Royal Ascot 2020: Day 1 Preview, Trends, Tips
Barely a fortnight after the start of the flat turf season, and Royal Ascot 2020 is upon us. Like everything else on the planet currently, this year's Royal meeting is trying to mend and make do in the face of enormous challenges. No crowds and no Royals are the most obvious absences; in their place are six additional races, one each Tuesday to Friday and two on Saturday's eight-race extravaganza.
The running order has also been rejigged, mainly to allow a little extra time for the juveniles between a debut and their big Berkshire date. We begin with an old friend, the Buckingham Palace Handicap, which was stood down in 2015 to make way for the (excellent) Commonwealth Cup; and also with a 75-minute earlier start time. Tune in at 2.30 and you'll be five minutes too late for the quadpot, let alone the placepot!
The going is good to soft. The forecast is warm with the possibility of thunder storms all week. In other words, it could dry out and it could get wetter - great!
1.15 Buckingham Palace Handicap (7f, Class 2, 3yo+)
A three-year-old-plus handicap with none of the Classic generation in attendance. Good news for form players as there are likely to be a few more lines in the book and a little less projection required.
In big fields over seven furlongs at Ascot, it pays to be waited with, but perhaps not in too exaggerated a fashion. Mid-div may be ideal. Middle to high may be best off from a draw perspective, but it's marginal and not worth lobbing an otherwise credible candidate for.
Big field seven furlong form, ideally here, is my route in and that offers the following shortlist:
Greenside, Kaeso, Cliffs Of Capri, Firmament
Greenside was second in a valuable course and distance handicap on his most recent start in early October last year. The drop back to a truly-run straight seven furlongs for the first time in a 17-race turf career looked to be a positive, and this strong-travelling type was more than three lengths too good for all bar the winner that day. Up five pounds doesn't make life easy, though he has a very good record fresh. Jockey Marco Ghiani, who rode him for the first time in that most recent run, keeps the mount; it will be only his second ride since the resumption (apprentices having not been eligible until 15th June).
Nigel Tinkler is a very shrewd trainer of handicappers and his Kaeso is as consistent as can be in this type of race. 3rd of 26 and 2nd of 23 in the Victoria Cup and International Handicap, both over course and distance, last season speak volumes for Kaeso's ability to handle the profile; and a cobweb-clearing canter down Newcastle's straight seven ten days ago should have brought him forward. Drawn in the middle, he'll be covered up in midfield most likely, and the booking of Oisin Murphy knocks the eye out.
Another profile type is Cliffs Of Capri, Jamie Osborne's globetrotter coming here off the back of a valuable handicap score in Dubai. Since then he ran second at Newmarket 12 days ago to prove his recovery from the travel. He's three pounds higher than when fifth of 20 in the Cunard Handicap in 2018 and would be far from a shock winner.
Firmament has been around a long while now. At least it seems that way; in fact, aged eight, he's a year younger than Greenside. A record of 0-from-14 at the track betrays some excellent efforts, including half a dozen top six efforts in 17+ runner handicaps. His consistency draws little favour from the handicapper, though, so while the booking of James Doyle again takes the eye, the balance of probabilities is that a place is a more playable proposition.
The market is headed by the lightly-raced and progressive Daarik, trained by John Gosden and ridden by Frankie Dettori. He is one of the most obvious handicap bets of the week and, as a direct consequence, will offer zero value (for all that he clearly has solid prospects). If you want a reason to oppose him, it is this: in five career starts, he's raced on turf only once - on debut when a 14 1/2 length last of ten. Of course there are counter-arguments - greenness, etc - but I don't typically want to bet a 4/1 chance in a 24-runner cavalry charge, thanks.
If I'm going to back a progressive blue blood, it'll be Roger Varian's gelded son of Dubawi, Mutamaasik. A winner of his last four starts, he's up just three pounds for a recent narrow verdict in a tactical affair. Drawn in the middle of the pack and probably in the middle of the pace will give Dane O'Neill options.
Clearly a wide open event to kick us off, keep in mind the advice about each way betting and extra places here. 8/1 Kaeso and 16/1 Greenside are the pair for me, each way, with all the extra places you can get.
1.50 Queen Anne Stakes (Group 1, 1m, 4yo+)
The traditional curtain-raiser has its own warm up act this year, but still comes on stage 40 minutes earlier than usual. A sequence of 13 winners at odds of 15/2 or shorter came unceremoniously unstuck in 2018 when Accidental Agent recorded a 33/1 score. Last year was tricky, too, as 14/1 Lord Glitters got the better of a brace of 20/1 shots with a 25/1 poke in fourth.
The winners and runners-up, and indeed the next pair home last year, all raced in rear early: that's the tactic in big field mile races on the straight track as a rule, and so a quick squint at the pace map may be instructive.
As can be seen, there are not many out and out hold up types, exceptions being the 2018 winner (who planted in the stalls in last year's race); last year's 7f Jersey Stakes winner, Space Traveller; Bless Him, and Escobar.
In the midfield are likely to be such as the unlucky-on-the-round-course-last-year Fox Chairman, Skardu, Duke Of Hazzard and Mohaather.
The favourite is Circus Maximus, a good horse if a bit of a high-class grinder. This stiff test will probably be up his street but he is 0-from-3 on a straight track and he's another favourite I'll be opposing. I'm also against the progressive filly, Terebellum, a winner at Newmarket ten days ago but who is stepping back a quarter mile here. As well as the trip switch, she faces the boys and is up in class; all told, she's a poor price.
Fox Chairman was a big eye-catcher in the Hampton Court Stakes at Royal Ascot last season when getting no run before finishing best to be a respectful second, two big lengths behind Sangarius. He duly converted a penalty kick at Newbury next time out, in Listed company, but hasn't been sighted in the eleven months since. Trainer Andrew Balding has been in cracking form at the start of the turf campaign, and they've reportedly minded the Chairman after a slight setback last term. Still, this straight mile is a very different test and again represents a class elevation.
Mustashry had a rough passage last season in this race, eventually finishing seventh beaten less than four lengths. Jim Crowley jumps ship this time, instead opting for Mohaather, which can hardly be viewed as a positive for all that jockeys habitually choose wrong. Mustashry is a legit G1 horse, having beaten Laurens in the Lockinge last term, and with Dane O'Neill a more than able deputy, he looks a very fair price at around 12/1.
There is a good chance Mohaather has strengthened up since his three-year-old year in 2019, and a sole defeat on heavy ground - in the G1 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes over course and distance no less - is eminently forgivable. Trainer Marcus Tregoning has started in very good form, albeit from just a handful of runners, so the team will be excited about this lad.
William Haggas runs Skardu, another four-year-old in the line up. He wasn't beaten far in a trio of Group 1 events last season, all at a mile on similar ground. His straight track mile form includes third in the 2000 Guineas and fourth in the Irish equivalent, when perhaps a little fatigued from the previous engagement. Jockey James 'the Doyler' Doyle will have him wrapped up until the quarter pole most likely and I can see this one running a big race.
It's a wide open race once more this year and not one in which to be going 'all in'. For small money, each of 12/1 Mustashry, 14/1 Mohaather and 14/1 Skardu have claims. I'll be dutching the three of them. Hills are going FIVE places in the race and are the place to bet if your fancy is top price there and you want to play each way.
2.25 Ribblesdale Stakes (Group 2, 1m 4f, 3yo fillies)
The Ascot Oaks, as this race is generally not affectionately known, comes before the actual Oaks in this topsy-turvy season. Indeed, such is the timing of events that it is very likely the pre-eminent trial for the Epsom fillies' Classic, with the possible exception of the 1000 Guineas.
Plenty have had a run already in these formative days of the turf season, including the favourite, Frankly Darling. The daughter of, you guessed it, Frankel, bolted up on the opening day back: that was on the tapeta at Newcastle, and over a mile and a quarter, but trainer John Gosden has been happy to send some of his best to break their maiden there, including Enable and Stradivarius.
This filly has a long way to go to reach that level, but she might very well dismiss her rivals here in the manner of an Oaks winner-in-waiting. If you fancy her here, the play might be to back her ante post for the Oaks at 12/1. That appeals to me more than taking 7/4 in this at any rate: if she does score nicely here, she'll be second favourite for Epsom.
Second choice is Trefoil, trained by dual Oaks-winning Ralph Beckett. She caught the eye when running on at Newmarket over a quarter mile shorter, but while the trip may suit better the opposition is undoubtedly warmer.
Miss Yoda is a drifter, in spite of winning the Lingfield Oaks Trial. It wasn't her fault the race was a slowly-run muddling affair and, given her track position through the race, the even money favourite that day can probably be marked up just a smidge. That's not to say I want to bet her here, but she is a credible second string to Gosden's bow.
Gosden has a third string, too, in the form of Anastarsia, who was all at sea behind Miss Yoda (and Golden Lips and West End Girl and So I Told You, all of which re-oppose) on the Lingfield slopes. She probably won't reverse places with all of them but she certainly had the most excuses that day and might go better than a 40/1 chance.
The one I like, however, is Passion. Trained by Aidan O'Brien, she was given a 'welcome to 2020, onwards and upwards' introduction by Seamie Heffernan in the Listed Salsabil Stakes at Navan. She'll have needed that to be an easy pipe opener as it came just six days prior to this and, of course, she has to travel over. But she is bred for this job - by Galileo out of an Anabaa mare, a sister to St Leger / Irish Derby winner, Capri, amongst other stayers - and she will have Ryan Moore to assist.
This is a race that looks certain to shake up the Oaks betting. It could easily go to the favourite, Frankly Darling, and she is worthy of small pre-race support for Epsom; but the each way play is Passion, whose price is shortening but is still 7/1 with Victor and Paddy. She's 33/1 for the Oaks.
3.00 King Edward VII Stakes (Group 2, 1m4f, 3yo colts & geldings)
After the 'Ascot Oaks' comes the 'Ascot Derby', an ostensibly shallower contest this year, though undoubtedly one with Epsom on its mind: the odds-on favourite here, Mogul, is a single-figure price already for the Derby.
Beautifully bred, by Galileo out of a Danehill mare, he's a brother to Japan amongst other Group race winners and cost 3,400,000 guineas (count 'em!) as a yearling. He himself is already a Group 2 winner having achieved that level of performance in the Champions Juvenile Stakes on Irish Champions Weekend last autumn. Arguably a little flat on his final start of 2019, when only fourth in the Group 1 Vertem Futurity, relocated to Newcastle, that was his fourth race in the space of three and a half months.
Ballydoyle sends a second runner to post, Arthur's Kingdom, perhaps as a pacemaker, perhaps to test his own Derby credentials. A mere snip at €240,000 compared with his stable mate, the son of Camelot - do you see what they did there? - has yet to win in pattern company but was quietly impressive on heavy ground when breaking his maiden at the third time of asking.
It is always so hard to guess at the O'Brien pecking order: with myriad royally-bred lightly-raced colts at their disposal, the yard's insistence that even they don't know the hierarchy until early summer of the Classic campaign is totally plausible.
Sandwiched between the Ballydoylers in the King Edward VII Stakes betting is the David Simcock-trained Mohican Heights. Unbeaten in two last term, including a Listed race over a mile, the son of Australia - who changed hands for £520,000 at the boutique pre-Ascot Goffs London sale last year - makes his seasonal reappearance. Stamina shouldn't be an issue though he will be having his first run for nigh on 300 days and only the third of his life.
The pace may be put to the race by Silvestre de Sousa atop Kingpower's Papa Power. Unraced at two, he was winner of the final two of three novice events on the all-weather earlier this year, putting them to bed long before the finish each time. It will be interesting to see how that works out here: an uncontested lead, kicking at the top of the shortish home straight would make him tough to reel in. That name as well: I don't know for sure, but it just might be a nod to the much-loved Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, so tragically killed in that helicopter crash last year. If that's right, they must think a lot of this fellow.
Pyledriver and Sound Of Cannons are both more exposed, though both retain some appeal for another day, the latter - who ran a better than it looked race in the Lingfield Derby Trial - especially.
This could quite possibly be a tactical race. It also features an odds-on favourite. As such, it is less than compelling from a wagering stance. I'm fairly sure Mogul is the best horse in the race, but I'm not convinced the set up is optimal and, in the circumstances, it might be worth taking a chance on 9/1 Papa Power. Despite the hiatus, he's had more racing this term than his rivals and he could get to boss things from the front: no better man for that job than his pilot, SdS.
3.35 King's Stand Stakes (Group 1, 5f, 3yo+)
One of the day one features, the King's Stand is the province of the speedballs. This term it looked set to be a match between the brilliant sprinter Battaash and the exciting upstart Sceptical. Disappointingly - especially as I held a 20/1 voucher for him in this contest - Sceptical waits until Saturday and the Golden Jubilee Stakes. I felt the stiff finish here, for a strong-travelling horse with a withering gear change, was optimal. He'll probably go and win the Saturday showcase now, and in truth I hope he does. Sigh.
Back to the here and now, and it is Battaash's to lose. On ratings he is ten pounds clear of the next best, and that horse - Glass Slippers - has been duffing up second-tier dashers in France.
A procession for Battaash then? Probably, though not definitely. Of course not definitely: it's a horse race after all!
Charles Hills' champion has had his Achilles heel exposed at Ascot in the past and has a record here of 022. But that pair of silvers was against another champion, Blue Point, for whom Ascot's stiff finish was optimal. With the stable in form, and no Blue Point or Sceptical, there are no excuses this time. He'll very likely win and 8/11 is not the worst value odds-on bet I've seen.
A race like this sets up perfectly for the 'without the favourite' players. Hills are the only one to price it up as I write, and they are 11/10 Glass Slippers, 4/1 bar. I'm happy to field against Glass Slippers for reasons flagged above - if I'm wrong, I'm wrong - so it's an attractive route into a race where we can simultaneously cheer a champ and collect on the 'underneath'.
The three-year-old Liberty Beach ticks plenty of boxes in receipt of weight-for-age. She obviously gets that for her relative lack of physical maturity, but she's rapid as she showed when winning the Listed Dragon Stakes and the Group 3 Molecomb Stakes at this distance. She was also fourth (of 25) in the Queen Mary, and demonstrated her stamina credentials for this stiff finish when winning a Listed race over six furlongs on good to soft nine days ago. She'll not be too far off the speed.
The one at a price is Henry Candy's filly, Kurious. She has won her last two over five furlongs and has plenty of early speed. Not beaten far in the 2018 Queen Mary, she's been patiently handled since. 12/1 in the 'without' market makes some appeal.
Although he can get himself worked up beforehand, and although he's been susceptible in Ascot races to a spoiler in the past, I think BATTAASH will win. I hope he does because he's a bloody brilliant sprinter on his day. He's a sure fire 'on top' for exacta players and it might pay to select the two fillies Liberty Beach and Kurious underneath. They are sporting wagers in the 'without' market, too.
4.10 Duke Of Cambridge Stakes (1m, Group 2, 4yo+ Fillies & Mares)
Formerly the Windsor Forest Stakes, this is a mile on the straight course for older fillies and mares. A couple of the features of the race are the record of the French and the record of held up runners.
The French have run 17 femmes in the race since its 2004 inception, with a form string of 42301005982391531. So that's three winners (17.6%) and eight top three finishes (47%).
Moving along to run style, and hold up horses have won all of the last five renewals. Going further back, a combination of midfield and hold up horses have won every renewal since Strawberrydaiquiri made all in 2010.
There is one French filly in the field, Wasmya, trained by Francis-Henri Graffard and ridden by... Frankie Dettori. Generally played from midfield, she's 10/1 currently but will surely shorten. The daughter of Toronado, out of a Danehill Dancer mare, is bred for the trip though she's having her first try since debut at it; she is also tongue tied for the first time. That breathing aid would not need to eke out massive improvement for her to have a squeak.
You'll have to take my word for Wasmya's general run style as we sadly do not yet have the French form in our database. Nevertheless, you can view the projected pace map for the remainder of the field below.
The unbeaten Miss O Connor will need to be good to repel her field given the historical advantage to waited with types, but she ought to be largely uncontested on the lead at least. The winner looks most likely to emerge from the later-running cluster drawn two to seven, with both Frankie and Jim Crowley, aboard favoured Nazeef, well berthed to track that early speed.
Nazeef is herself unbeaten in her last four races, most recently when seeing off the high-class Billesdon Brook in a Listed race at Kempton 13 days ago. If that turning all-weather strip bears no resemblance to the straight lawn here, her previous six-length romp in a Class 3 mile handicap at Newmarket (good to firm) showed such a configuration will not preclude an extension of her victory sequence to a nap hand.
Sir Michael Stoute has a peerless record in the race, with four winners from 17 runners, and nine in the frame in total (a 53% place rate). He saddles Jubiloso, third in the round course three-year-old Group 1 Coronation Stakes at this meeting a year ago. While three of Sir Michael's winners had had a seasonal run, this year's truncated beginning has meant Jubiloso arrives off a 290 day absence. The inaugural Duke Of Cambridge winner, Favourable Terms, overcame a similarly long layoff for the same trainer and the yard has been in great form since the resumption.
Jubiloso was a little disappointing after Ascot last season, however: only third as the even money favourite in a Goodwood Group 3 and one from last of eight when odds-on in a similar event at Sandown. That would be enough to dissuade me at the current prices.
Lavender's Blue was the winner of the Sandown race, her form at a mile looking solid. Indeed, she followed up that G3 score with a very good three-length fourth in the Group 1 Sun Chariot Stakes. With just five career starts to her name, proven top level form over a straight mile, and a midfield run style, Amanda Perrett's four-year-old daughter of Sea The Stars - owned by Abba's Benny Andersson - could hit the right notes here. (Mamma mia!)
The other interesting filly is Queen Power, also trained by Sir Michael Stoute. She was staying on over ten furlongs last time and drops back in trip here, not an obvious play to my eye. A daughter of Shamardal, whose is an excellent Royal Ascot sire, she won't want James Doyle on Miss O Connor to amble along too steadily in front. In any event, the balance of her form is decent but typically in defeat.
If you're looking for a rag to outrun its price, Agincourt may offer a run for pennies. She won a Listed race on Newmarket's straight mile, and has a straight track record (seven furlongs and a mile) of 1221. Her trainer David O'Meara won this in 2015 for the same owner, Sir Robert Ogden. She's 40/1.
It's a competitive affair with lots of interesting runners. Nazeef looks a reasonable favourite, and I'd personally favour her over Jubiloso at the head of the betting - though the latter is clearly pleasing the pre-eminent race trainer at home. Price preference is for 6/1 Lavender's Blue and 10/1 Wasmya, the former whose form may be a little under-rated and who should be able to progress further this year, the latter who represents similar potential and a Gallic gear change. Agincourt at 40/1 is a Hail Mary of mild interest.
4.40 Ascot Stakes (2m4f, Class 2 Handicap, 4yo+)
The lucky last on the opening day is the Ascot Stakes, a staying handicap. No winner has returned a bigger SP than 12/1 since 2008 and, in a race where we need all the whittling we can get, that's a reasonable starting point.
The draw has been an irrelevance since the maximum field size was reduced to 20, but what has been significant is the dominance of jumps or dual-purpose trainers - winners of the previous ten Ascot Stakes, all with horses aged five-plus and all bar one of which had already raced over hurdles.
Slightly more tenuously, all - bar two of Willie Mullins' four winners in the past decade, and Ian Williams' 2019 winner - had won over further over jumps.
Using the more robust of those criteria helps to form this tentative shortlist:
Verdana Blue, Blue Laureate, Coeur De Lion, Quloob, San Benedeto
Verdana Blue is the favourite, at around 7/2. She is a high class hurdler trained by Nicky Henderson, but Henderson's record in the race is 1 from 23, just four placed. Giving weight all round she's hardly a 'gimme'.
Blue Laureate represents last year's winning stable, super shrewd Ian Williams. This man is arguably the best 'target trainer' in Britain and everything he runs in a big race commands a second, and a third, glance. A five-year-old who has improved for longer trips, he was third in the 2m2f Cesarewitch Trial at Newmarket last backend, and a keeping on second in a two mile Class 2 handicap on seasonal bow eight days ago. If this doesn't come too soon, he might just improve again for an extra half mile. Crack apprentice Cieren Fallon gets the leg up.
There are few horses more consistent than the well-named Coeur De Lion. This lad gets carried out on his shield every time he runs, for all that the scars of recent battles have seemingly taken longer to heal. Sixth and fifth in this race in the last two years, he runs off the same mark as a year ago but may struggle to get much closer this time around.
Quloob runs for the Heart of the South syndicate, and is part-owned by a regular geegeez.co.uk syndicateer, Graham W, so I wish this chap the best of luck. His trainer, Gary Moore, is a top-class dual purpose exponent, and Quloob deserves his place after a string of consistent efforts. Moore, however, has yet to saddle a placed horse in the Ascot Stakes, from eight runners to date.
Paul Nicholls makes a rare foray to Royal Ascot with San Benedeto (and 33/1 Ashutor). San B is unraced on the level since his juvenile season in 2013! He is high class over fences, rated in the 150's, and will have no problem with the distance. If they go fast early, it should allow him to plod through beaten horses though whether he's capable of getting past all of them is a far bigger question. It's a leap of faith to back him after so many years away from this discipline.
Of those not fitting the profile, last year's second, Dubawi Fifty, gets in off the same mark; but there looks to be a lot more pace contention this time if connections elect to revert to the front-running strategy they deployed twelve months ago.
There are another fourteen with a squeak!
For small money, I'll chance my arm with Ian Williams' Blue Laureate. As well as the winner last year, his other runner was third, so it's fair to say he's worked out what is required. At a general 14/1, including six places (1/5 odds) with Paddy if you can get it, he'll do for me.
And that's Tuesday's card. There are four more days to follow, so keep some powder dry. Good luck!