A wet start to Royal Ascot week, and there is unlikely to be much respite for the fast ground horses on Day 2, a day which features the Group 1 Prince Of Wales's Stakes - and the highest rated flat horse in training - as its pinnacle.
But we start at 2.30 with the...
2.30 Jersey Stakes (Group 3, 7f, 3yo)
Historically a race for the failed milers but, since last year, a race which has been diluted by the best of that group heading for the Commonwealth Cup.
13 of the last 18 Jersey Stakes winners had already won once or twice over seven furlongs, from roughly the same number of horses that produced six Jersey winners without a previous seven-eighths victory. That looks material and is a good means of whittling the 21-strong field to a more manageable fourteen.
The highest rated in the field is Gifted Master on 115. He has yet to race on slower than good to soft, but he is two from two on that going. His sire, Kodiac, has a pretty good record on heavy, so if it is really deep by race time, this fellow could continue to punctuate Hugo Palmer's ascendancy. The trip looks fine and, with a Group 3 mile win to his name as well as a seven furlong triumph in a hyper-valuable sales race, he won't be stopping for want of stamina.
John Gosden saddles the favourite, Castle Harbour, an unbeaten two from two, both at this trip. He won his maiden on soft, and was then much the best in a big field York handicap last time. This represents a natural step up in grade, and the virtual assurance of further progression means he is a credible market leader. As a son of Kyllachy, he could actually improve for deeper ground, too.
This will be a very different test for Sir Michael Stoute's unbeaten-in-three, Thikriyaat. He won a ten runner Chelmsford maiden on the all weather surface before scoring by narrow margins in five horse races the last twice. His most recent run, and win, was in the Listed King Charles II Stakes at Newmarket on good to firm, form which gives him a bit to find. It is hard to crab a horse that has never been beaten but I don't quite see him having the scope of the favourite.
Away from the head of the betting, a few with form on soft are Raucous, C Note, Scrutineer, and Light Music, all at very big prices.
Raucous won his maiden on soft and wasn't beaten far in a Listed heat at Epsom a fortnight ago. This step back up to seven should suit. C Note is a 33/1 shot who won a conditions race on heavy ground first time up this season. That was following up a decent third on his only juvenile start in a race which has worked out well. He was a trifle disappointing behind Gifted Master last time, though he was given plenty to do in a steadily run race. With the extra furlong, he's no forlorn hope at a huge price.
Scrutineer won an average Nottingham maiden by nine lengths on soft ground last backend, and followed up with a six length handicap win; but he's failed to show as a three year old what he did there. Still, he's been within two lengths of both Ibn Malik and Thikriyaat in his last two races and may be better suited than that pair to the deep turf.
Light Music is a Royal runner, and won the last two of her three juvenile starts, both over seven furlongs, the latter on soft ground. She'll have stepped forward from her 2016 debut second in a Listed race on the poly at Lingfield, with trainer Willie Haggas expected to have her at concert pitch for this Royal engagement.
Horses like Herald The Dawn (trained on?) and Ribchester (ground?) have question marks over them, while Ibn Malik is another for whom a very soggy lawn may be less than optimal.
Calder Prince won over seven soft furlongs in a decent Haydock handicap two starts back, which means conditions will suit. Although he may be outclassed, 50/1 probably overstates that eventuality.
One who has a very good chance if acting on the ground is Haalick. He's a horse who has habitually found trouble in running but, on the wide open expanses of Ascot's stiff straight, he will be able to take his time and stretch out when he's ready. With Roger Varian's team in great form, he looks a decent punt at 12/1 to find out about the going question.
It's a typically trappy Jersey Stakes. The favourite, Castle Harbour, has an obvious chance and should run well. But bigger priced alternatives abound: Haalick, Light Music and perhaps even C Note if the ground is desperate are playable for pennies.
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3.05 Queen Mary Stakes (Group 2, 5f, 2yo fillies)
Five furlongs for fleet-footed fillies - easy for me to say - and a red hot favourite, though one on the drift. Lady Aurelia is Wesley Ward's biggest hope of the week. That in itself is a big tip.
But... having won her only start over four and a half furlongs on Keeneland's dirt track, conditions will be somewhat different here. Still, Wes knows what he's doing and when he says she might be his best yet - given he's already sent over the likes of No Nay Never and Acapulco - she demands attention.
There is a link to her run in this post. She set a course record there,coming away by seven and a half lengths. If she handles soft ground it is very likely that she wins. But who knows if she will?
In the circumstances - and having already doubled her up in a pretty fair bet with A Shin Hikari - I'm looking for some each way value against her with a proven mudlark.
Both French raiders, Al Johrah and Spiaggia, have won on deep turf over five furlongs, both at Chantilly. Al Johrah was having her second start when winning on very soft in a time of 61.8 seconds. Spiaggia, however, was carrying four pounds more and racing on heavy when she clocked a time of 62.08 seconds. In spite of the more meritorious clock performance and the greater scope, the latter is twice the price of the former, 16/1 for Spiaggia and only 8/1 for Al Johrah. That looks wrong.
Projecting which of these will act on muddy turf is pretty tricky so the French pair, who have shown they can, must be high on the shortlist. John Gosden's Reeh, a daughter of Invincible Spirit out of a Verglas mare, is bred to cope with conditions and the fact she's running here suggesting the Johnny G camp hope she can show more than in two defeats so far. She's from an excellent family and 25/1 might be worth a tiny nibble on the basis of that rather circumstantial evidence.
And Vona, by Dark Angel out of a Dansili mare, may also prove effective on soft/heavy. She was a shock winner on good to firm at York last time, but there looked little fluke about that run as she stayed on really well to win by daylight.
A very interesting race - I can't wait to see LADY AURELIA in the paddock - and if the jolly goes through the ground, she'll probably win. If she doesn't, or even if she does, there is each way value elsewhere in the shape of Spiaggia and Reeh, both of whom are capable of more than they've demonstrated hereto.
3.40 Duke Of Cambridge Stakes (Group 2, 1m, 4yo+ Fillies & Mares)
"Here come the girls!", as the Sugababes sang, completely ignoring the fact that the younger girls had already been out and about 35 minutes earlier.
This time it's the more mature ladies, and they're headed up by a French madame named Usherette. She's a win machine who has rattled off five gold medals in six starts, her only defeat coming at the hands of Amazing Maria.
She has the form in the book - a length defeat of Arabian Queen at Newmarket last month - to win this but, like many others, has to prove her ability of very soft ground. If trainer Andre Fabre doesn't feel she'll handle it, I guess he'll pull her out, so should she line up she has to be taken very seriously.
If there are doubts about Usherette's ability to handle the ground, no such reservations exist for Devonshire. Willie McCreery's Godolphin filly has been a flag-bearer for the up-and-coming yard since Fiesolana retired two seasons ago. She was a winner of a mile Group 2 on yielding ground the last day, and bolted up in a heavy ground Listed contest last season over nine furlongs.
So the ground and the trip present no issues. As for class, Devonshire was third in the Irish 1000 Guineas last season - on good ground - nodding to her ability. She looks a very fair each way tilt at around 12/1.
In a race where it is impossible to size up the chances of the likes of Miss Temple City and Always Smile, neither of whom have ever raced on the soft side of good, we're betting at least partially blind. As such, demanding a bit of jam on the bread is a pre-requisite for this hungry (greedy?) punter.
Jazzi Top won the Group 2 Prix de la Nonette on good to soft last August, but that was over a quarter mile further. She hasn't raced at a mile since a Kempton maiden win in April last year and she's short enough in that context.
Lucida is a miler, but she was beaten into fifth of seven - albeit only 2.5 lengths behind the winner - when sent off the 6/5 favourite in the Fillies' Mile in 2014. She was second in the 1000 Guineas last season and then third in the Coronation Stakes at this meeting, both on quick ground. Trained by Jim Bolger she is certainly worth another try on soft.
One guaranteed to relish conditions is Mikel Delzangles' Maimara. Winner of a mile Group 3 on heavy ground last summer, this will be right up her street. She was not far behind Ervedya on very soft turf in a Group 1 thereafter, form which puts her right in the picture. At 12/1, she's interesting.
Hard to see anything else getting involved, though the ex-Argentinian Furia Cruzada was a Group 1 winner in her native land on soft ground.
Usherette is very likely the most talented mare in the field, but her lack of experience on easy ground makes her opposable. Two each way alternatives are Devonshire and Maimara, both 12/1 shots with solid form on soft and heavy.
4.20 Prince Of Wales's Stakes (Group 1, 1m 2f, 4yo+)
A race that revolves around the Japanese superstar, A Shin Hikari. Quite simply, if he runs his race, he wins. He is a winner of ten of his twelve races, including last time out in France, in the Group 1 Prix d'Ispahan on heavy ground. He made most of his own running there, and won by an official margin of ten lengths.
Even if that verdict overstates his dominance a tad - was more like seven lengths - and even allowing for New Bay and Dariyan under-performing, this was a monstrously good effort. His official international rating of 129 is half a stone better than the next best in this field, The Grey Gatsby.
That one, normally very consistent, has been whacked on both starts on soft and I'll be surprised if he's able to run to his best. Found, only a pound inferior on ratings to TGG, has performed with credit on soft but she has a propensity for running second.
Indeed she's occupied that position in seven of her last twelve races and, with the big Japanese in the line up, she may again by the bridesmaid.
Two lesser beasts who will be fine on the ground are My Dream Boat and Western Hymn, who fought out the finish of the Group 3 Gordon Richard Stakes over this trip last time. They finished in the above named order, with Clive Cox's runner holding a clear-looking superiority. That he was then thumped by around a dozen lengths by A Shin Hikari in the Ispahan suggests it would be folly to expect a reversal of form.
Tryster has some excellent form from the Dubai Carnival, most notably when third in the £2.5m Dubai Turf on World Cup night. He's a very decent horse, but probably a stone behind the favourite and totally untried on soft, as so many other sons and daughters of Shamardal are on day two at Royal Ascot.
This is all about A SHIN HIKARI. His A game is way above his rivals, his B game is slightly better than the pick of his rivals, his C game beats all bar Found. He was 6/4 last week and is now 4/6. It wouldn't be a shock if he returns 2/5 such is his dominance on form, and proven ability on heavy turf. Found is the logical forecast play, not that it will make you especially rich.
5.00 Royal Hunt Cup (Class 2 Handicap, 1m, 3yo+)
If that was (hopefully) easy, then this is virtually impossible. Thirty runners, a straight mile, and possibly the most competitive handicap of the season. On something approaching bottomless terrain.
Luckily, we have Instant Expert in our corner. Here I've filtered the view by 'place' form and have a going range from 'Soft' to 'Heavy'. I've then sorted by going high to low.
Three horses stand out on the basis of that grid, though each may be susceptible to a less exposed improver. Battle Of Marathon was trained by Aidan O'Brien before John Ryan picked him up for £23,000 at the October sales last year. He had a largely fruitless trip to Dubai with the son of War Front but stepped up markedly when third in the Lincoln on soft.
That big field soft ground straight mile form is perfectly relevant here so, while he's eight pounds higher, he can run a big race.
Mitchum Swagger has had just one start in 2016, when just about last in a Listed heat at Leicester. Prior to that, he had a win and a second to his name on soft turf, and has very few miles on the clock.
But Donncha might be the most interesting of the trio. Although an infrequent winner, Robert Eddery's five year old is a consistent sort who was fourth in the Balmoral Handicap on Champions Day last autumn and second in the Spring Mile earlier this term. That latter run was on soft ground and, obviously, over a mile, so he has frame prospects at least.
Here is the pace projection, sorted by draw, for the Royal Hunt Cup.
There is not a huge amount of pace in the race, and much of what there is appears to be congregated around low to middle (stalls 7, 9, and 12 specifically). So it is possible they will form a single group in arrowhead formation down the centre of the track.
Instant Attraction, who can race on or close to what looks like being a less than brutal early pace, has already been third in the Spring Mile and second in the Thirsk Hunt Cup this season, so comes here in belting big field form. Those races were both on soft turf and both at a mile, making 33/1 pretty good value about his chance.
Sir Michael Stoute's Convey is favoured, but his only run on softer than good was his worst in a career spanning six starts and, drawn widest of all, he may be away from the pace as well. 8/1 is plenty short enough even allowing for the excellence of connnections.
A soft ground mile in a big field is spot on for Portage, who beat all bar one of his 21 opponents in the Irish Cambridgeshire last summer. He's since run fifth of 34 in the Cambridgeshire itself (Cambridgeshire being located in Britain, not Ireland, and part of it overlapping Newmarket racecourse), and warmed up for this with a Listed win on his first 2016 start.
Balty Boys is something of a wise guy pick, having been laid out for this. He won a Group 3 on good to soft last backend and was a close second of 20 over seven furlongs here before that. Track, trip, ground and grade present no issues, then, but a draw in stall one may not be perfect. Calum Shepherd claims five pounds to bring Balty Boys down to a mark of 100, which looks attractive in the context of his 2015 form.
Top weight and last year's winner, GM Hopkins, is nine pounds higher in the weights than when a neck too good for Temptress. His Ascot form reads 121, both wins in big field hyper-competitive handicaps but soft ground is probably not ideal. Still, 20/1 is a touch insulting.
I've blethered on for too long about a race where I don't really have much of a clue but, hopefully, the visuals if not the text in this section will help you make your own mind up.
Instant Attraction at 33/1 and Balty Boys at 20/1 and Donncha at 14/1 make most appeal from a dart-chucking perspective.
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Make sure you bet with a firm paying at least five places if backing each way.
5.35 Sandringham Handicap (Listed, 1m, fillies, 3y0)
26 runners, exactly half of which are having their first start in a handicap, means this is one for the guessers and the inside info guys. I am often in the former camp, never in the latter, and I genuinely have no clue.
Remarkably, perhaps, only once in the last 20 years has this race - formerly the Fern Hill Stakes - been won by a filly priced bigger than 12/1, and that was 16/1 Barshiba. So we ought not to get too carried away down the lists.
The market is headed by Persuasive, unbeaten in three one mile starts. The trio is comprised of two all weather runs and a win on good ground at Goodwood. She's been, well, persuasive each time and deserves prominence in the betting. Gosden and Dettori are a firm who know what they have, and the daughter of Dark Angel ought to deal with any juice in the ground.
Godolphin has a typically strong hand, fielding four, the pick of which is probably Anamba. She won a Listed race over seven-eighths last time and makes her handicap debut here. She looks at least a Group 3 performer and is on the shortlist.
Willie McCreery's Dolce Strega has won her last two, the most recent of which was a soft ground Group 3 (7f). She should stay a mile based on her never nearer neck second on her sole attempt at the trip, but this is the first time she's encountered big field.
Right at the bottom of the weights, Richard Spencer's Rebel Surge has been running respectably in higher class events, and has big field form. She's unlikely to be good enough but she may be over-priced at 50/1.
Anamba should run well as a prominent sort with a middle pitch, but I'll be looking forward to Thursday's fare by the time these are off...
p.s. how did you do on Day 1? It was pretty bad here. Piled into Pearl Secret with the generous five place concession and that one was never sighted. Placepot went down on the first leg as well. Ouch.