head trainee who has twice won Deauville's 6 1/2-furlong Group 1 Prix Maurice de Gheest.