By James Toney
No-one should upstage the Queen at Royal Ascot but ten years after miracle mare Black Caviar did just that, there's another Aussie superstar primed to hog the headlines half a world from home.
Nature Strip may not be in the same league as a horse that recaptured a nation’s hearts with an unbeaten career but he's putting his world top-rated sprinter prize on the line in an all-comers Tuesday showdown with Wesley Ward's American raider Golden Pal.
Since Choisir became the first Australian horse to win in Britain, there have been six winners from Down Under at the royal meeting, though none more memorable that Black Caviar's dramatic victory over a scorching six furlongs in 2012.
However, the King's Stand Stakes looks set to be a classic to match it - a world champion tussle worthy of racing's most gilded stage.
Trainer Chris Waller never got the chance to bring his wonder mare Winx to Royal Ascot, despite the continued attempts of course officials to wow her owners.
But as he watched Nature Strip and stable mate Home Affairs - an eye-catching entry for Saturday's £1 million Platinum Jubilee Stakes - work out at on the track, he admitted he was daring to dream, especially with the dry forecast likely to deliver the sort of rattling fast ground his charges crave.
— Ascot Racecourse (@Ascot) June 10, 2022
"It is a great privilege to be here," said Waller, who has been staying with English trainer Charlie Hills and is looking for a first Royal Ascot win following Brazen Beau's second seven years ago.
"I was hesitant as to how things would work out but I was pleased to see both of them breeze up the straight in good form.
“What Nature Strip and Home Affairs have to their advantage is that they are both good straight track horses.
"They only need to replicate their Australian form to be capable of fighting out the finish with the best in the world. That is what we are concentrating on. If there are horses who want to go quick, then we will let them and run our own race because that is what works.
“Nature Strip has really matured into a foolproof horse. Earlier in his career, he used to be a bit hit and miss because he would charge and race very fiercely. Now he is more relaxed and tractable.
"As it has worked out with him missing the last couple of Royal Ascot meetings due to Covid, we are now bringing a horse who is winning more often than not. I do not see his age as an issue at all. I don’t see him as a rising eight-year-old, I just see him as a mature racehorse.”
For a man who admits he likes to work in his favourite tatty jeans, an old t-shirt and a baseball cap, Ward rather suits a top hat and tails.
American trainer Ward talks about Royal Ascot with such love and wide-eyed respect you half expect him to break into a verse from Jerusalem and check his phone for the latest cricket score.
It’s 11 years since he became the first American trainer to score a winner at the royal meeting and since then he has added 11 more successes to his tally.
Five years ago he won the King's Stand with the lightning mare Lady Aurelia and he thinks Golden Pal is just as good, though Waller isn't going to get engaged with any pre-race fighting talk.
"Golden Pal is very good and very quick," he said.
"I'm only really focusing on our horses while also respecting the fact that it is going to be a full field. I am sure the English, French and Irish will have a few hidden cards as well.
"Royal Ascot is something unique and it will all be about which horse copes with the occasion and the pressure of the race. I doubt Golden Pal will have been under the pressure he is about to be under, with the same applying to our horses as well.
"These races make champions and talking points - I just can't wait."