Royal Ascot - PJ McDonald and Laurens take on top colts in bid for opening day glory

JOCKEY PJ McDonald says his “inspirational” horse of a lifetime Laurens is ready “to wear her heart on a sleeve” on day one of Royal Ascot.
Going for glory:  PJ McDonald and Laurens, left. Picture: Alan Crowhurst/Getty ImagesGoing for glory:  PJ McDonald and Laurens, left. Picture: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Going for glory: PJ McDonald and Laurens, left. Picture: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

Victory in the Queen Anne Stakes – the prestigious meeting’s first race – would also take the Yorkshire rider’s career to new heights.

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For, while McDonald’s three Group One successes on Laurens include a Classic win in the French Oaks last year, the one omission from a very impressive CV is a Royal Ascot victory.

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While the battling qualities of Laurens, owned by North East financier John Dance and trained at Leyburn by Karl Burke, are well-known, this is her toughest test to date as she takes on many of the country’s top colts.

The big race line-up includes last year’s winner Accidental Agent, runner-up Lord Glitters – who is trained in North Yorkshire by David O’Meara – and Mustashry, who was very impressive when beating McDonald’s mount in last month’s Lockinge Stakes at Newbury.

There is also a strong Irish challenge headed by Aidan O’Brien’s Le Brivido and the Dermot Weld-trained Hazapour, the mount of Frankie Dettori.

Yet McDonald, a former Scottish Grand National-winning jump jockey with 900 career wins to his name, believes Ascot’s straight mile will suit Laurens for this Group One race that was landed by the legendary Frankel in 2012.

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Though she did not perform at her very best in last season’s Champion Stakes over the same course, he believes there was a valid excuse – soft ground at the end of a long campaign.

“After that race, you are always worried ‘does she come back?’ because she’s had to battle every time she’s raced,” said the Leyburn rider last night.

“She’s never had an easy race. She has had to knuckle down and battle every day she has been on the racetrack, even when she won her maiden. That can take its toll on horses. Some just don’t have the constitution to deal with that time and time again.”

McDonald reports that Laurens “felt every bit as good to me” at Newbury last month and expects her to come on for the run.

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“She did a nice piece of work last week. She looks amazing, feels amazing and is going into Ascot as well, if not better, than when she has gone into any of her previous races,” he said.

“It’s very competitive and she’s taking on the boys again. She will have to find a bit with Sir Michael Stoute’s horse (Mustashry) and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him improve again – he’s trained by an absolute genius – but I’d be very confident our filly will improve from the Lockinge.

“Everybody loves a battler; she wears her heart on her sleeve. I feel privileged to have ridden a horse of her calibre and even if she never wins again she owes us nothing and has been an absolute inspiration to all of us.”

McDonald is also due to ride Invincible Army, trained by Harrogate-born James Tate, in Saturday’s Diamond Jubilee Stakes, a six-furlong sprint.

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Both the Queen Anne Stakes and Diamond Jubilee contest are part of the Qipco British Champions Series and Invincible Army heads to Ascot following a fine win in the Duke Of York Clipper Logistics Stakes at York’s Dante meeting.

“On that Duke of York run, he doesn’t need a whole lot more to be competitive in Group One company,” the jockey added. “The rest are very good, battle-hardened horses, but I would like to think our horse is improving.”

McDonald is also sanguine about his Royal Ascot record – he says that it is an achievement to get rides in the big races, never mind on fancied horses, at a globally-renowned meeting.

“It’s the toughest racing of the year. I think I’ve ridden a couple of placed horses in handicaps at the meeting for Mark Johnston but I’ve never ridden a fancied horse down there,” he added. “I can’t do any more than I’m doing at the minute – I’m just rocking up every day and trying to ride as many winners as I can.

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“The most important thing for me is to stay fit and keep the people that are supporting me happy. Everything else is out of your control after that.

“I might end up with no winners at Royal Ascot, or could end up with a couple. All I know is that I’ve got good chances and would not be swapping any of the rides I’ve got going into the week.”