Royal Ascot 2021: Day 1 Preview, Tips
More normal than the 2020 edition, but still not quite normal: that's the best way to view Royal Ascot 2021, a mid- to post-pandemic shot in the arm for British racing and its legion fans. Although no more than 12,000 of those supporters will be able to attend each day, the rest of us will be well served on the box courtesy of ITV and AtTheRaces.
The new normal for Royal Ascot is a quintet of seven race cards, thus 30 becomes 35 through the week. Mostly these additions are handicaps, some of which we saw last year and very few of which ought to meaningfully dilute the quality on show.
As an over-arching principle with Royal Ascot, we are trying to project forwards: most of the runners will have not yet reached the ceiling of their ability and gauging who might progress the most - as well as quantifying what has already been achieved on the basis of scant formbook evidence - is the order of the week. In other words, it's tricky old stuff.
Brevity has not historically been my strong point when previewing big meetings but I shall attempt to keep these daily (Tuesday to Friday, help yourself on Saturday) outlines to 4000 words if possible. Best get to it then...
2.30 Queen Anne Stakes (1m, Group 1, 4yo+)
A return to the traditional start time and a reinstatement of the traditional curtain-raiser, the Queen Anne Stakes, a straight track mile Group 1 that has produced a couple of surprise results recently but is normally a procession of sorts for a well-fancied thoroughbred.
Accidental Agent in 2018 and, to a lesser extent, Lord Glitters in 2019 were hard to come by - for me at least; either side, though, were 14 victors sent off 15/2 or shorter stretching back to 2005's Royal Ascot at York.
It looks chalky again this time around, as the magnificent miler Palace Pier heads the lists. The four-year-old son of Kingman has won seven of his eight career starts, the last five of which at this trip, and on a range of going from all weather to soft to good/firm. Most of his top class efforts have been with some ease in the ground, a point which is one of only a couple of slight niggles in a very strong overall profile.
The other is Ascot's straight mile. True, Palace Pier won on a stiff straight mile at Newcastle, but that was in a 0-100 handicap. And he beat a high class field in the Prix Jacques Le Marois on Deauville's slightly easier straight piste where he benefited from a very well judged ride from Frankie. Sectionals provided by McLloyd reveal he slowed markedly in the final furlong there, but less so than his rivals. And he was beaten up the Ascot straight mile in the QEII on Champions Day on very soft ground.
On ratings, he's five pounds clear of his nearest rival, Order Of Australia. That one recorded his career top in the Breeders' Cup Mile, around Keeneland's tight inner oval and when sent off at 40/1. It was rattling fast there, which it might be here, but this is a straight mile and OOA doesn't have another piece of form within half a stone of that BC Mile effort.
Lope Y Fernandez is eight pounds inferior to the Pier on his best: on my book he's probably a seven furlong Group 2 horse. This testing mile, which I believe rides more like nine furlongs, should be beyond his stamina range.
Because of the tightness of the favourite and vincibility of his closest market rivals, it does look an each way, and especially a 'without the favourite' sort of race. In the latter context, I offer Lord Glitters. Winner in 2019 having been second in 2018, the passage of time is against him a touch but he was a Group 1 winner in Dubai as recently as March. Never nearer than his final position of fourth on domestic seasonal debut in the G1 Lockinge, he'll have been primed for this (as will most of the rest, in truth) and 8/1 without Palace Pier looks a bet.
Queen Anne Stakes tips
For all that I've tried to make a case against PALACE PIER, he looks very hard to beat. And I expect he'll win. This is a great 'without the favourite' race because I'm not sold on the virtue of either of the O'Brien entries and it's 20/1 bar the aforementioned trio in the main market. In that context, Lord Glitters looks a very credible each way without the fav bet at 8/1.
3.05 Coventry Stakes (6f, Group 2, 2yo)
This is a race that perfectly epitomises the guesswork required around a sizable field of nascent racers. It, like most Royal Ascot contests, doesn't especially play to my profiling strengths, though there are always 'ins' one way or another.
The market is headed by Wesley Ward's US raider, Kaufymaker. I can't find a tape of her race but it must be significant that WW pitches her in against the colts rather than going Albany or Queen Mary. There are some youtube videos of her working at Keeneland, and she is a typically big Ward juvenile: she won't be fazed by the colts. Whether she's good enough, who knows? Trainer pointers suggest she's good and Ward is quoted as saying she has a very long stride - which can be seen in the video. Ascot's straight six will test her stamina also, a test that all of her handler's juveniles have so far failed at Ascot. The table below shows two-year-old Wesley wunners (sorry) by wace (really sorry) distance. Wascal wabbit.
It's not a massive sample by any manner of means but it is pretty one-sided as far as it goes. It's enough for me to look elsewhere. But where exactly?
The ratings guys and gals are all over Ebro River, the quirky but talented slow-starter and fast-finisher. He rocketed by his field in the five furlong National Stakes at Sandown last time, that Listed contest run on soft ground. But he's a stressy horse so, while I think he can get the extra eighth I worry his temperament might prove his undoing. Loads of ability.
Gisburn is another to consider having waltzed more than six lengths clear of his Newbury novice field last time. That form may be only okay in behind but he could have hardly been more impressive.
The problem with Ebro River and Gisburn, and also with Irish raiders Masseto and The Acropolis, is that their form to date has been achieved on a soft surface. That, naturally, does not mean they cannot perform as well on a fast track, nor even that they won't improve for it; but it does mean we're in the dark about that element of the conundrum. Angel Bleu is another who fits this category.
Two who are unbeaten in one, both representing the Gosdens, are Dhabab and Tolstoy. The former, a £200,000 breeze up purchase in late April, repaid a sliver of his purchase price on the first day of this month when surging two lengths clear in a Leicester novice, finishing off well. He's sure to improve again - as are most of his rivals - and a straight six clearly holds no terrors.
Tolstoy, by Kingman out of a Frankel mare, and a home bred colt for Sir Robert Ogden, was less eye-catching in getting up late at Yarmouth. But that was a very steadily run contest where he overcame greenness and earned a huge sectional upgrade from us. Gosden runners typically improve a chunk from first to second start and debut winners are normally worth following throughout their careers; as such, this pair are interesting.
Coventry Stakes tips
Very hard. Kaufymaker has to defy Wesley's historical tendency towards five-furlong winners, and beat the colts in the process. Most of the rest of the top of the market are unproven on very fast turf, which makes it speculator territory for me. 17/2 Dhabab has achieved a little more than 12/1 stable mate Tolstoy, but he will have been well tuned by Mocklershill ahead of his mid-April breeze and so may have slightly less progression than his colleague. They are both playable.
3.40 King's Stand Stakes (5f, Group 1, 3yo+)
Always a brilliant race to watch, the King's Stand is a fast five contested by the best speedsters in Britain, and some of the best from further afield. There is, happily, a little more form with which to work this time.
Battaash stands above his rivals on ratings, and is the reigning champ, unbeaten in three in 2020. But he comes here off a fracture injury which required an operation and a pin in a joint. Again, we're into the unknown in terms of how that will affect him especially on very fast ground. If he's the same model as last year he'll very likely win, and after timers may be crowing about getting close to 2/1 about such an obviously brilliant sprinter.
But it's quite a big if for me, especially with a progressive three-year-old in the line up who could have more to offer: something she will need if the jolly's A game is on display. Cue Winter Power, the apple of Tim Easterby's eye and a winner of five of her eight turf starts though not yet above Group 3 level. She was a huge improver as a juvenile, stepping from a mark of 76 on handicap debut (where she won by five lengths on good to firm) to her current 114 official peg. That leaves her nine pounds to find with the favourite but joint third top against the rest of the field. As I say, if Battaash is himself he probably wins; if not, it's up for grabs.
The other two obvious alternatives are Oxted and Extravagant Kid. Oxted enjoyed an annus mirabilis last year and gave trainer Roger Teal a dream time of things. But the five-year-old has not quite been at the same level thus far in 2021. He has run well on his two UK starts this term when placed in minor Group races at Newmarket and York but it might be Newmarket, his favourite stamping ground, in July when we see the best of him.
Brendan Walsh, an Irishman training in America, brings his globetrotting star, Extravagant Kid, a winner of the Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint on Dubai World Cup night in March. As an eight-year-old veteran of fifty - count 'em! - races, he's recently been a regular bridesmaid having run second in five of his seven starts since September last year. The exceptions were when fourth in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint behind Glass Slippers, and that Meydan G1. Acklam Express, himself a fast horse but not considered a Group 1 sprinter hitherto, was just three-quarters of a length back in third on World Cup night and that, for me, anchors the form a touch. Their prices are 10/1 and 33/1 and I leave it to you to discern where, if anywhere, the value lies.
Liberty Beach is a bit of a heart-breaker, usually running well but in defeat. That was the case when she was third to Battaash in this last year, and when fourth in the Albany Stakes the year before. We're then into the realms of horses with a stone and more to find with an on-song favourite. That's a bridge too far.
There looks to be a ton of speed in the field, which is not hugely surprising but could set things up for a later runner.
King's Stand Stakes Tips
If the Battaash of last year shows up, he will win. But there are reasons to believe he may not, the key one being that injury and subsequent convalescence. But it's also worth remembering that his prior Ascot record, when crowds were in situ, was unconvincing. Running up to Blue Point twice was hardly poor form but it was good form in defeat. 7/4 doesn't quite accommodate those reservations in my view.
This might be the time for Winter Power to bloom into a Group 1 sprinter for all that she has a bit to find in order to do that. This will be only her second start as a three-year-old. Or perhaps Oxted will show he can win Group races away from HQ. He was only a length behind Glen Shiel on soft ground in the G1 British Champions' Sprint in October and, if returning to his best, he will be bang there. Extravagant Kid is normally on the premises and there are no clear reasons why that will not again be the case.
A no bet race for me because of the if's and but's about the jolly and very few plausible rivals at the top of the market; and most of the rest miles out of their ground in known ability terms.
4.20 St James's Palace Stakes (1m, Group 1, 3yo)
To the round course for this mile Group 1 and a traditional crossing of swords between the major Guineas protagonists. And it's a wide open contest featuring the English Guineas winner Poetic Flare against a raft of unexposed rivals many of which avoided the early Classics. Indeed, Poetic Flare incredibly ran in all three of the English, French and Irish 2000 Guineas, running 162 respectively!
He got no luck in the run in France behind St Mark's Basilica, who himself sidestepped this in favour of the Prix du Jockey Club (which he won), and was only beaten a chin in the Irish version - to his stable mate, Mac Swiney. That's very solid form indeed whichever way you cut it. The negatives? Four runs in the space of six and a bit weeks, and a fifth run since 11th April; and the phalanx of upwardly mobile rivals from major yards. It is nearly four weeks since his most recent race so perhaps he's ready to go again; he's certainly able enough.
What of the remainder? Many chances.
First on the list is the Gosdens' Mostahdaf, unraced at two and unbeaten at three. That trio comprised a Newcastle novice, a Kempton conditions race and most recently the Listed Heron Stakes at Sandown. Clearly that form is a beat and three-quarters behind PF, but it is interesting to note that Gosden senior pivoted from Heron to St James's Palace with the 2018 winner Without Parole and the 2019 second, King Of Comedy. A front runner drawn stall 1, but with three Ballydoyle entries in 2, 3 and 4, he may be tactically compromised but will get first run if good enough.
Mostahdaf has so far run only on slow surfaces - standard to slow both AW starts and soft at Sandown - so the terra firmer has to be taken on trust. The trainer's modus operandi is fully taken on trust.
Battleground is in here too. The product of a union between War Front and Found was sent off favourite in the Guineas but trailed home a too-bad-to-be-true last-but-one (ah, hyphens). He'll strip fitter and can be expected to get a lot closer than the last day to Poetic Flare. It's worth noting he won the Chesham last season at the Royal meeting.
Godolphin are represented by Highland Avenue and La Barrosa, perhaps principally the former. That first named has form tied in closely with Mostahdaf, not least when running to within a half length of the Gosden colt at Sandown. He's previously won the Listed Feilden Stakes over a furlong further and on ground a step quicker than the Heron, so has fewer questions to answer for all that his form is a crotchet below his last day conqueror. He'll stay well if it's strongly run.
La Barrosa looked a colt to follow when edged out by a stablemate in the Craven but fluffed his lines having travelled strongly in the Irish 2000. It's possible he didn't handle the very soft ground there - all previous efforts were on good or faster, including a 7f Ascot debut score - and, if so, he might come into the reckoning. But he has to improve a fair chunk on form as well. Not out of the question.
Lucky Vega was a talented - Group 1 winning and placing - juvenile last term, and has run 34 in the English and Irish 2000 Guineas so far this campaign. His wide draw feels like it should be a negative but historically has not been as can be seen below.
A truly run race where he can tack across and finish well might be just what jockey Shane Foley and trainer Jessica Harrington are after.
The one horse to finish behind Battleground at Newmarket was Thunder Moon, previously third to St Mark's Basilica in the Dewhurst on his final two-year-old run. That form puts him in with a squeak at a playable price.
Wembley was the meat in the St Mark-Thunder Moon Dewhurst sandwich but he's clunked twice since and is running out of excuses.
And still there are more, such as 2000 Guineas fifth, Chindit, and facile handicap scorer Naamoos amongst others.
St James's Palace Stakes tips
It's another fascinating contest. Clear form pick is 4/1 Poetic Flare, but they will be queuing up to take him down. In what might be a fast run affair, the likes of 15/2 Lucky Vega and 10/1 Thunder Moon are interesting for different reasons. But I'm keeping my powder largely dry, small bits on the above aside.
5.00 Ascot Stakes (2m4f, Class 2 handicap, 4yo+)
The first handicap of the week is the two and a half mile Ascot Stakes for older horses. Willie Mullins and Ryan Moore are normally the team, the duo combining six times for three wins and two further places. M C Muldoon is the one this time, not sighted on the flat since October 2018, but in decent form over hurdles this spring.
The fact that Moore will likely have had the pick of the Mullins trio and has opted for this guy is a big clue. The rest is, as with others up the page, taken on trust.
The Irish are responsible for the next two in the betting, both trained by Mullins': Cape Gentleman for Emmet and Rayapour for Willie. The latter is a French import whose form was all on a softer surface. On his first start for Closutton he was sent off 4/6 for a maiden hurdle and, after a two year break, faded into third late on.
Cape Gentleman is more obvious: A Grade 2 hurdle winner at Kempton two back, he'd previously bolted up in the Irish Cesarewitch on soft ground. Quicker is again a reservation.
Royal Illusion is the third Willie Mullins entry: he looks a touch more exposed.
At each way prices, Rochester House ran better than his finishing position in the Chester Cup last time (horror draw) and was fifth in this last year as well as second in the Goodwood Handicap over 2m5f. And Just Hubert won that latter race, is only four pounds higher now, and handles fast ground. Last year's winner, Coeur De Lion, was fifth and sixth in the two previous renewals so clearly handles conditions though he's crept up in the weights a little.
Lots more with chances, natch.
Ascot Stakes tips
Very open and I'll probably be annoyed that Willie Mullins wins it with a horse with impenetrable or no relevant form. Annoyed mainly because I'll have backed something else. My something elses will primarily be 10/1 Cape Gentleman and I'll roll each way with 18/1 Rochester House with a few extra places (seven with Sky, 20/1 five places elsewhere).
5.35 Wolferton Stakes (1m2f, Listed, 4yo+)
Still two to go in the new expanded format and Tuesday's penultimate is the Wolferton. The top three in the betting are a combined 7 from 60 over the past 20 years which encourages the quest for a longer price. John Gosden has the best record with four winners from a dozen runners since 2009.
With his son he saddles Forest Of Dean, winner of a valuable York handicap and the valuable Winter Derby at Lingfield in his past six runs. Fast ground and ten furlongs is optimal for this chap; the appointment of Frankie Dettori for the first time since the York score is hardly a negative. Conditions look ideal for a big effort from stall 1 with my only niggle being getting locked up in traffic just behind the leaders.
Forest Of Dean has gone toe to toe with Felix in three of his last four starts, and will do so again here. There may be little between them once more, though I fancy the quick turf might play to Team Gosden over Team Botti.
At the top of the lists is Patrick Sarsfield, second in a similar race at the Curragh not quite a fortnight ago. The Joseph O'Brien runner will be bidding to break his trainer's 27 runner winless streak at the Royal meeting; it's clearly a matter of when not if but with no seconds and only a brace of bronzes from his yard so far, I'll sit the shorties out as a general principle. He was a Group 3 winner last season and is entitled to progress from that seasonal debut so won't shock anyone by passing the jam stick in front.
The Sir Michael Stoute-trained Solid Stone looks another late maturing sort off that particular conveyor belt, his most recent effort in winning the Royal Windsor Stakes (Listed) a clear peak. That puts him level with Patrick S on ratings but two back from the evergreen Euchen Glen. Now eight, Euchen won around four hundred thousand quid for connections and is a stalwart of the Jim Goldie team; he looked as good as ever when claiming the Group 3 Brigadier Gerard Stakes at Sandown last month, but might have been a smidge flattered by the mental tempo of, unbelievably, a four-runner race! He's a strong stayer - has won over two miles - so the harder they go the better for him.
Blue Cup put it all together for the first time in a while when dancing to victory in an Epsom handicap last time. A buzzy type who has often fretted his race away before the start, the first time hood might just be the key to him stepping forward now. His later running style and inside draw suggest a potentially difficult trip, however.
Wolferton Stakes tips
Very open and Joseph's jolly just might do it. But history says taking a flyer at a bit more of a price is often the way to go, so I'll chance 15/2 Forest Of Dean each way. The trainer's record is peerless in this event, the horse has optimal conditions and young man Frankie steering. That's plenty of yesses in a race full of maybes.
6.10 Copper Horse Handicap (1m6f, Class 2, 4yo+)
Ten past six, ladies and gentlemen. Ouch. The Copper Horse is back, and older stayers will rejoice; or at least their owners and trainers will.
It's a staying handicap so Willie Mullins is in the mix. This time he relies solely on Saldier and naturally called Ryan to ride. They say you should add around 40 pounds to a flat mark to work out the approximate hurdle rating. Well, working back from a timber-topping figure of 155 or so gives 115, which makes 103 look on the feasible side..! He was a Grade 1 winner in his prime and bolted up in an egg and spoon job on his first flat run since contesting Pattern contests in France in 2017.
The wheel has revolved once or twice since then but there were at least some embers still smouldering in his belly at Listowel nine days ago, which would have been a tonic to all concerned following a distinctly lacklustre top table campaign over hurdles last winter. He probably just wins, doesn't he?
Good luck with your opening day wagers. If you like another, or some others, feel free to leave a comment below. And thanks, as always, for reading.