Ed Dunlop is not much given to regret but, as he arrived for the start of Royal Ascot today, he confessed to a feeling of enormous sadness. For the first time since he came to the Royal meeting as a 17-year-old with his father John, a former champion trainer, he will not see Sir Henry Cecil.

The Newmarket trainer tells me: “I knew him since I was a boy. He was a great friend of my father and godfather to my younger brother Harry [another trainer]. He was without a shadow of a doubt the greatest trainer, along with Vincent O’Brien.”

Sir Henry died of stomach cancer last week at the age of 70. Over four decades he had 75 Royal Ascot winners and will be honoured by the renaming of Friday’s ‘Queen’s Vase’ in his memory and the jockeys wearing black armbands.

However, Dunlop is well aware that this year there is no wonder horse like Sir Henry’s Frankel who won the first race of the 2012 meeting in spectacular style. Or Black Caviar, the unbeaten Australian sprinter, who bookended the meeting on the Saturday in front of 80,000 and a worldwide television audience. The pre-meeting hype this time has been about the first Kentucky Derby winner to be seen at Royal Ascot since 1936, the American thoroughbred Animal Kingdom who features in this afternoon’s Queen Anne Stakes.

“Animal Kingdom is not unbeaten and he doesn’t have a whole nation behind him like Black Caviar did,” says Dunlop. “But he has won a Dubai World Cup and a Kentucky Derby. No horse has ever done that. Brilliantly trained by Graham Motion, he may not be as well known as Black Caviar but he’s the stand-out profile horse.”

Dunlop admits that this year there is an additional problem in that what is considered the Olympics of the flat comes when the sport has no high profile three-year-old. “Very true,” says Dunlop. “We’ve been very lucky to have had Frankel and Sea the Stars [which made history in 2009 by becoming the first horse to win the 2,000 Guineas, the Derby and the Arc]. The jury’s out on this year’s three-year-olds.”

Critics will argue the jury gave its verdict in the Derby with Ruler Of The World’s rating of 120 being the lowest for an Epsom winner this century. “Perhaps the best three-year-old didn’t appear in the Derby,” says Dunlop. “Dawn Approach, considered the best in the race, fluffed his lines.”

One reason advanced for Sheikh Mohammed’s heavily backed horse failing was the way the Coolmore stable, which had five runners including the winner, dictated the race. “The tactics of Coolmore, which were totally within the rules, probably didn’t help the favourite,” says Dunlop. “It was how they chose to run the race. They went very slowly and then sprinted. Dawn Approach came last because he pulled too hard.”

Dunlop is well aware the problem for Royal Ascot goes beyond the quality of this year’s three-year-old crop. It comes as the sport reels from Godolphin trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni’s eight-year doping ban. That this drug scandal took place at the stables of Sheikh Mohammed, the country’s most powerful owner, has sent shock waves through racing. “What happened at Godolphin came as a shock to everyone. Hopefully, we will have a good Ascot. It is our showpiece and it needs promoting as well as we possibly can. But, apart from the Godolphin situation, ours is a clean sport.”

For Dunlop, the race to look out for is tomorrow’s feature, the Group One mile and a quarter Prince of Wales’s Stakes. He had hoped to give Snow Fairy, who won the Irish Champion Stakes last year, her first run of 2013. A setback in training last week forced her withdrawal and Dunlop will now run Red Cadeaux, originally pencilled in for Saturday’s Hardwicke Stakes.

This means taking on Aidan O’Brien’s four-year-old Camelot, who won three classics last year, and the Roger Charlton-trained Al Kazeem, who beat Camelot in the Tattersalls Gold Cup at the Curragh last month. Red Cadeaux, second to Animal Kingdom in the Dubai World Cup, is one of Dunlop’s three special horses, the other two being Ouija Board, now retired but who won him his first English Classic, The Oaks, in 2004 and Snow Fairy.

“These three horses are in the top-10 earning British horses in the history of racing,” says Dunlop, a six-time winner at the meeting. “They have been simply unbelievable. They have taken me around the world, shown me different things that have changed my career. Without them I wouldn’t be where I am. I’ve been lucky to have had three life-changing horses.”

The decision to run Red Cadeaux tomorrow “was brave”, says Dunlop but not one that he took. “It was my owner Ronnie Arculli. I fed the information to him and he decided to have a go at the big race. It is a mile and a quarter. There has been sufficient rain. It will be good, not too fast, the conditions should suit him.” So, is it worth backing? He advises: “A fiver each-way.”

Dunlop is well aware that the competition for his horse Times Up in ­Thursday’s Gold Cup will be much stiffer. “He had a c**p run at Sandown [last month] where the ground was too soft for him. It’s the first time at two and half miles for him and he never runs well in his first run of the season. But he is probably the best staying horse in England. It will be very competitive with last year’s Godolphin winner, Colour Vision, and Estimate, a filly of the Queen’s who won at Ascot last month.”

Wins for Red Cadeaux and Times Up would round off Royal Ascot splendidly for Dunlop but he does not aim so high, saying modestly. “Success for me would be about having as many horses as possible running well. Failure will be if they all run badly.”

This fits in with the self-deprecatory style of the 44-year-old Etonian, who says: “Look, I’ve been very lucky. I have 85 or 90 horses. I have trained a number of horses that have had a fair amount of international success. The international owners all want to have a horse good enough to win at Royal Ascot which is great for our product. My father was a champion trainer and trained many thousands of winners. I followed my father into training because I was too stupid to do anything else. My ambition is to survive. I will never be as great as Henry Cecil. I don’t think anyone will be.”

A week after Sir Henry’s death, that thought will be echoed by many a trainer.

Follow Mihir on twitter: @mihirbose


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