The turf at Ascot was drying and upgraded to &ldquo;good&rdquo; on Monday as any real chance of Stradivarius losing the Gold Cup on Thursday&rsquo;s card at Royal Ascot began evaporating.John Gosden, who trains Stradivarius for breeder Bjorn Nielsen, expressed concern early this week over wet conditions for Stradivarius, but anything like the ground on offer Monday would likely send the horse to his second straight win in the 2 ½&#45;mile Gold Cup. While there is little appetite in North America for true staying races, the Group 1, $627,228 Gold Cup is one of Royal Ascot&rsquo;s most coveted prizes.Stradivarius, now 5, took down that prize a year ago as part of a perfect season that made him the champion stayer in Europe during 2018. He won all the most important marathons in England, including the Group 1 Goodwood Cup and the Group 2 QIPCO Champions Long Distance Cup, prevailing in the latter race despite soft going. Stradivarius proved equally effective at two or 2 ½ miles while winning all five of his starts last year.He began his 2019 campaign in the same spot as 2018, winning the Yorkshire Cup on May 17 by three&#45;quarters of a length, a far narrower margin than his victory a year earlier. Gosden also made note of the fact that Stradivarius had acted more like a stallion before that race than he had during 2018, which could be cause for pause, but there still are no overt signs that anyone is ready to knock Stradivarius off his perch just now.There are at least three capable opponents entered, including Cross Counter, the antepost wagering second choice at a generous 4&#45;1 as of Monday. Cross Counter had solid form over 1 ½ miles in Europe last season but has taken his performance level to new heights since Godolphin and trainer Charlie Appleby stretched him to two miles. Last Nov. 6, Cross Counter won the Group 1 Melbourne Cup, and in his first start since that victory proved much the best March 30 in the Group 2 Dubai Gold Cup. Four&#45;year&#45;old Dee Ex Bee finished second to Masar in the 2018 English Derby and also has won both his races since being stretched to two miles this season. Kew Gardens, winner of the St. Leger at Doncaster over a little more than 1 ¾ miles last season, tries a true staying trip for the first time Thursday after finishing second in the Group 1 Coronation Cup over 1 ½ miles at Epsom May 31.◗ Earlier on the Thursday card, trainer Wesley Ward will try to win the Group 2 Norfolk Stakes over a straight five furlongs for the third time following victories with Shang Shang Shang last year and No Nay Never in 2013. As of Monday&rsquo;s entry stage (final entries were due Tuesday) Ward still had three horses left in the Norfolk &ndash; Anna&rsquo;s Fast, Karak, and Maven. Maven might have the best chance among the trio. From the first crop of American Pharoah, he won an Aqueduct maiden race April 19 at first asking after which Ward aimed him at Ascot. The Norfolk is the card&rsquo;s first race, post time scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Eastern.