Royal Ascot 2016: Wokingham Preview, Trends, Tips
The final day of Royal Ascot brings the challenge of the Wokingham, a six furlong sprint handicap contested by upwards of 25 runners. Finding the winner will not be easy, but it should be rewarding with the average payoff being 13.6/1 in the last decade.
In this post, I'll review some facts and figures from recent history - let's call them trends - before considering the draw and pace scenarios, and then finally squint at the form book in the hopes of solving this fiendish sudoku of a puzzle.
Wokingham Handicap Trends
As always, thanks are due to horseracebase.com for their historical trends data, which goes as far back as 1997. That offers 20 winners and 76 placed horses from 19 years of data. The extra winner is as a result of a dead heat in 2003.
Age: There hasn't been a three-year-old winner since Bel Byou in 1987.
But before you write off Mr Lupton, this year's sole entry from that age group, consider that the previous 3yo winner was in 1986 and, perhaps more pertinently, that only 14 3yo's have even run in the race since 1997. Four of them have made the frame, which is a better strike rate than any other age group, roughly twice what might have been expected. Mr Lupton is a non-runner.
Four- and six-year-olds have won roughly in line with their numerical presence, but five-year-olds have outperformed representation. They've won 45% of the races in the sample period from just 25% of the runners. They've also made the frame just over 30% of the time from the same 25% of runners.
In fairness, I can't think of a logical reason why five year olds would be so much better suited to the race, and I suspect it's just a quirk of a smallish dataset.
However, older horses have hit the board just 6.5% of the time, from 20% of the runners. That looks to be a strong negative trend.
Avoid horses older than six in the Wokingham.
Days since a run: How long should a horse have rested if it has designs on Wokingham glory? The answer is probably not as some 'trends analysts' would have you believe.
Those coming into the race off a short layoff of a fortnight or less have won five of the 20 races in the sample. But that 25% of the winners came from 30% of the runners. Moreover, they only achieved 22% of the placed horses.
Those showing up after two weeks to a month off won 35% of the races from 37% of the runners, and hit the board 43% of the time.
And those returning after an absence of one to two months won 30% of the races from 27% of the runners, making the frame 25% of the time.
The small group who were off for longer than two months won 10% of the races from 6% of the runners, and placed 9% of the time.
So, statistically, the longer layoff horses have outperformed their numerical representation by more than 50%, while most other groups have run largely in line with numerical expectation.
Still with me? Essentially, there is little positive or negative about days since a run with the possible exception of those off more than two months. That might be a slight mark up for Stepper Point and Spring Loaded.
Distance form: What sort of a six furlong specialist is required for this mission?
Four of the twenty winners had never won over six panels before. What is interesting about that is that those 20% of winners came from almost exactly 20% of runners, and they actually placed 24% of the time. In other words, it doesn't matter if you haven't won over six furlongs before.
But here's a really interesting snippet that I wouldn't have expected... the performance of five furlong winners in the Wokingham is very poor. I actually didn't expect that 55% of Wokingham runners would never have won over shorter; but that just over half of the sample won 80% - 16 - of the races, and 66% - 50 - of the 76 place positions.
Of the four Wokingham winners in the sample to have won over shorter, two had only won once at less than six furlongs. Hmm.
So what about a win over further than six? This is really interesting. Those never to have won beyond six furlongs won nine times from the 20 winner sample, 45%. But that came from 68% of the runners. In fairness, they made the frame 66% of the time - about right - so it might simply be another quirk, but...
those to have won over further claimed the other 55% of races from just 32% of the runners. Again, and obviously, the place percentages were largely in line with expectation.
Could it be though that, at the end of a protracted battle, those with proven stamina are at a significant advantage? I'd be prepared to believe they are.
Overlook those with winning five furlong form.
Official ratings: The handicapper's job is not an easy one. The team at BHA have to contend with wily trainers and demanding owners on a daily basis. In the circumstances, they do a very good job almost all of the time. And it is their lot that when a rick happens, they are publicly chastised for it. It's not the sort of job sensitive souls line up to do.
Anyway, the Wokingham can be considered something of a triumph for the official handicapping team, as there seems very little advantage to any part of the ratings set. Indeed, if anything, those with the highest ratings have had a slight benefit over their more lowly-rated - and weighted - rivals.
But this is a compressed handicap - a Listed conditions event almost, on ratings - so it's probably safest to assume there is nothing of consequence in the ratings.
The same comments apply to weight, which it may be reasonable to contend will have little to no bearing on the outcome this year (though, naturally, if the runner up is beaten a nose giving three pounds to the winner he will protest otherwise!)
Last time out position: In such a hotly contested race as the Wokingham, it should be no surprise that those who went close to winning last time have come closest to winning this.
The numbers are thus: 17.5% of runners were last time out winnners, and they won 20% of the races, and placed 25% of the time. Sadly, and predictably, they'd have collectively lost you 57.75 points at SP.
Top 3 finishers last time out (including the above winners) accounted for 41% of the runners, and 80% of the winners as well as 57% of the placed horses. Thanks to decent prices about some of those last day placed horses, this group as a whole was profitable to SP - which is rather surprising.
88% of the placed horses, and all of the winners since 1997, finished in the top seven last time out. That was from 72% of the runnners.
Insist your horse was top seven last time, and mark up podium finishers on their most recent start.
Where does all that leave us? Well, from a trends perspective, we might be especially interested in a horse aged six or younger, whose winning form is over six and seven furlongs, and who was in the first three last time.
Three-year-old, Mr Lupton, and favourite, Brando, have both won over five furlongs, which leaves a shortlist of...
Buckstay, Interception, Huntsmans Close, Mutawathea, Shared Equity, Flash Fire and Spring Loaded.
Wokingham Draw and Pace Analysis
Is there a draw bias in big fields on the straight six furlong track at Ascot? Or is it a pace bias only?
Here's what the Geegeez Gold draw tab says about six furlong handicaps of 16 runners or more run on ground ranging from good to soft, for races since 2009.
Although there's the lack of a pulse to the right hand end of that graph, I'd be wary of over-stating things there. Firstly, it comes from very few runners; and secondly it is in stark contrast to the spike in the low 20's.
What this chart says to me is that there is very little advantage to one side over the other, or to the middle.
But... looking specifically at the four 22+ runner 6f handicaps contested on going described as between good and soft reveals that the winners were berthed in 11, 13, 15 and 19. The placed horses were drawn in 3, 6, 6, 11, 13, 15, 15, 16, 16, 16, 19, 22, 23, 23 (duplicates when there is more than one placed horse from the stall).
So it is probably fair to say that, in really big fields like the Wokingham, low may be disadvantaged.
With the ground expected to be tacky after a wet week followed by warm dry spells, it should pay to be close enough to the leaders. The below chart shows the expected pace in the race, sorted by draw.
A score of 16 means a horse has led in each of its last four UK/Irish runs. A score of 14+ means a horse is a habitual pace-presser.
In that context, we can see that the guts of the pace in this race may be right down the middle, in stalls 15 to 21. That aligns conveniently well to my previous contention about the favoured part of the draw meaning that, even if there is actually no track bias, the pace bias should see the action unfolding down the middle.
Wokingham Form Preview
Thirty-odd runners, all rated within a few pounds of each other, hurtling up the punishing straight course at Ascot: it's as tough a test of horse and rider as it is of punter, but each will be well rewarded if getting it right.
The favourite - clear favourite - is Kevin Ryan's Brando. He's a lightly raced progressive four-year-old with winning soft ground big field six furlong form. So far so good. But as a horse that has been racing over five the last twice, with enough toe to win and run second, this far stiffer test could find him out, as it has with most similar profiles in the recent past. He's easy to pass up at 6/1, and fair play if he wins.
Compare Brando's obvious credentials but less obvious shortcomings with Outback Traveller's less obvious credentials and more obvious shortcomings... Here is a horse with form of 040-070 in a hyper-competitive sprint handicap, and yet he's 10/1 second choice. Why?
Because he's trained by sprint king Robert Cowell who has plenty of Group horses from which to get a measure of this chap's ability. Because he's making only his third start for Cowell off a dangerous looking mark. Because his seven furlong form entitles him to get competitive.
But he's not for me. He's drawn away from the action in 28, though he'll get some sort of a lead off Salateen in 25. He has no form on a soft surface. And, though he has two good runs at the track, he also has three absolute clunkers. I can see why there's been some money for him, but he must be working like a Group 1 horse to be the price he is. And the race does't look to set up for him.
Flash Fire, on the other hand, is drawn in the thick of it in trap 16. He's up five pounds for a narrow beating of Mutuwathea, over seven furlongs here last month. That was on good to firm but he's run fairly well on soft previously and has scope to better his current mark. He's a big player.
The second there, Mutawathea, has a two pound pull but is drawn in stall three, away from where I believe the main action will play out. He also ran poorly on his only try on softer than good.
Although best known as an all-weather horse, Spring Loaded has won on turf too. In fact, that was his last grass race, prior to which he was second in a big field over course and distance on good to soft. The longest layoff in the field is not a worry, as outlined above, and he could run a nice race if Shane Kelly can get the splits on this versatile son of Zebedee. I quite like him, and 16/1 is fair enough.
I quite like the three-year-old Mr Lupton, too. Yes, he's won over five furlongs. But he's also won over seven, more recently, in a valuable big field sales race where the second went on to finish fifth in the Derby! More recently he's won a big field six furlong handicap, on good to soft, and he gets a nice seven pound weight for age allowance. Stall 22 should be perfect to track the perceived middle order pace, so we might see the first Classic generation Wokingham winner for almost 30 years. Mr Lupton is a non-runner.
Buckstay dances all the big field dances, and he's a fantastic stick. But he's probably not ideally suited by six furlongs, a trip over which he's run just once. That, however, was when a strong-finishing fifth in the Ayr Gold Cup. Stall one here is unlikely to support his prospects.
Last year's winner, Interception, should appreciate this drop back into handicap company having been beaten only six lengths in the Group 1 Champions Sprint last autumn. She was third in a Listed contest on her 2016 bow and David Lanigan's filly is just five pounds higher than a year ago. She flanks the centre-track pace in stall twelve and handles easy ground.
Shared Equity is a very consistent beast, having placed in twelve of his eighteen starts. He's won four, and was last seen finishing second at Epsom over this trip. He'll be one of the pace pressers low - maybe the leader there - and it will be interesting to see if he gravitates across to the middle from stall seven. He is almost certain to give backers a run for their money and is a possible each way play with firms paying extra places.
And what about old Jack Dexter? According to history, he's too old. And that might be right. But he's a heavy ground-loving six furlong specialist who was rated 114 in his pomp. A tumble down the weights to 102 gives him a squeak: from connections' perspective it's a shame the race wasn't run on Tuesday when the ground was deeper.
If you're still not sure which way to turn, below is the Instant Expert grid - a form profiling tool showing how each horse has performed historically against the race conditions - for the Wokingham. It is displaying the place form, with going set on a range from good to soft to soft, and ordered by number of places in 16+ runner fields.
Wokingham Handicap Tips
All that thinking out aloud is fine, but who is actually going to win? Good question, that.
Obviously, it's ferociously competitive and, in such a tight handicap, the key credentials will be history and happenstance.
History, as in form history - which horses have shown they can stay this far and further, can act on drying soft ground, and in a big field hurly-burly?
Happenstance, as in draw location - which horses have the pick of the positions across the track?
My contention is that the action will take place down the centre of the course. If I'm right about that, very low and very high could be compromised - not good news for Outback Traveller in 28 or Buckstay and Mutawathea in 1 and 3 respectively.
My shortlist is Interception, Spring Loaded, and Flash Fire. And I'll be backing all three. Good luck whichever way you turn - for me, this is about redemption after an absolute howler of a week.
It's not the first time I've personally struggled so badly at Royal Ascot. It's a meeting that asks punters to project which horses can improve the most rather than assessing established and settled form in the book. Moreover, unlike the spring National Hunt Festivals which close the jumps season, June is still very early in the flat term meaning many horses have yet to even hint especially at what they're capable of.
That's before you factor in this year's track conditions which have been, at best, sticky soft and, at worst and to my mind, unfathomable.
If those sound like excuses, they are! As much as I love the pageantry and the occasion of Royal Ascot, it's been punting armageddon for me more than once.
p.s. geegeez' view of the Wokingham racecard can be found here.
p.p.s. Most firms are betting five places, but Paddy are betting 1/4 SIX places. That at least makes it a BIT easier to hit the frame!
Also, if you're not currently a Betbright account holder, this is a good way to get free bets all day...