Day 4, Friday, at Royal Ascot offers another six chances for redemption, wagering glory, or simply to watch the finest thoroughbreds in the land do what they do best. As is the new custom, we begin with a two-year-old race, the...
2.30 Albany Stakes (Group 3, 6f, 2yo fillies)
Six furlongs this time, and fillies only, in the Albany Stakes, a Group 3. A big field of 18 has assembled where many will fail to see out the three-quarter mile trip, and many more will simply be not nearly good enough. One who will stay and who looks good enough is Fairyland, a rare Aidan O'Brien runner not running in the Coolmore silks (though she is, of course, a Coolmore-owned filly).
By Kodiac, a strong influence for speed, Fairyland was much the best in a Curragh Listed race over distance and going. She was good enough to win first time up this season, too, something only three of 26 have been able to do for the yard in 2018. The other two to achieve that are So Perfect (close up fourth in the Queen Mary on Wednesday) and Just Wonderful, who lines up here and is the choice of Ryan Moore.
Moore rode both fillies on debut but it was Seamie Heffernan who rode Fairyland to that Marble Hill success last time, and it may be that he keeps the ride rather than Ryan had the pick. That is, obviously I hope, so much guesswork on my part. At any rate, Ballydoyle have the top of the market between them, and I slightly favour the greater experience and level of form of Fairyland over the deeper potential of Just Wonderful.
In opposition are a number of unbeaten fillies, including the Mark Johnston-trained Main Edition. She has been impressive in winning a brace of novice events by more than three lengths each time, and on ground ranging from soft through to good to firm.
Wesley Ward runs Stillwater Cove, winner of her only start in America. She was all out to hang on over four and a half furlongs there, and though she is bred for this extra 33% range, Ward's record in the race stands at 0 from 7 (1 place). Indeed Ward's record at Royal Ascot in six furlong juvenile races reads 0 from 10, one place. Now that's not a sample upon which to hang a man, but set next to his five furlong record (7 from 25, including Shang Shang Shang yesterday) it is pause for thought.
Of more interest in the overseas raider department may be the French brigade of Reponse Exacte, Byron Bay, and No More Regrets.
It was Matthieu Palussiere's Different League who prevailed in the Albany last term, at 20/1, and he saddles No More Regrets this time. Bought on Monday by the Leicester City owner for £130,000 after running second in an Italian Listed contest, this lass doesn't look to have that one's class, though it is a bit of a guess that that's the case.
Reponse Exacte hacked up in a little race in France last week and is turned out quickly here. That rapid return didn't stop Calyx winning the Coventry on Tuesday, and at 33/1 she is the sort of blind pennies guess I like in a race like this. She was bought at the breeze up sale in May so had clearly done a fair bit of work already.
The other Frenchie is Byron Bay, winner of a six furlong Chantilly maiden in May. She was more patiently ridden than Reponse Exacte but pulled right away by the finish and it might be that that is a more appropriate run style for this big field straight six. It's somewhat irrelevant inasmuch as we're very much in stab in the dark territory, but again 33/1 is worth a quid, maybe two. That boy Barzalona rides.
Not a race about which to be confident.
3.05 King Edward VII Stakes (Group 2, 1m4f, 3yo colts & geldings)
The Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival has acquired the monicker, "the potato race", but perhaps this one - the King Edward VII Stakes - is more befitting of such root vegetable likenesses. Fripperies aside, I have no idea which of these lightly raced improvers might claim primacy in the 'Ascot Derby'. [No, I definitely prefer 'the potato race'!]
What I do know is that outsiders don't win it: 12/1 Eagle Top was the biggest priced victor in more than twenty years; and the first three in the betting have won 16 of the last 21, with nine jollies obliging (43%, +10.25).
The jolly is Delano Roosevelt, sixth in Masar's Derby. He has some good form, but it is shy of top class so, in spite of history, I'm looking further afield, though not much further.
It is the Johnny G-Frankie D axis, teaming up here with the China Horse Club's Raa Atoll, which draws the eye. Second to Nordic Lights on debut, he has won both starts since, most recently when sauntering clear of an equally well-fancied stablemate in a Leicester novice. There were four and more lengths to the rest that day with only the fifth and sixth having run since: the fifth won, and the sixth ran third in a similar race.
Gosden has had three winners of this race, in 2005, 2011, and 2014, and another seven placed, from 18 starters since 2000. His record since 2010 reads 21312(83)(52), the brackets denoting two runners in each of the last two years. With no runner in 2013, that means JHG has hit the board in every King Eddy in which he's been represented since 2010. That's good enough for me.
3.40 Commonwealth Cup (Group 1, 6f, 3yo)
This new race is turning out to be an inspired decision. Not only has it produced some scintillating winners - my favourite was undoubtedly Muhaarar in the inaugural running - it has also invigorated the entire three-year-old sprinting division, and added value and fashion to such pedigrees in the breeding sheds. Nice job.
Muhaarar was also the toughest winner of the three thus far to find. His 10/1 starting price looks wild next to Quiet Reflection's 7/4 and Caravaggio's 5/6; and it has been a feature of the race to date that the market has a solid handle on the best horses. Last year, the first three in the betting were the first three home.
It's a bigger field this time, and seemingly a more open contest, and yet still the pair of Equilateral and Sioux Nation at the head of the market stand out. Equilateral had the stopwatch hounds barking after winning a Doncaster novice by eight lengths last month; he lacks the experience and proven class of some of these but that was obviously a massive effort and puts him right in the frame.
SIOUX NATION by contrast has the top level form: he won the G2 Norfolk Stakes at the Royal meeting last season, following that up with success in the Group 1 Phoenix Stakes (six furlongs, good to firm). Beaten twice on the soft side of good after that, he bounced back on his second and most recent run of the current campaign with a Group 3 win (six furlongs, good to firm).
The feeling is that he needs fast ground - his form is 2111 when hooves have rattled, the wins coming in G1, G2 and G3 company. Sioux Nation is drawn wide apart from Equilateral, and looks to have the speed horses in his part of the track. That ought to provide some tension to the race pace elastic band, if you see what I mean, and allow Ryan Moore's mount to find his stride and surge through, as is his wont.
There should again be little between Sands Of Mali and Invincible Army, but if you want one at a price with which to take a chance, then perhaps Clive Cox's Heartache, winner of the Queen Mary at this meeting last year, is too big at 25/1. Sure, she flopped on debut this season, and yes, she may be better at five than six; but that was her 2018 bow, for which she's entitled to improve, and it was her first attempt at six. It is far too early to say she hasn't trained on, and Clive Cox can boast four Royal Ascot Pattern race sprint winners and four more places.
A terrific race in prospect.
4.20 Coronation Stakes (Group 1, 1m, 3yo fillies)
Another cracking race for the top of the market, it has often been the next stopping off point for the 1000 (and/or Irish 1000) Guineas winner, as it was for Winter who last season snaffled all three of those Group 1 pots.
So it is that the winners of those two Guineas, Billesdon Brook and Alpha Centauri, lock horns with the Newmarket victor offered at twice the price of her Irish counterpart. Throw in the French 1000 Guineas winner, Teppal, for good measure, and we have a worthy gathering of the clans.
Alpha Centauri came closest to arresting Different League's run for glory in the Albany last year before showing that she's a miler through and through by barreling her way home late in the Curragh Classic. Decent ground looks the key to her, on which surface she's 1121, compared with 50 on softer. Conditions are favourable then, but with her Classic formline open to question (though the 2nd there was 3rd in the Jersey Stakes) and at odds of around 3/1 the value must lie elsewhere.
Billesdon Brook was under-rated for the 1000 Guineas - she was sent off at 66/1! - but that doesn't look a fluke, with the second filly, Laurens, now a dual Group 1 winner in France; the third home, Happily, a dual G1 winner last year and thrice Classic placed this term; and four placed Wild Illusion subsequently second in the Oaks and claiming the same position in the Ribblesdale here yesterday. In short, her form is rock solid IF she can run to that level again. Sean Levey may need some luck in running if riding her patiently but she seems over-priced on what she, and the fillies around her, has done. She has a similar profile to 2013 1000 Guineas/Coronation Stakes winner, Sky Lantern, from the same stable.
The first two from the Poule d'Essai des Pouliches - French 1000 Guineas - reacquaint themselves here, David Simcock's Qatari-owned Teppal having shaded the verdict from the Japanese-owned Coeur de Beaute. Simcock's runner is less exposed, and is unbeaten, so looks likely to prevail once more, though it is hard to assimilate that form against the domestics. That said, it is worth noting that the 2015 and 2016 winners emerged from the Pouliches.
The cat amongst the pigeons is Clemmie. She was disappointing in the Irish 1000 Guineas, trailing home ninth. That was her first attempt at beyond six furlongs and, while she's a daughter of Galileo and sister to Churchill, she is out of a five furlong winner and may just be a sprinter plain and simple. She wasn't given a hard time at the Curragh and will improve for the outing, and the evidence is far from damning that she's a non-stayer... but at 7/2 she's a pass.
There are others in the field to have declined the Classic route thus far, but we have to go back six years to find a shunner of the bright lights who tripped it fantastic in the Coronation.
5.00 Sandringham Handicap (Class 2, 1m, 3yo fillies)
24 fillies, three-year-olds all, hurtling up the straight mile. I only hope that my life won't ever depend on finding the winner in such a race. Despite the perennially bumper turnout, horses priced at single figures have won nine of the last 13, and no winner for at least 20 years has been returned bigger than the 20/1 about Con Te Partiro last term. That Wes winner, tipped in these pages, was as welcome as it was surprising.
Handicap debutants have won ten times since 1997, but those 48% of the winners have come from 57% of the runners, and the percentage play value wise is look for those with a couple of handicap runs under their belts. Such experienced fillies may 'only' have won five of the last 20 Sandringham's, but they have achieved that from just 12% of the runners (5/43), and they have a better place strike rate: 28% compared with 20% for 'cap debs (and 'cap second timers).
One to fit this, granted potentially shoehorned, bill is Charlie Appleby's Dathanna. A winner of four of her last five starts - second on heavy in between - she's clearly progressive and experienced, and has run in - and won - a couple of conditions races since her brace of handicap runs as a juvenile. The daughter of Dubawi made all over course and distance last time, though that was on soft ground: indeed, apart from the obvious 'is she good enough?' question, the only other unanswered niggle is 'will the ground be too firm?' - in the circumstances, she's playable at 10/1.
The other checker of the two handicaps box is Wisdom Mind, Joseph O'Brien's filly currently a 25/1 play. She would be a longer priced winner than any for two decades as things stand, but there's a fair chance she shortens between now and post time - and in any case her price won't stop her winning if she's good enough!
Wisdom Mind sneaks in towards the foot of the weights, a perch of 85 having been unmoved for a third consecutive race. She's six pounds better off for a two length beating by Hence two back, and had terrible luck in running last time. She's certainly interesting at a price.
Ryan Moore rides Hence. I don't especially like backing Aidan O'Brien runners in handicaps, though they have won twice at the Royal meeting - Sir Isaac Newton and War Envoy in case you were wondering - and I'll let him/them beat me again this time.
In summary, there is a good chance a handicap debutante wins the Sandringham for an 11th time in the last 22 years. But trying to establish which of the 15 fillies (63% of the field) that might be is much too tricky. So I'll take a couple of more experienced guesses against the dark horses.
5.35 Duke Of Edinburgh Stakes (Class 2 handicap, 1m4f, 3yo+)
22 runners and nigh on impossible stuff. Ostensibly at least. Plenty of shorties have got it done in recent seasons, mind, and the high draw looks seriously advantageous: since the track was re-layed in 2006, eleven of the twelve winners emerged from a double digit stall, the last three winners coming from 21, 19, 19.
High draw, fancied runner then? Thundering Blue is the answer to that two-part request. David Menuisier's big improver was a highly impressive winner at York last time, but he'll need plenty of luck with his late running style.
Appeared, similarly highly drawn and almost as well fancied, has a more prominent run style. Roger Varian trains and Andrea Atzeni rides this six-year-old son of Dubawi. Second in the race last year from stall 18 and a mark of 101, he now exits stall 19 off a mark of 103. This will have been the target, he's gone well fresh before, including when winning a course and distance (good to firm) handicap first up last season. He'll do.
You want to be out in the clear in this race, jockeys in behind frequently made to look a lot worse than they are by the configuration of the course. Three wide three back is way better than on the rail two back generally speaking.
p.s. it is traditional for there to be no Saturday Ascot preview, a tradition that will continue to be upheld this year. You may very well be glad of that by 5.45 or so on Friday afternoon! Hopefully these posts have provided some insights and entertainment, if nothing else. Of course, hopefully they've nailed a good winner or two as well, but you don't need me to tell you that this is a meeting where it is generally way better to be lucky than good. At least, that's how I view it...