Ah, this is the life, dear reader: sunshine, Pimms, ladies in their fineries, and top drawer racing. Yes, Gold Cup Day at Ascot is here again!
Unfortunately, and somewhat carelessly, I'm in Norway. Norway? No Way! Way! Norway!! Yes, by a bizarre quirk of fate, Mrs Matt decided that she wanted to run a marathon. But not just any old marathon. Oh no. Mrs Matt wanted to run the 'Midnight Sun Marathon' in Tromso. For those of you whose geography is as good (read, bad) as mine, Tromso turns out to be in the Arctic Circle!
So I'll be trying to pick up the pictures from some pirate TV ship in Irkutsk or something... but I will get to catch the action, either live or delayed. Where these a frozen will, there's a rigid way. Or something.
Anyhoo, aside from the big staying event of the day, there is - as you'd expect - another excellent supporting card. So, as we reach and pass the midway point in the Royal Ascot 2010 festival, let's see if we can't bag a winner or two...
Norfolk Stakes - a Group 2 five furlong juvenile contest to kick off proceedings, and it's always a hotly contested affair. For all that, eight of the last ten winners were 5/1 or shorter in the betting, with the other two weighing in at 10/1 and 12/1, so it's an eminently 'gettable' winner we're looking for here.
Peter Chapple-Hyam has won this twice in the last four years, so his Little Lion Man must be of interest. A facile winner in a Leicester maiden on debut, despite running green, he will clearly have to improve on that here. But there's plenty of scope to do just that, as both his previous winners (Dutch Art and Winker Watson) came here off a single run - and win - in maiden company.
It is rare that the best form coming into a Royal Ascot contest has been demonstrated at Musseburgh, but that is arguably the case here. Excel Bolt, trained by Bryan Smart, is the horse in question, and he's had two runs and two wins to date.
The second of those two runs was in a smart conditions race (excuse me, but very smart for the track) and the time was quicker than the old hands clocked later on in the day. Although Excel Bolt has less scope for improvement than many of these, he sets a bar that most probably won't be able to clear, and a repeat of his last run would put him in the shake up. He also showed likable battling qualities that day and could be worth a bet.
It is perhaps also noteworthy that the trainer missed out by just a head in this race in 2008, having taken the same conditions event previously, with Spin Cycle.
Ribblesdale Stakes - another Group 2, this time for the Classic generation girls over the Classic trip of 1m4f. With the race coming so close to the Oaks itself, this is perhaps a slighter weaker renewal than is sometimes the case, but it is certainly competitive.
The Oaks form is here in the form of fifth placed Gertrude Bell, eighth placed Bikini Babe, and 13th Cabaret. And it is the first of that trio whom I expect to prevail here.
John Gosden had a similarly middling Oaks runner in Michita in 2008, who put a seventh place behind her there to come and win this, and Gertrude Bell has a comparable profile.
The other one to catch my eye is 'Sir' Henry's Principal Role. He nearly landed this last year with Flame of Gibraltar, and Principal Role looks to have improvement in her for the step up in trip.
It's not really a punting race for me, but if I had to pick one, she'd be Gertrude Bell.
Gold Cup - With the retirement of crack stayer Yeats, who won this race four times on the spin (!), the path is now open for a new nag to lay claim to the title of best stayer in these isles. And it looks wide open.
'Sir' Henry's Manifest is a deserved favourite, having demolished good opposition by eight lengths and more last time out at York in the Yorkshire Cup. Whilst it is hard (impossible?) to crab that form, is was over three quarters of a mile less than he faces here, and in a small field where the next best, Purple Moon, is a 33/1 shot in this race.
With Akmal, a 12/1 shot for the Gold Cup as I write, having beaten Manifest when they met last October, it is hard to believe that the winner has improved to become the top stamina horse.
So what can beat him? Well, Ask, although a seven year old now, had a fantastic season last year. He won three, including the Group 1 Prix Royal Oak over two miles, and his only defeat was a highly respectable third placing in another Group 1, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes over what was probably an inadequate trip.
Ask has won on his seasonal debut for the last three seasons, including a six length win last year in the same race that Manifest won by eight lengths this year!
He's trained by the marvelous Sir Michael Stoute, and will go close. 6/1 is an each way steal.
It may be harsh to label Age Of Aquarius a plodder, and indeed it might even be reasonable to expect a plodder (albeit a very high class plodder) to win a flat race over two and a half miles, but that is what he looks to be.
Having rattled up a hat-trick of silver medals in races he probably should have won, I'll be swerving this chap as an 'unlucky' horse. He might win, but he won't do it carrying my cash, If I'm wrong, so be it.
I was actually hoping his conqueror last time, the mare Profound Beauty would run here, but her trainer instead pitches in smart novice hurdler and very smart flat performer, Rite Of Passage. In the second of only two flat starts, RoP won the Irish November Handicap, a race worth Â£24,000, by eight lengths eased down... in a field of 21!
He subsequently ran three times over hurdles, winning twice before a gallant third in the Neptune Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. That was over 2m5f with obstacles to clear, so at least have no doubts about stamina with this chap. He does need to improve a heck of a lot to win this, but who is to say that he won't? There are certainly plenty worse 16/1 wagers.
Professional French stropper, Kasbah Bliss, adds Gallic intrigue to the race. He jumps (not that that's relevant here), he stays, he will likely cruise into the race and fade out of it again. Not for me, the pouting Bliss.
Of more interest from the French fraternity, at 33/1 as I write (Tuesday evening), is Bannaby, who has won a Group 1 over this distance. He nabbed the Prix du Cadran at the Arc meeting back in 2008 and, though another seven year old, could have a squeak if rediscovering that sparkle.
The last horse to catch my eye here is Godolphin's first string, Kite Wood, runner up in the St Leger last season, and winner of a two miler from the aforementioned stroppy Parisian on his sole 2010 start. He won tidily there, giving the impression that he should stay the extra trip. But isn't that a comment that could be almost universally applied to this field?
In summary, it's a fascinating contest... the most interesting for years, in my opinion... but I have no idea who might win. Rite Of Passage travels so beautifully in his races that I would be prepared to take a chance on him finding massive improvement at the likely odds; and Ask has the right connections and form to run very close. So those are my two against the field.
This could be a race to watch and savour. If you're lucky enough to have something to holler in the straight, so much the better.
Britannia Stakes - Good Lord. It doesn't get easier, with two ferociously difficult handicaps sandwiching a tricky Listed race in the last three races of the day. It might be time to retire to the bar at this point, but let's indulge our whimsies and try to pick a golden needle in a big, dirty haystack...
With six winners in the last decade being 14/1 or bigger, and the last three being 20/1 or bigger, this is not for the faint-hearted. That stat means I won't be picking a short-priced beastie here. [For you contrarians out there, the race has also thrown up three winning favourites in that period who, collectively, would have ensured a profit for jolly backers to level stakes!]
Only two horses have lugged more than nine stone, and one of those had just a pound more so, whilst it can be done by the topweights, I'll bet that it isn't this time around.
At the other end of the weights, the lowest burden borne was 8-03, when Franny and Johnny (Norton and Gosden) teamed up for the second of their two straight wins with Analyser in 2001.
A win or second in the two races prior to coming here has served most (eight of ten) winners well, so I'd like that in my possible punt's profile. Alas, that does little to narrow the field.
So, and I make no apology for this (if you're squeamish about 'finger in the air' selections, look away now), I'm going to not quite arbitrarily but not quite scientifically either, side with John Gosden's pair, Kona Coast and High Twelve.
These are speculative selections at best, so please treat accordingly.
Hampton Court Stakes - The aforementioned Listed meat in the handicap sandwich, for three year olds over a mile and quarter.
After three runs in Group 1 races, including the English and Irish Guineas, this is a large step down in class for Fencing Master, and he looks sure to be in the shake up, despite the Ballydoyle collywobbles currently.
O'Brien has won this twice in the last six years, and he'll be looking to get the show back on the road here.
Against that Group 1 form are any number of unexposed 'could be anything' types, led perhaps by Luca Cumani's Afsare. He's been impressive in his last two starts, pulling right away from Wigmore Hall - who reopposes here - on the latter occasion. My problem with Afsare is not his fault. It's just that Cumani horses - especially ridden by Mr Fallon - are almost always over-bet.
So, Afsare might win, but at the prices I'll sit this one out.
Quadrille, for the Hannon-Hughes axis, would be a Royal winner at Royal Ascot, and the colt is in excellent form, as a five length verdict over Britannia hopeful High Twelve the last day testifies.
If you can stand Richard Hughes on your horse (and personally, after two horror rides on Tuesday, one where he won... just, thanks to Hills dropping his hands... and one where he didn't, I can't stand him!) then you'll get a good run if the jockey remembers Pegasus is only a mythical beast and most thoroughbreds have to be ridden within five lengths of the leader at the two furlong pole if they're to have a chance of winning.
It's another 'interest bet only' race for me, and I'll hope that Fencing Master finds the form his stable clearly think him capable of - there's no doubt he'll find this a good bit easier than recent contests.
King George V Stakes - the last race on the card may come as a mercy to many on what is a thoroughly trappy day's betting. If you come out of here with two or more winners, you should be looking to Saturday's lottery draw for your next wager!
Not many got out on this last year, as 66/1 'boilover', Cosmic Sun, was presumably only found by Russell Grant and other members of the astrological winner-finding sun-worshiping cosmic community.
Looking beyond that however does reveal that eight of the last ten winners were priced up at 14/1 or shorter, so there is some hope for us there. It probably won't pay to get too cute here.
Messrs Johnston and Stoute have mopped up six (three each) of these in the last decade, the greedy blighters, and as you might expect are mob-handed here.
Actually, Sir Michael has just the one runner - London Stripe - but Johnston has four gunning for glory. They are Bay Willow, Bowdler's Magic, Rawnaq, and Dancing Dude.
Eight of the last ten winners carried eight and half stone or more, and I'm going to side with the heavier weighted runners here too. This leaves just one of Johnston's quartet, last time out winner Bay Willow, and also London Stripe, who is set to heave 8-10 in a bid for glory.
London Stripe stayed on well over a quarter mile shorter last time to win a decent Class 2 handicap at HQ, and Stoute obviously knows what it takes to plunder this pot.
Bay Willow is harder to evaluate, having only won a Class 5 maiden in his four runs to date. That said, he did win by six lengths, eased down, and that was over this trip so there are clearly no stamina worries with Johnston's inmate.
As you might expect, there are various lively contenders in this race, perhaps headed by John Dunlop's hat-trick seeking son of Montjeu, Berling. Berling won last time out, despite veering badly across the track close home and was value for more than the winning margin of 2 3/4 lengths that day.
Against that, we have to factor in that a) it was a Class 4 handicap, so this is a big step up, and b) he may commit the same act of recalcitrance here, which would all but scupper any winning chance.
On balance, and more in hope than expectation, I'm going to side with the two trainers who know best how to win this race, and specifically with London Stripe and Bay Willow.
By the end of play today, we'll be three down, two to play. So remember to keep some powder dry for Friday and Saturday!
p.s. how are you getting on so far? Leave a comment and share your triumphs / disasters with the rest of us.