Hats off, dear reader, and hoorah! Not only are we in the midst of a World Cup, and counting down to Wimbledon, but it is also the week when the Queen comes racing, and top hat and tails are de rigeur for the toffs.
Yes, it's Royal Ascot once more. And, quite apart, from the pageantry and ceremony, there are five days of belting equine action and a panoply of punting possibilities!
From gates open on Day One, when the best older milers put it to each other on the straight track, right through to the last race on Saturday, this is a meeting that offers that rare and heady cocktail of both quantity and quality, and remains the benchmark for any flat meeting around the globe.
This year, the meeting retains and builds on its international flavour, with runners from all over the globe, including fancied sprinters from Australia, juveniles from the States, middle distance runners from France, exotic outsiders from Spain and the like. This, of course, takes for granted the traditionally robust challenge from across the Irish Sea.
So who's going to win? Well, yes, there is a question that requires at least thirty different answers. And to try to nominate all winners would be ambitious beyond sensibility. So, my alternative approach is to find a handful of solid wagers, and supplement those with placepots and 'interest bets'.
For those of us who are undisciplined - and I still count myself in that fraternity, despite being vastly improved! - the serious bet / interest bet combination is a great idea. It allows me (and others like me) to watch all the action with an interest, get paid out if/when our horse wins, but not 'do it in' on races where we have only a peripheral fancy for the horse we perceive might be first past the post.
OK, that cursory staking suggestion out of the way, let's get busy with the action!
Queen Anne Stakes - a great race full stop, and a good race for me over the years. Paco Boy is the defending champion and which of us who witnessed his demolition in the International last time would oppose him here? Well, the answer might very well be those of us who witnessed Goldikova win the Breeders Cup Mile last November, or those of us who witnessed Rip van Winkle's Sussex Stakes triumph, over Paco Boy, last Summer.
Now I must put on record that Paco and Goldi are two of my top five horses in training currently, so choosing between them is tough. However, I honestly believe that Paco Boy is still improving and, in small fields, he is nigh on impossible to beat. In fact, in fields of ten or less, Paco Boy has been beaten just ONCE in his entire career.
That reversal was in the aforementioned Sussex Stakes at Goodwood, where RvW got first run on him, and Paco stayed on for a reasonable second. RvW had daylight between him and Paco, but is sure to need the run here, as so many of the Ballydoyle squad are.
Goldikova, on the other hand, is one tough and race fit mare. She's an absolute legend, having won back-to-back BC Mile's and being unbeaten in her last eight runs at a mile.
If nothing else, I hope this puts into perspective what a truly mouth-watering opening contest this is!
At the prices (3/1 Paco vs 13/8 Goldi), I'm siding with Paco Boy. But I won't be piling in, for reasons outlined above.
As an outsider that might merit interest, if you can forgive a horse a bad run, then Zacinto looks juicily priced at 16/1. I'll not be surprised if RvW needs this outing sufficiently that he fails to make the frame, and he's tempting lay material, but as I see PB and Goldi 1-2'ing, each way players still have a chance of 16/5 if Zacinto nicks third.
King's Stand Stakes - back-to-back Group 1's are a rarity in the racing calendar, so savour these two top class events. This five furlong dash for a big wad of cash has gained a distinctly Australian feel to it in recent years, with Scenic Blast, Miss Andretti and Takeover Target winning in the last four renewals.
And, after last night's thumping, we all know how much the Aussies need a winner! 😉
But look a little closer, and something else reveals itself to us. In fact, aside from the three Antipodean winners, the other two winners in the last five were also trained abroad - in Europe (France 1 Spain 1 - another unlikely World Cup result on current form!)
So, what chance the home team? Well, Sir Michael Stoute is nobody's mug, as he proved yet again with Workforce's dominant Derby victory. His Kingsgate Native is second choice in the market, and has plenty of form to say he has a live chance. He's become something of a binary horse these days, either winning - as he did in the Group 2 Temple Stakes over five on his seasonal debut, or running moderately - as he did when 10th of 13 in this race two years ago.
Three of his four career wins are over the minimum (though he also won the Golden Jubilee here over six in 2008), and he'd have a good chance here. Win only is the call however.
The Oz challenge comprises the favourite, Nicconi, and lively dark'un, Gold Trail. On form, there isn't much to choose between them. However, Nicconi does seem to be a five furlong specialist, winning his last four Graded events at tomorrow's race trip.
Gold Trail by contrast seems to need six and, whilst he will be doing plenty of late work, these might be gone beyond recall by the time the turbo boost kicks in. Not surprisingly, he's entered in the Golden Jubilee on Saturday, and if he takes up that engagement, the 25/1 looks more appealing each way than the 14's for the King's Stand.
The one I like each-way is former winner, Equiano. Although beaten by Kingsgate Native last time, if he gets out as he can, he'll take some catching.
But for the victory, I'm going to suggest it is about time the home team regained this pot, and select Kingsgate Native to have a going day.
St James's Palace Stakes - there is no respite on the Group 1 front with a third such class race up next. This time it is the turn of the Classic generation of milers, and yet again it is a race to savour.
Winners of the English (Makfi) and Irish 2000 Guineas (Canford Cliffs) are joined by the runner-up in the English and French 2000 Guineas (Dick Turpin), as well as the Irish 4th (Steinbeck), and the Grand Criterium 2009 winner (Siyouni).
It's another awesome race and the only notable absentee is French Guineas / Derby winner, Lope De Vega.
The betting strikes me as curious, with Canford Cliffs favourite, Makfi second favourite, and Dick Turpin a 9/1 chance.
Given that the Newmarket 1-2-3 was Makfi, Dick Turpin, Canford Cliffs, I find it hard to understand why the third should turn the tables with the second, let alone the winner!
Now of course it is true that CC has since won the Irish Guineas, but his rating barely improved in that victory and still doesn't match that of Makfi.
Dick Turpin has beaten Canford Cliffs both time he's faced him and, frankly, 9/1 looks excellent each way value.
There is clearly not much to choose between the three of these, but let's consider the chances of Steinbeck and Siyouni too. The former is unexposed, having had just three runs (the same as Makfi), the last of which was that fourth place in the Irish Guineas. He was beaten five lengths that day, and the question we need to answer is whether the combination of improvements from the experience and having a seasonal debut are enough to reverse the form.
Even if you think they are (and, personally, I don't), then we still need to put that form in the context of the other contenders and, as I've said, I don't believe it is the best form in the race.
So it's a no for me for Steinbeck, though I do expect him to be much closer to CC this time. (By the way, O'Brien has won six of the last ten runnings of this race, but I just don't believe he has much 3yo firepower this year).
The real conundrum is Siyouni. A real monster last year, Siyouni has the look of either an unlucky horse or one that hasn't trained on this year. I don't like putting my faith in either, so I'm prepared to accept that the French raider might win and bet elsewhere. Be aware also that Siyouni has never raced outside of France either, which is a negative in the context of a race like this.
Beethoven is of more interest at a mammoth price, as he was such a battle-hardened 2yo. It is asking a lot for any Ballydoyle horse to win in top class on debut, but at the prices (50/1) he is worth a small speculative each way tickle.
But my bet of the day is Dick Turpin, each way. There is quite simply no reason why he should be available at five times the odds of stable mate Canford Cliffs. If the latter reverses the form, fair play. I'll be betting that he doesn't.
Coventry Stakes - next up is the first 2yo race, the Coventry. I don't have a strong view on this (or any other race on the first day), but here are a few pointers to consider...
- Only one horse priced bigger than 8/1 has won this in the last decade (and it was an O'Brien horse)
- Eight of the last ten winners were unbeaten, and five had had just one prior start
With not much to go on, Strong Suit looks too short at 11/4, especially on speed ratings. For me, then, the race is between Samuel Morse and Elzaam, with slight preference for the latter who has more scope for improvement.
Now the stable is in better form, Saeed bin Suroor's Roayh might be interesting at a 'working man's price'.
Ascot Stakes - hmm, good luck with this! Twenty runners over two and a half miles on the flat. There's almost always hard luck stories here too.
A potentially interesting angle into the race is the prominence of jumps trainers in the winners' circle. Suzy Smith, Paul Webber, Tony Martin (twice) and Martin Pipe (twice) have won this in the last decade. That said, Nicky Henderson has a shocking record in the race!
Dual purpose handler, Gary Moore, is used to landing big prizes under both codes, and his Woolfall Treasure has the champion jockey on board too. He's won in this grade (Class 2), and has two wins over hurdles so there is little doubt about his stamina and, in an open race, he must have a squeak.
Windsor Castle Stakes - another interest bet race to conclude the card. It's a listed contest over five furlongs and not quite up to the standard of some of the other juvenile races at the meeting.
The presence of Metropolitan Man, from the Wesley Ward stable, adds a real pinch of spice. Ward won two races here last season, including this one, and there won't be any of the 33/1 this time around! Metropolitan Man won a maiden special weight at Keeneland by 7 1/4 lengths on his only run. Quite what that means in the context of this race is anybody's guess, but you can be sure the stable know what is required, and I'm guessing this one will absolutely bolt out of the stalls and try to hang on.
That said, it is interesting to note that unbeaten horses overall do not have a good record. Seven of the last ten winners had been beaten previously (and three were still maidens) coming into the race.
In what looks a very tough race to call, assuming Metropolitan Man doesn't bamboozle them, a chance is taken with John Best's Stone of Folca. Best won this in 2008 with 100/1 maiden, Flashman's Papers, and whilst we won't get triple figures about this Best maiden, he can be expected to improve significantly from what was already a decent debut, when beaten a head in a warm 2yo novice race at Windsor.
I will also be saving on the Ward horse, Metropolitan Man, as he could run them ragged straight from the gate.
p.s. What's your big Day One fancy, and why?