Two down, three to go, and humpback day at Royal Ascot, also known as Ladies' Day, features the centrepiece of the entire week, the Gold Cup. That stayers' Group 1 looks an excellent renewal, though wagering there - and indeed throughout the Thursday card - provides pitfalls aplenty. No matter, for on the day when lassies don their finery, rarely was it truer that faint heart never won fair maiden. So let's have a crack! We kick off in the...
2.30 Norfolk Stakes (Group 2, 5f, 2yo)
A shortish field of ten, though not hugely out of keeping with recent tradition. A few interesting patterns - let's call them trends - have emerged, as follows:
- All bar one of the last 15 winners had a pre-race RPR of at least 106. Only Vintage Brut, Konchek and Land Force fit that bill
- Six of the last ten winners were by US sires. Just Pocket Dynamo, Shang Shang Shang and Land Force tick this box
Land Force is of clear interest on this basis, then. But... he was beaten last time out, over six furlongs, and has never won at the minimum. Those are both negatives in the context of the trends. And yet I still want to be with this son of No Nay Never, the 2013 Norfolk winner. He showed good speed in the Listed Marble Stakes last time, only fading in the last furlong or so.
The other to catch my eye in a race where they'll pretty much all move forward on what they've demonstrated to date is Pocket Dynamo. The Robert Cowell-trained son of US stallion Dialed In is that sire's first British runner as far as I can tell. He was second in a Brighton maiden on debut - hardly Royal Ascot form, though the winner and third have won since - before showing more in winning a Chelmsford novice and then a quite valuable conditions race at Longchamp. He was tenacious in victory there, is more experienced than many and, with an RPR of 105, falls just one note short of ticking both my trendy boxes above. He's 20/1.
Wesley Ward's Shang Shang Shang is the favourite, and could win. In truth I don't know much about the horse, but I do know his trainer is 'only' one from six in the Norfolk, the solitary victor being the aforementioned No Nay Never. Four of his other runners were sent off bigger than NNN's 4/1 SP, with a number of them drifting notably on the day. Keep an eye on the market if you want to back this lady.
Vintage Brut and Konchek represent the Listed National Stakes form, running 1-3 there, and Racing Post consider it the best form in the race allotting them the top two RPR's. Vintage Brut had the favoured rail draw that night at Sandown, whereas Konchek was drawn wide and carried wider before rattling home. Clive Cox's colt must have a great chance to turn the tables on this fairer strip.
But I'll take Land Force and Pocket Dynamo at double digit odds against the field.
3.05 Hampton Court Stakes (Group 3, 1m 2f, 3yo)
The first of four races restricted to three-year-olds on day three is the Hampton Court Stakes. Such races are not really my thing, as I struggle to assimilate what horses have achieved with what they might be capable of doing. Today's preview will be lighter than usual on that basis, and should be taken more lightly also (unless I get all six winners, in which case I meant it, and I hope you backed them all!!)
Although only a Group 3, three of the last four winners - Cannock Chase, Hawkbill and Benbatl - went on to Group 1 glory. The other in that recent quartet, Time Test, was G1 placed on multiple occasions.
Godolphin have won the last two, and they own the early favourite for the 2018 renewal, Key Victory. A winner of his first two starts, he was beaten only three lengths in the French Derby last time. This will be his third run since the beginning of May and, if William Buick can hold a position, he should run well: the worry is that he might encounter traffic problems in this big field around the tight Ascot bends.
Charlie Appleby saddles Key Victory, and also Nordic Lights. This son of German stallion, Intello, was unraced as a juvenile and encountered defeat for the first time in the Dante Stakes at York. Disregarding the facile winner there, he was only a length and a half off second and should progress again. James Doyle rides.
Rounding out the Godolphin triumvirate is Saeed bin Suroor's National Army, who leaps up in grade after winning a novice stakes on debut at the start of the month. He beat fourteen rivals in a fair time and the second home has since bolted up in a similar race. Christophe Soumillon is an interesting jockey booking for a completely unexposed colt with a potentially good draw (if not held up).
Lots more unexposed types where your guess is as good as mine, but one other worth a quick mention is Mini P. Second in a Newbury maiden over this trip on his only start, his trainer Brian Meehan normally knows what he has and is capable of producing big priced surprises.
But, honestly, I haven't a clue.
3.40 Ribblesdale Stakes (Group 2, 1m4f, 3yo fillies)
The Ascot Oaks. Ten more unexposed three-year-olds, some of whom ran in the Oaks at Epsom and some who did not. WILD ILLUSION is the clear form pick. She was fourth in the 1000 Guineas and second in the Oaks, clear of the third there. With no Forever Together to fret about here, a repeat of that Classic run gives her daylight over her rivals that day, though it could be argued that the well beaten and re-opposing Magic Wand didn't handle the track.
Of the rest, Sir Michael Stoute's novice stakes winner, Sun Maiden, looks the main danger. She won that little race by fully twelve lengths and in a fair time. It would be no shock if this typically beautifully-bred Juddmonte filly (Frankel half-sister to multiple Group 1 winner, Midday) prevailed but 3/1 doesn't set the pulse racing.
The likes of Musidora second, Dancing Brave Bear, and Johnny G's Highgarden are interesting projects for the season, but this looks a really good chance for the twice Classic-placed Wild Illusion.
4.20 Gold Cup (Group 1, 2m4f, 4yo+)
A super race in prospect even in the absence of last year's winner, Big Orange. The field is headed by the 2016 champ, Order Of St George, pipped by Big Orange in his repeat bid last term; and last year's Queen's Vase winner, Stradivarius, who went on to beat Big Orange at Goodwood. Further spice is added to the pot by the presence of French staying superstar, Vazirabad, himself a triple Group 1 winner.
In such a race as this we need to consider more than merely the respective form credentials of the field: pace is a key component. Last year, Big Orange was gifted a lead early in the race that he never relinquished, fending off the desperate late rally of Order Of St George and Ryan Moore in the dying strides.
Order Of St George is one of those hide behind the sofa horses. He has obvious class and stamina, but he gets beaten when he probably shouldn't a little too often for comfort. Although winning eleven of the twenty stakes races in which he's competed, he's been beaten at odds on in four of them, including at 1/7. Ouch. He was a little workmanlike last time in a Listed race but that was a prep for this. He may well win and good luck if you want 7/4 about that. I do not.
Stradivarius is the other vying for market leadership. As well as the Queen's Vase and Goodwood Cup, he was a very close third in the St Leger and Long Distance Cup in a terrific three-year-old season. He looked better than ever when bolting up in the Yorkshire Cup on his seasonal bow for this campaign, and could be the champion stayer in 2018. He does have to prove his stamina for this longer trip, something which is not a given for all that he looked robust enough at the two mile range. Again, 2/1 is insufficient in what is a hot race.
Of the front three in the market, I suspect VAZIRABAD offers a little value. Alain de Royer-Dupre's six-year-old has many T-shirts for being there and doing that: he's won two G1 Prix Royal-Oak's, a G1 Prix du Cadran, and has never been out of the first two at races beyond a mile and a half. Indeed, his full form string is 6211111/117121/211112-211, which is rather spectacular when you consider that the last 18 of those 22 runs have been in Group company.
He'll be ridden patiently, but as a veteran of so many races in France he clearly has the gear change required to quicken off a pedestrian gallop. 5/1 looks a very solid each way play.
With little obvious pace in the field, it may be that Torcedor, who adopted pressing tactics in a Group 3 here last time, may again play catch me if you can. He was a nine length fifth (when waited with) behind Big Orange last year, before running up in the Long Distance Cup on Champions Day and, most recently, that five length score last time. Ascot, then, holds no fears. Nor either does fast ground, so 10/1 could be another reasonable each way play - perhaps without the favourite - about a horse whose form ties in pretty closely on a number of lines with Order Of St George.
I'm struggling to make much of a case for the rest, the pick of which might be Desert Skyline.
Really looking forward to this one!
5.00 Britannia Stakes (Class 2 handicap, 1m, 3yo)
No idea. Genuinely no idea. Winners since 2007 at 33/1, 28/1, 25/1 and 20/1 twice mean the market has no idea either. Seriously, why the hell would anyone bet in a race like this?
Crack On Crack On was a good winner last time in a big field at Haydock, and he's ridden by geegeez-sponsored jockey, David Probert. He's improving fast, like most of these. Similar comments apply to Corrosive, who is now on a four-timer after a big field course, distance and going win last time; and Richard Hughes' George Of Hearts, who steps up to a mile having not quite reached the winner over seven here last time.
Twenty-seven others worthy of mention. Where's Mr Felt Tippy's magic pen sticker when you need him?!
5.35 King George V Stakes (Class 2 Handicap, 1m4f, 3yo)
More of the same for all that there are 'only' 21 runners this time. Draw has been material: double digit stalls have bagged ten of the last dozen. Why? Not sure, but I presume because it is very difficult to lead all the way in such a big field over such a trip; and if you don't lead from a low draw, you're probably in the pocket screaming for room entering the straight.
So on that basis I've deselected half the field. Honestly, if you've got a better idea, I'm all ears...!
This has been a decent race for the top of the market, too, with two-thirds of the winners since 1997 coming from the top four in the betting.
That leaves me with Cross Counter and Baghdad.
Godolphin colts have won three of the last four renewals, so Cross Counter is your winner. Maybe.
Royal Ascot really is a super tough meeting at which to back winners, and I make no apology for being almost flippant in some of my analyses above, particular in the last two races. This is probably a sensible time to remind readers that nothing on these pages constitutes financial advice - duh!
Good luck with your Thursday wagers. I've a feeling we'll need it!