06/17/2006 12:00AM

Royal opener ushers in $6M meet

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Royal Ascot premieres its glittering new $350 million state-of-the-art grandstand on Tuesday in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II and an expected crowd of more than 50,000. The $1.6 million opening-day card starts a five-day, 30-race program worth $6,780,250, or an average of $226,000 per race.

Except for a sneak preview meeting before an invited audience of 11,000 on May 27, Ascot has been closed since September 2004. In the intervening time, its 1960's-era stand was completely razed to make way for the new structure. With last year's royal meeting having been run at York, 200 miles north of Ascot, racegoers from the royal family to the one-pound punter have been eagerly anticipating Ascot's reopening, which features the Irish 2000 Guineas winner Araafa in the St. James's Palace Stakes and Proclamation in the Queen Anne Stakes.

The $462,000 St. James's Palace Stakes lost its star attraction when Newmarket's 2000 Guineas winner George Washington was sidelined after Araafa had beaten him two lengths into second place in the Irish 2000 on May 27. The ground at The Curragh that day was heavy, however, and with the going likely to be good to firm throughout the royal meeting, Araafa, who was fourth, 4 3/4 lengths behind George Washington at Newmarket on good to firm ground, may be less comfortable.

Ladbrokes rates the Jeremy Noseda-trained Araafa, who will be ridden by Alan Munro, its 3-2 choice, but he will be facing two serious challengers. French invader Stormy River, winner of the Group 3 Prix de Fontainebleau and a close third to Aussie Rules in the French 2000 Guineas, may be worth an investment at 9-2, as he prefers firm ground. Marcus Andronicus, an Aidan O'Brien-trained son of Danehill out of two-time Grade 1 winner Fiji, makes even better sense at 5-1. He took second from Stormy River in the final strides of the French 2000 and appears well suited to Ascot's mostly uphill right-handed mile.

The Queen Anne Stakes is a Group 1 contest for older horses run on the Ascot straight mile. Last year's Sussex Stakes winner, Proclamation, has been hammered down to 3-2 antepost favoritism for the $462,000 affair, but he has not been seen since finishing 11th as the favorite in the Haydock Park Sprint Cup on Sept. 3. His owner, Godolphin, has warned that Proclamation, a King's Best 4-year-old, is behind in his training and he looks like a bad bet.

But Michael Stoute has Peeress right where he wants her. A 5-year-old Pivotal mare, she returned from a seven-month vacation to win the one-mile Group 1 Lockinge Stakes at Newbury on May 20 and won the Group 2 Windsor Forest Stakes on good-to-firm ground when the royal meeting was held at York last year. Big-race specialist Michael Kinane has the call.

As part of the Global Sprint Challenge, the Group 2, $370,000 King's Stand Stakes at five furlongs has attracted a trio of raiders from down under attempting to emulate Choisir's 2003 victory for Australia.

Takeover Target won the six-furlong Group 1 Newmarket Handicap at Flemington last time on March 11, beating Glamour Puss into sixth place, while Falkirk flopped on soft ground on May 7, finishing 11th in a Group 1 sprint at Morphetteville. The Piccolo mare La Cucaracha, winner of the five-furlong, Group 1 Nunthorpe Stakes last August, would be more of a threat if she were not coming off a nine-month layoff. Moss Vale recently won the five-furlong, Group 2 Prix de Gros-Chene at Chantilly, but the selection is the improving 3-year-old Dandy Man.

Dandy Man beat many of his King's Stand rivals when he won the five-furlong, Group 3 Palace House Stakes at Newmarket on May 6. Trained in Ireland by Con Collins, he is the value play at 10-1.