It's Royal Ascot 2019, the finest week in the flat racing calendar. Thirty conventions of the highest equine order equally divided across five days are set to appeal on levels from pure theatre through social and royal spectacle to ultimate wagering puzzles. As you've come to expect if you've been eyeballing these digipages for a while, we'll be focusing on the last named, and we start on Tuesday with the icing on the cake, three Group 1's interrupted only by a minor dip into Group 2 status.
As well as this post, you may also be interested in Andy's Royal Ascot Day 1 Trends.
2.30 Queen Anne Stakes (Group 1, 1m, 4yo+)
The Royal meeting begins with a bang. Actually, given its G1-G2-G1-G1 opening quartet of races, it begins with a two hour firework display of equine superstars. The tone is set in the very first play, the Queen Anne Stakes, a test of speed, class and stamina up the straight mile course.
The outstanding key trial for this race is the Lockinge Stakes, a race in which eleven of the Queen Anne winners this century have appeared prior to their late June success. If that's the interesting part, the fact that no fewer than eighty Lockinge runners showed up in those 19 renewals means we have to pick between a number of possibles if we elect to go down this well trodden path.
Of the eleven Queen Anne winners to run in the Lockinge this century, only four completed the Newbury-Ascot double and just one more had made the first three in that prior race; those were from 15 and 39 runners respectively, and are unappetising figures overall.
More interesting to value seekers is the subsequent showing of Lockinge also rans: those placed fourth or worse and beaten less than ten lengths won as many Queen Anne's as the top three, but from just 23 runners and for an SP profit of 41.83 points. Clearly last year's 33/1 winner, Accidental Agent, was a large factor in that; but Refuse To Bend at 12/1, No Excuse Needed at 13/2 and Haradasun at 5/1 (as well as 10/3 Paco Boy) all fitted this pattern.
This year, that would point to the chance of Romanised or Le Brivido, fourth and fifth respectively at Newbury. Le Brivido is, somehow, favourite: he won the Jersey Stakes two years ago when trained by Andre Fabre before just one more sighting for the French maestro when down the field in the 2018 Abernant Stakes, a six furlong Group 3. That didn't obviously scream mile Group 1 winner, and nor did a debut third for Aidan O'Brien (whose record in the race is only so-so) in a seven furlong Naas G3. The Newbury effort was certainly eye-catching, but a price of 4/1 is terrible value win, lose or draw.
Romanised, who didn't have a completely smooth transit in the Lockinge, is 40/1, fully ten times the price of the horse he beat by a place in that previous spin. He'd shaped encouraginly in the same Naas race as Le Brivido the time before - the first five covered by just a length and a quarter - and he'd have place prospects again here.
The winner and second from the Lockinge are of obvious interest on form. Mustashry was a ready victor, seeing it out better than Laurens, who might be expected to come on a touch more for the run. The former represents the patience of Sir Michael Stoute and, now six, his record in straight track Group races on good ground or better - I expect it to be genuinely good on the opening day - is 71131. He's 11/2 which is very fair.
Laurens, too, has straight track mile form: she won the Fillies' Mile and Sun Chariot, both Newmarket Group 1's, and has a career string of 12112182 without a turn. She's a hugely talented and consistent filly, 7/1 surely understating her chance a touch even if she has been beaten on both starts against the boys.
Away from the Lockinge form, Barney Roy returns to racing having proved a dud at stud. He showed at least some of the old zeal for this game when romping away in a Listed contest at Longchamp. The merit of that form, and his only other run since the comeback here at Ascot in a trial for this, is middling at best and those getting stuck in - his price has truncated a good bit - are taking plenty on trust. Indeed it's questionable whether a peak Barney Roy has the form to win this; personally I suspect not, but he wouldn't have much to find even if I'm right to have reservations. The price is short and that's a pass from me.
Last year's winner, Accidental Agent, was third in the Lockinge so comes here in good heart. 3rd placed runners from that race are 0 from 11 here, which is a quirky happenstance stat; but this race feels deeper than last year's renewal. He ought to give each way backers at 12/1 a run for their money but I don't quite see him being good enough to repeat, something even the likes of peak Paco Boy and Goldikova failed to do.
Of the rest, Hazapour has to step forward plenty to challenge here, though his trainer Dermot Weld rarely comes over simply to peacock in his morning suit; Lord Glitters was bashed out of sight in the Lockinge and even allowing for that being a seasonal bow and him being second in the race last year, it's a leap too far for me to back him; and Olmedo was the winner of the French 2000 Guineas last term but has been beaten all four runs since.
Dream Castle, who has been doing all his running in Dubai since January last year, wouldn't be the biggest shock: he'd have likely needed it when beaten less than two lengths in the G1 Prix d'Ispahan last time; and he was a Group 1 winner as recently as March in the Jebel Hatta at the Carnival.
I don't really see the others figuring.
Verdict: It's a field with reasonable quality and quantity whilst lacking a superstar. Mustashry, the only horse with a 120+ rating, looks over-priced at 11/2, as does Romanised at 40's, albeit in a small Hail Mary context (is it too early to be thinking about the getting out stakes?!). Plenty of others are credible: about ten of these would not be a shock to me, though are considered either less likely or poorer value or both.
3.05 Coventry Stakes (Group 2, 6f, 2yo)
The first of the week's juvenile races is one chock full of talking horses, many of whom will go on to walk the talk either here or later in the season. It's almost impossible for someone like me, who doesn't really 'do' ratings to have a handle on the respective merits of this gang, so I'll regurgitate some figures from elsewhere.
Racing Post Ratings have four horses within a pound of each other, headed by Monoski (112) and followed by a trio of 111's in Arizona, Fort Myers and Well Of Wisdom.
Topspeed has two of the talkiest of the talking horses, Guildsman and Threat, at the top of his figures pile; while our own Peter May has Threat and Well Of Wisdom clear of Guildsman and Monoski.
It is, however, a race where most will step forward on what they've achieved thus far and where it is often about trying to project which will improve the most.
Aidan O'Brien has won the Coventry a remarkable eight times since his first, Harbour Master in 1997. He saddles a quartet this time, jockey bookings suggesting that Arizona (Ryan Moore) and Fort Myers (Donnacha O'Brien) are the preferred pair. King Of Athens and Royal Lytham complete the team, only the last named of which is not by a US sire.
None of the above is helping me massively, so let's deploy a couple of statistics/trends:
- All of the last 17 winners also won last time out
- 15 of the last 17 winners returned 8/1 or shorter
That narrows it down to the first three in the market: Arizona, Threat and Guildsman.
Arizona was not given a hard time when runner up to Sunday Sovereign on debut before stepping up notably on that when storming eight lengths clear of the re-opposing King Of Athens. It's interesting that the King is in here too, presumably he's done very well since. Either that or he's a hare, if ever such a pacemaker was needed in a six furlong dash. Regardless, Arizona's performance at the Curragh last time makes him the one to beat for me.
Threat was highly impressive over the minimum at Newmarket on his sole start and is bred to get further than this six in time. His trainer has spoken of him in effusive terms though the substance of his win has yet to be truly franked.
Guildsman was green enough despite winning by six lengths at Goodwood on his debut. That was on soft ground and, reported jockey Oisin Murphy, "he wasn't doing a tap in front". The perception is that there's more to come and, if he takes the expected quicker turf in his ample stride, he should go well again.
Monoski found only the sidelined Bomb Proof too good on debut at York before hurtling away with a Pontefract conditions event on his only other run. Ponte is around a turn, though, and this looks a challenge of an altogether different type.
One who is backing up quickly is Royal Lytham, of whom the market suggested not too much was expected first time out. That didn't stop him finishing much the best to see off his odds-on stablemate and he looks the type to run on nicely in a frenetic heat such as this.
Well Of Wisdom is better than a finishing position of third in his last run suggests: he got broadsided a furlong out and was beaten a short head and a nose under hands and heels. Second there, and the offender in the barging match, was Fort Myers, but he doesn't look quite up to this.
Verdict: Somewhat out of my depth here, I won't be straying too far from the head of the market. ARIZONA looked impressive on his second try with only a smart one besting him on debut. He's an unimaginative selection but, representing the eight-time-winning Ballydoyle team, he ought to go close at least at around 5/2.
3.40 King's Stand Stakes (Group 1, 5f, 3yo+)
After that brief and fascinating hiatus, we return to Group 1 action, and 'action' is indeed the operative word. A dozen of the most rapid turf racers on the planet lock horns over the five-eighths of a mile, headed by last year's winner, Blue Point.
A year ago, he travelled well through the race before surging past his rivals in the final furlong. In second and third were Battaash and Mabs Cross, both of whom franked the form in G1 or G2 company thereafter. Blue Point himself got a little lost in two further UK runs in 2018 before rediscovering the winning knack in Meydan. There, a hat-trick of odds-on scores culminated in a comfortable victory in the million quid Al Quoz Sprint (G1) on World Cup night.
He makes his 2019 domestic debut in the King's Stand and one must assume he has recovered both from the exertions of three runs in six weeks and from the travel around the world back to Newmarket. The market vibes are strong and it is not impossible he's an improved horse this year. Most of his ratings are around the same mark, however, suggesting he is likely to run to about 120.
The question then is whether any of his rivals can better that peg.
Battaash was impressive in the Temple Stakes, a Group 2 at Haydock which he won last year en route to running up to Blue Point in the King's Stand. His best form gives him the jump on that rival but, when it's come to Group 1 company, he's tended to find one or two too good. A quote of 2/1 leaves no margin for error.
Mabs Cross is an under-rated mare: she's trained and owned by slightly unfashionable connections, but she's mighty fast. As well as taking bronze behind the aforementioned duo in the 2018 King's Stand, she was agonisingly beaten in the Nunthorpe (Blue Point and Battaash behind) and then won the G1 Prix de l'Abbaye (Battaash again behind).
This season she won the Palace House Stakes before running a little flat in the Temple Stakes (3rd behind Battaash), but that overall level of form surely does not make her a 9/1 shot.
Sergei Prokofiev is a horse I've personally found hard to catch right. He was third in the Coventry (six furlongs) last year, but has beaten just one rival in two Group 1 contests in his career to date. A two-and-a-half length fourth to Mabs Cross last time does not obviously give him that one's beating, and yet he's 6/1. Not for me and I'll suck it up if he wins.
The US raider, Imprimis, should not be taken lightly. He's got more dimensions than the typical early speed type we're used to Wesley Ward saddling; this lad, trained by Joseph Orseno, is a late runner. Indeed, he rallied very late last time to prevail in the Grade 2 Shakertown at Keeneland, a performance all the more meritorious considering he bobbled very badly at the gates and nearly came down.
Imprimis is a winning machine, coming first in seven of his nine career starts. This will be the first time the Florida resident has travelled further than Woodbine, Canada (where he failed to give his running), and it will also be the first time he's encountered a straight track. The rising five might be to his advantage actually, as he stays a little further than the minimum, but whether he's quite good enough, I'm not at all sure.
At bigger prices, Soldier's Call is interesting. Notably weak in the betting ahead of his 2019 bow at York, he hung tough for a long way before giving best in a three-way go. If he was expected to come on for the run, he'll arrive here cherry ripe and with trainer Archie Watson in terrific form with his sprinters. He ran some mighty races as a two-year-old, including when a neck third in the Abbaye in receipt of a stone weight for age.
And what about Fairyland, whose pedigree hints at sprints and yet she's been campaigned at a mile? Six might have been better than this five, but she's not without a squeak and ought to find the distance more to her liking than the two 1000 Guineas she's contested hitherto this season.
The Australian sprinter, Houtzen, is a good few pounds behind their best speedsters and, on ratings at least, a few more pounds behind the likes of Blue Point, Battaash and Mabs Cross. Of more interest, from an emotional if not a form perspective, is New Zealand's Enzo's Boy. He was 73/1 when he popped up in the Grade 1 Telegraph in January 2018, and he was 32/1 when he repeated the feat this year!
More than that, though, his trainer Michael Pitman has a desperately sad story: his son, Johnny, took his own life five years ago, aged just 28. Since that hammer blow, Pitman has been diagnosed with and beaten bowel cancer; and he's now a vocal advocate for both of these very personal causes. His horse doesn't look to have much chance in the King's Stand, though connections also plan to run in the Diamond Jubilee over six on Saturday, and you couldn't not be delighted for them if he ran a big one.
Verdict: A competitive and deep King's Stand, and one in which we could easily see last year's 1-2-3 fill the podium again. Battaash is the class of the race but doesn't always bring his A game; likewise Blue Point who is not far behind the favourite on form and was flying when last seen in Dubai. The faster they go the better it will suit Mabs Cross and I think, at the prices, she's the bet each way at 9/1. The likes of Imprimis and Soldier's Call are interesting supporting actors in what is a compelling puzzle.
4.20 St James's Palace Stakes (Group 1, 1m, 3yo)
The highlight of day one, as if that opening trio were not highlights enough, is the one mile Group 1 St James's Palace Stakes. It is the traditional convergence of the 2000 Guineas form lines, this year represented by Phoenix Of Spain, Too Darn Hot and Skardu (Irish); Shaman (French); and Fox Champion (German). Newmarket also-ran Royal Marine looks a token player from that race.
Favoured after his unambiguous Irish success is Phoenix Of Spain, who was all of three lengths too darn good for Too Darn Hot at the Curragh. On that run it is very hard to see the latter reversing form. But... John Gosden, a man who gets little wrong when it comes to training and campaigning his blue bloods, has conceded that he's rather horlicksed TDH's Classic campaign thus far.
Having missed the 2000 Guineas due to an unsatisfactory preparation, last year's champion two-year-old was rushed to the Dante where, ostensibly, he didn't quite stay the ten and a half furlong trip. Whether that's correct or not, he probably had a hard enough race, so travelling to Ireland just nine days later for the Curragh Guineas was somewhere on the brave-foolhardy continuum.
Three and a half weeks have passed and here we are again: no travel involved this time and a little more space since those two draining spins. Too Darn Hot had two verdicts over Phoenix Of Spain as a juvenile and, while it's possible the Irish 2000 Guineas winner has improved while the second there has stood still - regressed, actually, according to official figures - that last bit seems unlikely.
That's a rather verbose way of saying I think there are sound reasons to believe that the tables will be turned here and that Too Darn Hot will come out on top.
Gosden also saddles King Of Comedy, a later bloomer than his stablemate. The son of Kingman has looked impressive and progressive, albeit in less capable company, in a pair of wins this season most recently when strolling away with the Listed Heron Stakes at Sandown. He has that 'could be anything' tag, and Sandown's right-hand oval with an uphill finish wouldn't be a million miles away from the course and distance traversed here. But this lad is a bit of a moody so and so, and could conceivably boil over a touch in the preliminaries. He has an ascendant form profile but I've reservations about his temperament; and that, allied to needing to find maybe ten pounds improvement, is a no.
French raider, Shaman, may be a little over-priced from an each-way perspective at around 12/1. His second in their 2000 Guineas behind Persian King was achieved on heavy, but this Shamardal colt had previously prevailed on the anticipated good ground. He is expected to race prominently and can get first run on better-fancied contenders. Whether he's good enough to fend them off is another question entirely but, given the run of the race, he could make the frame.
Both Circus Maximus and Skardu arrive here after disappointing in Classics - the Derby and Irish 2000 Guineas respectively - and both look a little short of the standard in what is a deep renewal. Like the Queen Anne, what the St. James's Palace maybe lacks in terms of a superstar it makes up for in breadth of quality. And, of course, the real Too Darn Hot may step forward.
Verdict: This looks the moment when TOO DARN HOT shows his true colours. An outstanding juvenile last season, he's had legit excuses the first twice this term. Whilst going to the well a third time in a little over a month is a big ask, I feel he ought to be able to trade places with Phoenix Of Spain, making 5/2 reasonable. Of the bigger prices, Shaman could be well positioned to nick a place and 12/1 is faintly appealing in that context.
5.00 Ascot Stakes (Class 2 handicap, 2m 4f, 4yo+)
Twenty older horses, many of them used to a tweedy parade ring rather than one full of toppers and tails, and the first of the week's near impossible handicap puzzles. A trend may be our friend in the circumstances, so here are three:
14 of the last 17 were won by a predominantly National Hunt stable, including the last nine
The last five winners were all Irish-trained (three by Willie Mullins)
The best win and place strike rates were achieved by horses returning from an absence of 14-60 days
That leaves six, and I'm happy to lob the old boys, Snow Falcon and Arctic Fire. Four on the shortlist then, as follows:
Mengli Khan, Kerosin, Batts Rock and Buildmeupbuttercup.
Let's start with the last named, trained by that man Willie and his only runner in the race this year. Three flat runs for Mick Channon yielded little in the way of joy, a Listed race fourth followed by two last place finishes in Group 3 and Listed company. Those followed a more promising career in bumpers, where the mare won two and was fifth in the Grade 2 mares' bumper at the Grand National meeting last year.
After the third of her flat runs she was transferred to Mullins where she promptly won a maiden hurdle from a huge field before running poorly in four attempts at Graded company. Whilst it is impossible to ignore her trainer's record in the race, and the fact she gets Ryan Moore's encouragement from the saddle, she is a horrible price at around 4/1 given her recent form and the balance of her flat history. Clearly she'd not be a shock winner but I'm still looking for my wager.
Gordon Elliott has come to play, and he saddles both Batts Rock and Mengli Khan. Batts Rock's flat form has been mostly at a mile and a half but his most recent hurdle start was around this trip and he improved for it, albeit in a Downpatrick maiden hurdle! Frankie Dettori is an interesting jockey booking for an experienced horse who won two on the level last summer, including a Curragh handicap.
Mengli Khan was a good flat horse for Hugo Palmer before being sold to Gigginstown and becoming a very good hurdler. The son of Lope De Vega, out of a Danehill mare, is beautifully bred for the flat game and yet has managed to make the frame in Grade 1 company at the last two Cheltenham Festivals. Drawn in two, Rory Cleary will have to be careful not to get boxed up on the rail, but Mengli's prominent run style can help him out of trouble. He should probably be favourite, in my view, so 6/1 is all right.
Kerosin represents the shrewd Denis Hogan yard, who has infamously been asked by the BHA about running style plans for three of his recent UK entries. There should be no such questions here, with Oisin Murphy's mount set to track the pace from a single figure draw. Winner of a Navan two mile handicap last time out, he comes over in form and with a couple of pounds in hand of his peak flat rating. Again, he'd not be a shock winner.
Of the UK contingent, Coeur De Lion was less than five lengths behind the winner last year but is two pounds higher now; Time To Study has dropped a long way in the handicap and this might have been the plan; and Jukebox Jive, formerly trained by Anthony Honeyball, makes his debut for Jamie Osborne, a man who does extremely well with debutants after a yard switch.
Verdict: Impossible as it is supposed to be. Mengli Khan has an obvious chance and 6/1 is not ungenerous. And perhaps one of Time To Study (22/1) or Jukebox Jive (40/1) will offer some excitement for windmill tilters. Get as many extra places as you can!
5.35 Wolferton Stakes (Listed, 1m2f, 4yo+)
The Wolferton is no longer a handicap as of last year, but it remains a challenging puzzle.
The most interesting runner in the field is arguably last year's Irish Derby winner, Latrobe, who was second in both the Irish St Leger and the McKinnon Stakes - Group/Grade 1's the pair - last backend. Rated 113, he is the class of the field and it is a surprise to me that he's not nearly favourite.
Elarqam is favourite after an impressive win in Listed company at Goodwood last month. He's capable of better but needs to be to concede three pounds to Joseph O'Brien's runner.
Magic Wand is a little more playable on her run behind Bricks And Mortar in the Pegasus Turf Invitational. Ten furlongs looks like her trip and I can see her being sent off market leader.
Willie Mullins runs Riven Light, another of the globetrotters in the field. He all but won a class and distance contest at the Curragh last time and has some decent form from his travels. Overall he's a little inconsistent, however, which tempers enthusiasm.
John Gosden won this three times when it was a handicap, most recently in 2015, so his Star Of Bengal, stepping up from handicaps on the all weather, cannot be completely discounted.
A number of others with some sort of a case to be made.
Verdict: There is a horse in here with back class galore, and we don't even have to look that far into the past to find it. Sure, last year's Irish Derby was a weak heat, but LATROBE supplemented that effort with silver in both the Irish Leger and an Australian Group 1 in the autumn. A little slow in coming to hand this spring after travelling around the world late last year, he showed signs of a return to form late in a Group 2 in early May. 9/1 is a very playable each way bet on a horse who should be in the van from stall two.