06/16/2009 12:00AM

Royal Ascot opens with three Group 1's

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Royal Ascot, the five-day-long summer highlight of the British flat racing season, gets under way in spectacular style on Tuesday with the first three races all holding Group 1 status.

Seventeen group stakes, including seven Group 1's, will be run at Royal Ascot, which will race through Saturday.

Gladiatorus is the star of the curtain-raising Queen Anne Stakes, a race for older horses over a straight mile. Now owned by Godolphin and trained by Saeed bin Suroor after his startling three-length victory in the Dubai Duty Free at Nad Al Sheba in March, Gladiatorus will again be ridden by the 21-year-old Dubai-born jockey, Ahmed Ajtebi.

Ajtebi was aboard for both of Gladiatorus's wins in Dubai this spring and retains the ride ahead of Frankie Dettori, who will pilot Godolphin's other runner, Alexandros.

Gladiatorus will be opposed by three of the first four finishers from the Lockinge Stakes, the only all-aged Group 1 mile race to have been run in England so far this season. Virtual beat Alexandros by a nose in a desperately close finish to that Newbury affair, with Paco Boy back in fourth. But that was on soft ground, so it would be no surprise if the placings were reversed with the Ascot turf currently rated good to firm.

Four continents are set to collide in race 2, the five-furlong King's Stand Stakes. The United States will be represented by the Wesley Ward trainee Cannonball, runner-up to Chamberlain Bridge in the Grade 3 Aegon Turf Sprint at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Oaks Day.

Other leading contenders are Scenic Blast, a dual Group 1 winner this year in his native Australia; Mythical Flight, from South Africa; and Amour Propre, who looks the best of the British sprinters but is only 3 years old and has never been tried above Group 3 company.

The final Group 1 contest is the St James's Palace Stakes, run over a round, right-handed mile and restricted to 3-year-olds. Mastercraftsman, easy winner of the Irish 2000 Guineas last time for trainer Aidan O'Brien, is the top candidate here.

However, Delegator, who was ill-suited by the heavy ground at the Curragh when well beaten in that classic, should appreciate this faster turf and finished almost three lengths in front of Mastercraftsman in the English 2000. Trained by Brian Meehan, Delegator will now be ridden by Jimmy Fortune, who replaces Jamie Spencer.

Ward has brought a team of six across the Atlantic for this meeting and also has an interest in the race that rounds off Ascot's opening day, the listed Windsor Castle Stakes at five furlongs for 2-year-olds.

Ward will send out Strike the Tiger, who overcame sloppy conditions to land his solitary start, on the dirt at Churchill Downs on May 28.

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