Wednesday June 15 2022, 12.01am, The Times
Aussie rules. It took 40 hours for the magnificent Australian sprinter Nature Strip to travel up from Sydney to Royal Ascot but a mere 58 seconds for him to put the best of the Europeans and a star American in their place.
It has happened before. The tank-like Choisir rocketed home in the King’s Stand Stakes 19 years ago. Three more Australians have followed him and two others, including the fabled 25-race unbeaten Black Caviar, took Ascot’s other sprint, Saturday’s Platinum Jubilee, with which Choisir famously doubled up in that Royal Ascot of 2003. But no Aussie has been as impressive as the great galloping chestnut powerhouse who was always in command on Tuesday.
The much-feared American challenge was thwarted when their star speedster Golden Pal blew the start and his rider most unwisely rushed up in pursuit before blowing out and finishing last. The top Czech horse, Ponntos, played a much nobler part, up in the lead for the first half of the race before James McDonald’s orange and yellow stripes could be seen as still as Nature Strip’s stride was supreme.
The final winning distance was 4½ lengths but the nearest finisher was the riderless Khaadem, who had escaped from the stalls. The only real contest was for the minor placings. These went to the brave filly, Twilight Calls, and the Yorkshire hero Acklam Express, whose connections’ bravery was repaid with third place at 200-1. Nature Strip had started at 9-4 with Golden Pal favourite at 15-8 but it was no surprise for McDonald, the jockey who had a highly successful couple of months in Britain in 2016 before getting himself a lengthy suspension for a betting infringement.
“He’s an absolute freak of a horse,” McDonald said. “I think he silenced a few critics because that was scintillating.” The jockey has firmly re-established his excellence but there has long been no doubting that of his trainer, Chris Waller, who between 2015 and 2019 took the extraordinary mare Winx through her record-breaking career — which included an astonishing 33-race winning sequence
Nature Strip is now eight but had already had 12 races, eight victories and two warned-off trainers before joining Waller four years ago and appears to be only getting better.
“He used to race on sheer adrenalin,” Waller explained. “We had to harness that a little and with time and age, and a great team, he has learned not to rush things and is enjoying his races more.”
Nature Strip is entered in Saturday’s Platinum Jubilee but sounds an unlikely starter. Especially as Waller definitely saddles the four-year-old Home Affairs, who actually pipped his older stablemate in a photo finish when they met in Melbourne last February. Much will have happened at Ascot by then, as indeed it did yesterday, with expected star turns from the world’s top-rated horse Baaeed in the Queen Anne Stakes and a harder-fought success for the 2,000 Guineas winner Coroebus in the St James’s Palace Stakes.
At the post in the latter Coroebus had just a head to spare over Lusail, with My Prospero a short head away in third, just a neck in front of his rocket-finishing stablemate Maljoom, with Mighty Ulysses only another head away in fifth. Such blanket finishes lead to inevitable hard luck stories, in this case mainly for Maljoom. But credit still belongs to the winner, clearly a really good horse if no super champion
That description could soon adorn Baaeed, who took his unbeaten sequence to eight in the Queen Anne Stakes. Since he started at 1-6 anything but an easy victory would be seen as a disappointment, but that never looked likely at any stage of the straight Ascot mile.
“Everything went smoothly, he got a lovely tow into the race and I just let him stretch out in the last furlong. It was like clockwork,” Jim Crowley, his jockey, said. “It’s the absolute pinnacle; you spend your whole life waiting for a horse like him to come along and you’ve just got to enjoy it. There’s a lot of pressure, but I love it. It’s why we do it. Riding him is like queuing up for the best ride in the funfair.”
Baaeed’s development has been a great tribute to trainer William Haggas, who is likely to move him up to a mile and quarter in the Juddmonte International at York, but the day still belonged to Nature Strip, the massive Australian and his charmingly modest New Zealand-born trainer. “We are in awe of top European and American racing,” Waller said. “It has been a privilege to showcase a horse of such brilliance. We have been treated like royalty and it has been an honour to be here.”
On Tuesday, the honour was also ours.