Mark Johnston relishing Ascot Gold Cup challenge facing Dee Ex Bee

MARK JOHNSTON has never shirked a challenge in his career – it is why he has saddled more winners than any other trainer in British racing history.

Ascot Gold Cup hope Dee Ex Bee won the Sagaro Stakes at the Berkeshire track in April under William Buick who is now sidelined with concussion.

Now he is hopeful that Dee Ex Bee can run his rivals into the ground and win the Ascot Gold Cup, the Royal meeting’s centrepiece.

It is a big ask for the four-year-old colt – even though Dee Ex Bee was only beaten by Masar in last year’s Epsom Derby.

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His opponents include defending champion Stradivarius, one of the great modern-day stayers, and Cross Counter – the first British horse to win the Melbourne Cup.

Dee Ex Bee at the Middleham stables of Ascot Giold Cup-winning trainer Mark Johnston when the racing village held an open day on Good Friday.

But Dee Ex Bee, owned by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, won Ascot’s Sagaro Stakes in April under William Buick, who is now on the injury sidelines with concussion.

The horse warmed up for today’s two-and-a-half mile test by landing Sandown’s Henry II Stakes in the hands of champion jockey Silvestre de Sousa, who retains the ride.

However, Middleham-based Johnston knows what it takes to win this celebrated prize – he won the race with Double Trigger in 1995 before Royal Rebel triumphed in both 2001 and 2002 under Johnny Murtagh.

And though Johnston has not had a Gold Cup runner since Oriental Fox finished fifth in 2014, he is confident that his horse can end the six-race winning run of Stradivarius.

Raffle Prize and Frankie Dettori (right) won yesterday's Queen Mary Stakes at Royal Ascot for Middleham trainer Mark Johnston.

“The Gold Cup is going to be a lot tougher, of course it is, but the Sagaro and Henry II, to my mind, are the two recognised trials and he’s won them both,” said Johnston, who saddled his record-breaking 4,194th winner last August.

“We went to Sandown for the Henry II Stakes with the simple logic being that if he missed it he would have to have a gallop, and we thought it better to have a race and earn some money. From those races the one indication we got was the further the better. We are relishing the extra half mile, not concerned about it.”

Though Johnston will maintain that he has a winning record with horses over all distances, as evidenced by the two-year-old filly Raffle Prize winning yesterday’s five furlong Queen Mary Stakes at a rain-lashed Ascot under Frankie Dettori, the 59-year-old has always been associated with long-distance races.

“Double Trigger was very much the classical stayer, about 16.2 (hands) and he won all his races weighing 476 or 477 kilos – it was a one-kilo weight band,” revealed the trainer.

Mark Johnston after saddling a record 4,194th winenr at York last August.

“He was tall and lean, which is what you expect for a stayer.

“Dee Ex Bee is far more thicker set and heavier, but on form and pedigree he’s got all the credentials.

“We said all along that a horse who has run second in the Derby and fourth in the St Leger is your ideal candidate for Cup races as a four-year-old. He’s been what we have been dreaming of for many years and he’s all we imagined he would be.”

Asked what it would mean to win the Gold Cup, part of the Qipco British Champions Series, he replied: “Absolutely, absolutely. It’s still to this day the race I most want to win at Royal Ascot.

Darcey Bussell (left) presents jockey Frankie Dettori with the trophy for winning the Queen Mary Stakes with Raffle Prize during day two of Royal Ascot. The jockey rides Stradivarius in the Ascot Gold Cup.

“James Willoughby (the racing writer and analyst) tells me that in one of Double Trigger’s Goodwood Cups he ran the fastest final furlong of the meeting – faster than the five-furlong sprinters.

“The sprinters! That’s what’s special about these staying races – you get everything in one race, including a fast finish. And the stayers do tend to be around a bit longer, so the public get to know them. The one quirk Dee Ex Bee has got is that when he’s being saddled, or is standing around, he stands on his shoes and rips them off. He did that on several occasions up to and including the Irish Derby last year.”

As for the aforementioned Stradivarius, who made a successful defence of the Yorkshire Cup last month, trainer John Gosden is mindful of soft ground blunting his champion’s “phenomenal” turn of foot and fears Thomas Hobson from the yard of Ireland’s champion jumps trainer Willie Mullins

“If it rains a lot, he is up against it. It won’t be his scene if it turns into a slog on softer ground, because he has got a lot of class, and that will favour the boys who have got to grind it out,” he ventured.

“He got boxed in on Champions Day, but Frankie (Dettori) saw that chink of light and away he went and – yes he did cross Thomas Hobson late on, as has been pointed out – but all is fair in love and war, and yes he did get away with the ground that day. If the ground goes on the soft side Thomas Hobson is the horse I fear the most.”

As for Dettori, he said of Stradivarius: “He breaks all the rules of a stayers’ mould in that he is small and compact, but he has got that weapon of a turn of foot.”

For Charlie Appleby, he hopes Cross Counter can now replicate his Melbourne Cup-winning form in this country.

“What he’s done over two miles, you cannot fault him. Stepping up in trip again, you don’t know, but if he improves for it then it opens up even more possibilities,” he added.

As Johnston said, it is the last half mile where a potentially vintage Ascot Gold Cup will ultimately be won – and lost.