Royal Ascot 2017 preview: A movie script, a Middle East rivalry and an American dream

Queen
The Queen is expected to attend day two of Royal Ascot on Wednesday
Royal Ascot
Venue: Ascot, Berkshire Date: 20-24 June
Coverage: Full coverage details available here

Royal Ascot: The most famous horseracing festival in the world… with arguably the world's most famous woman at the centre of it all.

As usual, the Queen will be holding court during what is acknowledged as her favourite week of the year.

However, her statement following the Grenfell Tower fire, speaking of a "sombre national mood", may set a more subdued tone for the week.

Since 1825, when the Queen's great-great-great uncle George IV started the tradition, the Royal party arrives by open-top carriage in a procession along the racecourse.

Timings are precise, though that may be a challenge on the Wednesday, with the Queen's Speech being delivered at the State Opening of Parliament and roadworks on the M4 motorway said to be causing headaches for equerries.

Since Choir Boy's Royal Hunt Cup win in 1953, there have been 22 more in the Queen's silks, none perhaps greater than the breathless victory of Estimate in the 2013 Gold Cup, the first time a reigning monarch had won the fixture's historic centrepiece.

In 2017, the Sir Michael Stoute-trained Dartmouth, winner of the Yorkshire Cup, will be seeking back-to-back successes in the Hardwicke Stakes on Saturday.

Harrington chasing first Royal Ascot glory

Robbie Power & Jessica Harrington
Trainer Jessica Harrington joked that her Cheltenham Gold Cup victory was "beginner's luck"

Forget champions Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson, and even, dare I say, Aidan O'Brien, there is a case to be made that it should be Jessie Harrington who is named trainer of the year.

Harrington, based at Moone, County Kildare, has claimed a string of steeplechasing feature victories this year, notably the Cheltenham Gold Cup with Sizing John and the Irish Grand National with Our Duke.

Now she is looking for her first success among the flat racing prizes at Royal Ascot.

Two very smart two-year-olds head the charge. There is the unbeaten colt Brother Bear, who is likely to line up as favourite in Tuesday's Coventry Stakes, and Alpha Centauri - also unbeaten and also a strong fancy - in the Albany Stakes on Friday.

In between, Torcedor, who has two wins from two starts since the joining Harrington stable, looks to add another of racing's very shiniest pots to the tally in the Gold Cup.

While the team from Moone are out to make hay while the sun shines, so are their Irish compatriots, all looking to improve on a record 10 successes in 2016.

Aidan O'Brien will be in the spotlight the most, with well-fancied contender after well-fancied contender.

His Caravaggio is rated something of a banker in the Commonwealth Cup on Friday, although there looks to be a corker of a showdown in Tuesday's St James' Palace Stakes between Churchill, winner of the Newmarket and Irish 2000 Guineas, and Barney Roy and Thunder Snow, the two runners-up.

Michelle Payne: lights, camera, Royal Ascot action

Michelle Payne in action at the Melbourne Cup
Michelle Payne will make her debut at Royal Ascot after serious injury ruled her out of last year's event

The scriptwriters making a film about the life of Australian jockey Michelle Payne may be chewing on their pens as they watch her first Royal Ascot mount Kaspersky in action.

They already have a terrific story to tell of the first female rider to win the horse race that 'stops a nation', the Melbourne Cup, on board 100-1 shot Prince Of Penzance in 2015.

Actor Rachel Griffiths - of Muriel's Wedding fame - is set to direct the movie, which she has described as a "classic tale of the underdog".

Were the Jane Chapple-Hyam-trained Kaspersky to defy his outsider odds to beat Ribchester and company in the fixture's opener, Tuesday's Queen Anne Stakes, alterations to the planned screenplay would follow.

Payne said: "It's been crazy since I won the Melbourne Cup, and I can hardly believe I'm about to take part at such a prestigious event.

"The horse is in fantastic order, he's a quality galloper and if he's in good shape, you never know."

Payne, 31, will be hoping for a smoother passage during the race than she found travelling to the UK: had Kaspersky not been Australian-owned, tough immigration rules might well have barred her way.

Wesley and the USA challengers are no fools

American trainer Wesley Ward
American trainer Wesley A Ward is expected to field several runners at Ascot

The date of 16 June 2009, the first afternoon of that year's Royal Ascot, is highly significant in the fixture's long and colourful history.

On that day, the Wesley A Ward-trained two-year-old Strike The Tiger led all the way and held on by a neck to win the Windsor Castle Stakes. It gave the USA its first win at British flat racing's summer highlight.

Ward, based between stables in California and Florida, struck again the very next day with another front-running juvenile, Jealous Again, in the Queen Mary Stakes.

Though it is perhaps an overstatement to say a flood of runners has followed, it has certainly become a steady stream as Royal Ascot added another string to its international bow, and that despite the much tougher drugs laws in Europe.

This time, five American trainers are expected to field a total of 14 runners, with Ward producing the biggest squad as he hopes to improve on a record of seven Royal Ascot wins - all bar one in races for two-year-olds.

The interest will be reflected in the television coverage too. For the first time, American broadcaster NBC will have a daily show covering the races.

Ward nominates the filly Happy Like A Fool - named after a lyric from the OneRepublic song Good Life - as the best chance of victory among his well-developed two-year-olds, and she will run in the Queen Mary Stakes on Wednesday.

But it is a previous Queen Mary winner, the brilliant Lady Aurelia, whose appearance in Tuesday's King's Stand Stakes is most anticipated.

Ward said: "She's a world-class sprinter."

Qatar v Dubai

Ribchester
Ribchester made it a fourth Lockinge win in five seasons for Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin team in May

The diplomatic crisis between Qatar and much of the rest of the Middle East, which has seen the closure of the oil and gas-rich state's sole border, with Saudi Arabia, may seem a world away from Royal Ascot.

However, with Qatar's ever-growing influence in a sport long dominated by the Maktoums, the ruling family of near-neighbours Dubai, there will be plenty of reminders of that tension.

The extra dynamic will be evident from the very first race of the week, the Queen Anne Stakes, when Ribchester, owned by Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum's Godolphin operation, faces Qatar Racing's Lightning Spear.

Racing speculation has surrounded what might happen come the presentations were one grouping or the other, both of whom are extensive sponsors, to win a race backed by their rival.

The races at Royal Ascot have no direct race sponsorship, avoiding potential embarrassment, though the top owner and leading trainer awards - for which the Godolphin team will be fancied - have the support of Qatari investment giant QIPCO.

Don't forget Sir Michael

Sir Michael Stoute
Sir Michael Stoute has been training winners since 1972

With a long list of fancied Coolmore-owned and bred runners, Aidan O'Brien is odds-on favourite to be top trainer, ahead of John Gosden.

However, Sir Michael Stoute should never be underestimated. It is 40 years exactly since Stoute won the first of his 75 Royal Ascot trophies, when Etienne Gerard took the Jersey Stakes.

Most of O'Brien's leading hopes will be ridden by Ryan Moore, the favourite to be top jockey, though equalling his own record of nine wins in 2015 will be challenging.

Frankie Dettori was expected to figure prominently too before injury forced his withdrawal, but the most in-form rider going into this year's £6.665m meeting is Brazil-born former champion Silvestre de Sousa.

Royal Ascot jumps to it

In the words of The Kinks, officials at Royal Ascot have demonstrated themselves "dedicated followers of fashion".

For 2017, changes to the exacting dress code have been sanctioned, and, for the first time, women in jumpsuits will be admitted to the Royal Enclosure.

However, alongside dresses and skirts "of a modest length" and headpieces "with a base of four inches or more in diameter", fashionistas will have to take care that their one-piece outfits are "full-length to the ground".

One official said: "It's like trouser suits in the 1970s, fashions change."

For the record, spaghetti straps, fascinators and bare midriffs remain barred.

For guys, it is so much less complicated: top hat and tails - black or grey - continue to be de rigeur, as do black shoes.