Cracking the ‘big handicap’ is always a thrill, and they don’t come much bigger than the Hunt Cup at Royal Ascot.
With a maximum field of 30 going to post on Wednesday, the one-mile contest will be as competitive as ever, and finding the winner no less tricky. Thankfully, winners of this valuable and prestigious prize tend to be trend followers, and that gives us a chance of reducing the number of realistic contenders before sticking in the ‘lucky pin’.
Four-year-olds have a terrific recent record, having taken seven of the last 10. Five-year-olds also have a strong looking record should our sample of winners go slightly further back. That certainly suggests that we are looking for progressive youngsters, rather than the exposed handicap aficionado.
Weight carrying is a constant theme in this type of race, and only one horse in the last 30 years has carried more than 9-5 to victory. Mitchum Swagger almost cracked the trend with a third-placed finish last year carrying 9-8, whilst Portage swept to victory under the burden of 9-5. Seven of the last 10 winners have been toward the upper-limit of our trend, carrying 9-0 or more.
Forgotten Voice was the last winning favourite in 2009, and those at the head of the market tend to have a poor record. That’s not to say that fancied horses don’t win of course, with eight of the last dozen winners going off at 16/1 or shorter.
Wednesday’s renewal looks to have plenty with the right kind of profile at the head of the market. Banksea and Fastnet Tempest are currently duelling for the honour of race favourite. A pair of four-year-olds, both have tasted handicap success already this season, with Banksea taking the 21-runner Spring Cup at Newbury, and FT landing the Victoria Cup here at Ascot. The latter was just behind the former at Newbury, and is considerably worse-off at the weights, though he’s looked a rapidly progressive sort.
That Newbury race could prove a key pointer to this, with the first five home all renewing rivalry. George William is another fancied four-year-old, and he was a fast-finishing fourth that day. He was then runner-up to Fastnet Tempest at Ascot, having been denied a clear run at a crucial stage. He’s much better off at the weights on Wednesday, and I’d fancy him to reverse the placings. He looks closely matched with Banksea, and I’m finding it difficult to separate the pair, with possibly a slight preference for George William. He’s shown his liking for Ascot, and I’m sure the trip will suit.
Another Touch and Bossy Guest were also close at Newbury, with the latter now better off at the weights. He was seventh behind Fastnet Tempest in the Victoria Cup, though the extra furlong here will suit. Fourth in the Guineas of 2015, he’s a classy sort and looks to be on a winning mark. He was sixth in this last year on ground that was plenty soft enough. He’s currently 25/1, and I fancy he’ll go close.
Along with Banksea, Luca Cumani has another fancied contender in El Vip. Another progressive four-year-old, he was last seen winning a Class 3 at Newcastle, and though he won with ease, this is a huge step up in class, and he’ll need to cope with the large field. His form suggests he’s a talented and improving sort, but I’m not sure he’s ready for winning this. He lacks experience for me.
Godolphin have a live contender with GK Chesterton. Another progressive four-year-old, he has two wins from three starts this term, and his only defeat came at the hands of George William at Nottingham on seasonal debut. He went down by a neck that day, though he’s slightly worse off at the weights. He’s dictated matters from the front in his last two runs, though on both occasions at a steady pace. He won’t have that luxury this time, and I wonder if a brisk mile at Ascot will stretch him a little. He’s not on my short-list.
One that could go close is the Harry Dunlop trained Early Morning. He’s currently trading at 33s in places, and has shown a liking for the track. He came close to beating Aclaim here last September, and that form now looks particularly strong. Eighth in this race last year on unsuitably soft ground, he looks another each-way proposition.
Morando lacks a prep-run, but Roger Varian’s four-year-old was rapidly progressive last season. Only seventh in the Balmoral Handicap at Ascot in October, when suffering interference at a crucial point, he could prove a huge player if fully wound up for his seasonal bow.
But it’s that Newbury race that I keep returning to in search of this year’s Royal Hunt Cup winner. The form of that race has worked well, and I’m siding with George William to get his head in front this time. Banksea should also go close, though my each-way punt will be Bossy Guest. Gelded at the end of last season, he looks a reformed character, and his odds look generous.
Best of luck to those having a punt.