Tag Archive for: Balmoral Handicap tips

Ascot Champions Day Draw And Pace Bias

There is no debate about where the top action is this weekend. It’s Champions Day and all eyes will be on Ascot.

The course biases won’t be seen to full effect in the smaller field Group races but these races do attract bigger fields and there is also the big field Balmoral Handicap so Ascot course biases should still be on show on Champions Day.

The key thing to consider here is the changing course biases as the year goes on at Ascot. We can often see a very strong draw bias at Ascot in October which could help us narrow down some of the more difficult races.

Ascot Straight Track Draw Bias In October

It often pays to be on the near side of the track (high numbers) for the early part of the year at Ascot but does that change in October?

This table shows results at Ascot from the past five years in straight track races in fields of 16 or more.

We only have 14 races to look at which means a small sample, so a pinch of salt is taken with this data, but this is what it seems to say.

Firstly, 10 of these 14 races were won by single figure stalls. That means 71% of the winners have come from 50.6% of the runners, those that were drawn lowest. A tick for lower draws when it comes to finding the winners.

How about the places? Well the four best EW PL figures belong to stalls 4, 1, 8 and 7. In total 39 out of 53 places belong to stall 10 or lower, that’s 73.6% of places from 56.2% of the lowest drawn runners.

So that certainly seems to more than hint at lower draws having an advantage on the straight track at Ascot in October and the draw bias could be as strong as ever this year as the low draw bias seems to be increasing if anything.

Looking at the Balmoral Handicap, 5 of the last 6 winners have been drawn 10 or below but Escobar did win from stall 21 in 2019. In fact that year the first two home were drawn in stalls 21 and 20. However the runners raced on the far side of the course that day too and Escobar finished right on the far rail so he very much overcame his high draw rather than won because of it.

In 2020 4 of the first 5 home were drawn in stalls 7 or lower, again showing a low draw bias, and we saw another strong bias in the 2021 Challenge Cup with just three runners exploring the far side of the track and two of those pulling clear of the field.

So in the bigger field races on Ascot’s straight track at this year’s Champions Day I’ll be trying to concentrate on lower drawn runners where possible.

Ascot Pace Bias

Ascot is often considered a course where hold up performers do well, especially the mile distance, and this is backed up with data.

The table above shows the record of horses held up early across all race distances at Ascot and the distance where hold up performers have the best place percentage is a mile.

When you look at the pace analyser data for Ascot’s mile in 16+ runner handicaps away from fast ground (the ground is very unlikely to ever be good to firm on Champions Day) it is clear that the closer you are to the pace, the more compromised your chance is.

A massive 20 of these 24 races have been won by horses that race either in mid division or are held up in the rear. Looking at the place percentages, front runners have just an 8.7% place strike rate compared to 10.79% for prominent, 17.86% for mid division and 25.51% for held up. Those are some hefty jumps between figures and go to show the best run styles for Ascot’s mile.

Balmoral Handicap Preview

The race that I’m most interested in from a betting point of view on Saturday is the Balmoral Handicap.

Let’s first have a look at the pace map for this contest.

There should be no shortage of pace with four potential front runners all drawn next to each other in the middle to high section of the draw. Shelir also made the running last time out so there could be quite the early burn up.

Given there is plenty of pace towards the higher end of the draw it’s very possible that some of this pace stays near side and doesn’t track over the to the far side. If that happens it would increase the chances of the more patiently ridden higher drawn runners staying near side rather than following the pace across to the far side.

If that does happen there is still some pace amongst the lower numbers. Marie's Diamond often makes the running as can Rhoscolyn.

It doesn't seem the the betting for this race has adjusted enough for the draw and that is hopefully something we can take advantage of. Given the pace data above and the pace setup for this race I’m still convinced that low numbers are the place to be with preference for those held up.

John Gosden seems to target this race, just like he seems to target the Cambridgeshire, but whilst he has a decent recent strike rate in that Newmarket race he is yet to win this contest. He’s had the beaten favourite in 2018 and 2019, although he certainly had a well handicapped horse in 2019, Lord North was runner up off 110 and subsequently rated 123.

This year he has the first two in the early betting, plus Magical Morning a little further down the list. The well bred Kingman half brother Sunray Major could be anything having won both starts this season, including a 7f handicap here last time out. A 6lb penalty for winning a 17 runner handicap comfortably last time looks fine but he’s drawn in stall 21. He’s going to have to either stick to his side of the course which will probably cost him his chance or track over, which can be done, but it means he’s covering more ground than anything else.

Gosden’s other runner in this is King Leonidas. He’s seemingly done much better with the draw in stall 8 and he looks well handicapped based on the form of his Newmarket novice win early last year. He was disappointing in the Jersey Stakes here after that though and subsequently missed 454 days of action before a promising return in a competitive Newbury handicap over 10f. He was poorly placed in that event and stayed on well but doesn’t look good value on the limited evidence that is his form, for all he has to be respected as a lowish drawn, lightly raced hold up performer.

There are quite a few I like here and one that I’m worried about the ground for is Nugget. This is a horse who I thought would absolutely love the Royal Hunt Cup but unfortunately he picked up an injury in the Thirsk Hunt Cup and missed the majority of the summer. He returned with a slightly workmanlike win at Haydock and he’s gone up another 3lbs for that. The form of his early season runs is very strong but he’s never raced on anything softer than good before and that seems to be more by design than coincidence. The ground will probably be just the good side of good to soft so it’s hardly going to be desperate but you have to be ruthless to narrow down these big fields so I’m going to reluctantly give him a miss, for all I still think he has a big handicap in him.

Aldaary is another I like. His draw actually put me off when he won last time out because most of the action on the previous day had developed on the other side of the course (hopefully I don't get the draw wrong again here!). He loved the softer ground that day and a 6lb penalty is unlikely to stop him. His worst run this season came on his only try at this distance but he’s shaped all season as though he wants it and he’s been extremely consistent at Ascot this year (form figures of 1551 in some super competitive handicaps). He’s also won 4 out of 5 on ground softer than good. His draw in stall 11 should be just about okay and thanks to the presence of the Gosden runners he’s actually a very fair price at around 9/1. At the very least he’s worth an each way saver with bookies paying six or even seven places. There is better value elsewhere though.

Escobar is interesting. He runs off a 1lb higher mark than he won this two years ago, beating the well handicapped Lord North comfortably. Despite plenty of placed efforts since that was actually the last time he won and he is finding it difficult to get his head in front these days. He was slightly disappointing last time here too so although better is expected this time around, especially with the step back up in trip likely to suit, he appeals as a place only bet if anything. He’s nicely drawn in stall 2.

I can’t completely rule out Rhoscolyn based on his effort in the Goodwood Golden Mile Handicap, which was run on similar ground to this. He was a neck ahead of Escobar that day and is 1lb better off here. He’s well drawn in stall 5 but he does seem to get on very well with Goodwood and is probably slightly better over an easy mile if anything. Given his draw he could easily run into the places but there are certainly others with better chances.

There was understandably a big plunge on Sir Busker on Thursday evening and it’s easy to understand why. He seemingly has a great draw in stall 3 and his record over Ascot’s straight mile is excellent. He won the Royal Hunt Cup consolation in 2020 off a 19lb lower mark but continued to improve and was 4th in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes last season, just half a length behind Palace Pier. This season he was 3rd here at listed level on ground that would have been far too fast, still doing best of those held up and then it was the same story again in the Queen Anne Stakes. Given he’d improve for softer ground that was a serious effort. He’s maintained his form well since despite largely running at venues that haven’t suited his run style.

Now trying to translate Group form into handicaps can be expensive for punters but I can make a case for him still off a mark of 111 based on two handicap runs from last season (he hasn’t run in handicap company this year). He might have been 19lbs lower when winning the Royal Hunt Cup consolation but the ground would have been fast enough that day and the runner up has since rated 16lbs higher which definitely makes winning off this sort of mark within reach. He’s also proved he can run well off much higher marks. His last handicap run came at York, a course that wouldn’t suit him as well as Ascot, but he still managed to finish a neck 2nd off a 4lb lower mark.

The 3rd won a Group 3 on his next start, the 5th won on his next start at a mile and the 6th won next time out. A reproduction of this form would see Sir Busker go close. If he has improved since then or improves for Ascot’s straight mile and/or the softer ground he has a huge chance of winning. If you didn’t get the fancy prices on Thursday though you’ve probably missed the boat (still 25/1 with bet365 at the time of writing but that will probably be gone by the time this is published).

If the value call isn’t Sir Busker then it must be Accidental Agent, another Ascot straight course specialist. He’s getting on a bit now and his Queen Anne win is now more than three years ago but that effort proves just how effective he can be here. He also won the 2017 Challenge Cup over 7f here off a 3lb lower mark and was 4th in this race that year off a 3lb higher mark when not getting a clear run at things.

He's been in decent form this season since a wind op and won at Newmarket off a 3lbs lower mark. Now this race is more competitive than that but it was still hot form.

The 2nd, 4th and 5th have all won handicaps since suggesting a 3lbs higher mark really shouldn’t be beyond him. He was seemingly below par or outclassed in a Salisbury Group 3 next time but there was nothing wrong with his 2nd to subsequent Group 3 winner Al Suhail next time out. He outran his odds in the Group 3 Joel Stakes and then ran okay here in the Challenge Cup on heavy ground, doing 3rd best of those who raced in the centre and best of all out of those that were held up in the race. Fresh ‘won’ the race in the centre and he’s probably still a group horse in a handicap whilst Tomfre was 2nd in the centre and he was 2nd at Leicester this week on ground that was probably a bit fast for him. Stall 4 and a decent pace over a mile on this straight track should be the ideal setup for ACCIDENTAL AGENT and I think he offers huge each way value at prices as big as 50/1.

Next on my shortlist would be Sir Busker, Aldaary and Escobar in that order.

King Set To Be Crowned In Balmoral Handicap

The complexion of this race may have been slightly different had the Challenge Cup not been abandoned a couple of weeks back with several of the main contenders here having been set to contest that race. It certainly looks a cracking contest and hopefully a race where we can find a few strong pointers.

Draw

The straight course draw bias at Ascot tends to play its part in many races but the bias can change from meeting to meeting or even race to race so there are rarely any guarantees.

Ascot Mile Draw Bias

High draws have generally been favoured on the straight course this season but that may not be the case here. The ground is likely to be soft on Saturday and mile races on ground ranging from good to soft all the way to heavy have tended to favour those drawn middle to low.

The win data doesn’t tell us a lot in this sample but the place data suggests a middle draw can be strongly favoured with almost twice as many places from middle draws compared to low draws and 50% more placed horses from middle compared to high draws. The PRB figures seem to back up what the place data tells us too with low draw PRB the worst at 0.46, high drawn PRB is next best at 0.5 and middle draw PRB is 0.54.

There is a logical explanation for the above data. As previously mentioned the draw bias can vary at Ascot. When it favours the far side the higher drawn horses will generally struggle. When it favours the near side the lower drawn horses will struggle. Either way the middle draws nearly always have a pretty fair chance so of course they tend to do well.

At this particular meeting the ground nearest to the stands’ side is railed off and the stalls are positioned on the far side of the course. So compared to a standard meeting at Ascot the higher drawn horses actually race in what is normally the middle of the track and the lower drawn runners are positioned where they’d normally be.

The effect of this in recent years has been that the jockeys have tended to want to stick towards the far side rail. Last year’s first two home were drawn 21 and 20 but that doesn’t tell the whole story – they ended up on the far rail and looked to win in spite of their draws. The runners the previous year also headed towards the far rail and stall 8 was responsible for the winner but it’s also worth noting that five of the highest nine drawn runners were amongst the first seven finishers. In 2017 they largely came down the middle and although the winner came from stall 3, he actually finished nearer the stands’ side than any other runner. The next four finishers that year were drawn 18, 17, 15 and 23.

So what the above tells you, that draw data doesn’t necessarily do, is that if they elect to go far side as they have done for the past two years, the high draws are probably slightly disadvantaged but still well capable. If they go up the middle of the course then high draws may well have the advantage. Now we don’t know before the start of the race where they are likely to go so all in all, the safer bets will probably be in the middle.

Pace

Looking at a similar sample of data as we did for the draw, it looks very much as though we should lean towards those who are likely to be held up.

Ascot Mile Pace Bias

Only one winner has made all in these conditions since 2009 and that was Musaddas in 2015. He proved very well handicapped on the day (won another handicap two starts later) and the fact that only three front runners have placed, producing a place strike rate of 11.54% suggests only extremely well handicapped front runners should be considered.

The place strike rate gets progressively better the further back in the field you are and extreme hold up tactics seem to work well over a mile in these conditions with an almost 100% improvement in place strike rate compared to all other run styles. An IV of 1.44 is also much stronger than all other pace types and there have been more held up winners than all other run styles combined. So unlike the slightly inconclusive draw stats we had, we have some very conclusive pace data here.

Balmoral Handicap Pace Map

There is unlikely to be a frantic pace to this race with only one likely front runner in the field so a degree of caution should be applied in regards to following the above data that suggests you want to be at the very back of the field. The data is still very strong though so you may well want to be no further forward than mid division on this occasion.

The Jockeys

I’ve seen some interesting jockey stats about which jockeys are worth following at Ascot on different types of ground and they seem worth exploring here with very testing ground likely.

Ascot Jockeys In Soft Ground

The above data shows the jockeys in this race that have previously rode at least once on ground that is between good to soft and heavy in an Ascot handicap before, sorted by IV. This data is more useful ahead of Champions Day as a whole rather than just this race but it does give a good guide as to which which jockeys might be worth a couple of extra pounds advantage.

Considering the lack of data for some riders, the major positives seem to be Nicola Currie (Graignes), William Buick (Blue Mist), Ben Curtis (Kynren), Jamie Spencer (Hortzadar), Jim Crowley (Raaeq), Hollie Doyle (Solid Stone), Frankie Dettori (Alternative Fact) and Oisin Murphy (Bell Rock). It’s worth noting that Nicola Currie’s wins have come courtesy of her association with Raising Sand, a soft ground Ascot specialist who is ridden here by Saffie Osbourne, so a slight pinch of salt must be taken with her figures.

The major negatives appear to be Stevie Donohue (Raakib Alhawa), Andrea Atzeni (Prince Eiji) and Tom Queally (Ropey Guest).

The Runners

Raaeq

He took his form to a new level last time out with an easy win here over 7f on similar ground to this. That was his first run on a soft surface and he seemed to improve for it. He runs with a 6lb penalty which leaves him 5lbs well in still. He’s only had five starts, has never finished out of the first 2 and looks the obvious ‘group horse in a handicap’.

He seems to be the sole pace angle in the race which could suit him but it’s going to be a lot harder dominating a 20+ runner field over a mile than an eight runner 7f race.

Ascot 7f Pace Bias

The above image shows how well front runners do in small fields here in softish ground. Compare that to the first image in the pace section of this article which shows the record of front runners and you see very different figures. He’ll probably need to be at least a Group 2 performer to win this from the front and although he looked to improve for the ground last time out, he also probably improved for the drop back to 7f, a distance at which he is unbeaten. No surprise if he wins but judgement call is to oppose at the price.

Tempus

Course and distance winner who will enjoy conditions. Seemingly had no excuses last time out when well drawn in the Cambridgeshire when running with plenty of credit in 6th (only 0.25 lengths away from 3rd). He maybe would have preferred softer ground that day but it would be difficult to argue he didn’t stay. He’s 2lb higher here and there is still a nagging doubt about him never really having beaten much (beat fourteen runners in two wins this season and none of them have subsequently hit the frame in any race). Even last time out he still finished worst of the well drawn form horses, albeit not beaten that far. Looks certain to run pretty well but not sure he’s well enough handicapped anymore to win a race as deep as this.

King Ottokar

One I quite fancied for the abandoned Challenge Cup but I had two slight doubts. The first was the drop back to 7f, which may have actually suited but it was a risk for a horse that had previously run so well at 10f. The other doubt was the trainer form with Charlie Fellowes’ horses not running that well at the time but he’s had five wins and three places from his last thirteen runners so that’s no longer a concern - in fact it's a positive.

He was a big eyecatcher last time out at Doncaster, making up ground effortlessly 3f out before running into the back of horses. He found less than seemed likely when getting clear which probably tempted connections to drop him back in trip but the ground was on the fast side then and it could have been just as likely that the ground compromised his finishing effort, not the trip. Both his wins have come in soft ground and so has all his best form.

The subsequent form of his last run isn’t great but remarkably none of those subsequent runs from the opposition came in similar conditions with most running on soft ground since. If you look back to Royal Ascot 2019, the last time King Ottokar ran to form on soft ground, he was just a neck behind Fox Chairman. That horse quickly developed into a 110+ rated horse so King Ottokar certainly should be well handicapped here off 100. The only doubt this time around is stall 22 as this could be major disadvantage if they all go far side. It wasn’t a barrier to success last year though and the going stick readings are quicker on the stands’ side which gives some hope they may come middle to stands' side.

Keats

This listed winner from two weeks ago runs under a 6lbs penalty making his mark 107. That would put a lot of people off but when a horse is trained by Aidan O’Brien and it runs in an Ascot handicap people take notice. His runners make a 7.0 LSP in Ascot handicaps since 2009 so that respect is warranted. All three of those winners came at Royal Ascot though over the years and none were rated higher than 104 so this would be some performance to win and Keats has only ever won on good ground. He looks one of the easier well fancied horses to oppose.

Njord

Another Irish challenger and a much more interesting one. He’s been a big improver going up 41lbs in the handicap over the past two seasons, often running well in big field handicaps. His record on ground with the word ‘soft’ in the going description during that time is 1231125 and that latest 5th was when meeting trouble in running off a 2lb higher mark when still beaten less than 2 lengths. The 1st, 3rd, 4th, 6th and 7th from that race have all placed since so it wasn’t a bad race. He was last seen when 4th on good ground in a 9f listed race. He was 1.5 lengths behind Keats that day giving that rival 5lbs and he now receives 2lbs so it would be a slight shock if Keats could confirm that form. Keats is drawn 21 and Njord is drawn 4 so a stands’ side draw advantage seems to be the only thing that could swing things in Keats’ favour.

Given his consistent profile and liking for conditions he looks a fair each way shout and should run very well if a low draw isn’t an inconvenience.

Raising Sand

He was my fancy in the abandoned Challenge Cup but I’m slightly more lukewarm about his chances here. He loves soft ground and Ascot plus Saffie Osbourne is a useful 7lbs taken off his back but I’ve always thought he was a bit better over 7f than a mile. His two mile wins at Ascot have come off marks of 89 and 92 in smaller fields than this whereas his two 7f wins here have come off 97 and 103 in fields of 15 and 23.

He ran well over course and distance in the Hunt Cup this season from a poor draw but was ‘only’ 6th in this two years ago off 102 in similar ground and that sort of finish may be most likely again this time around.

River Nymph

He won comfortably here two starts ago and followed that up with another easy success when beating two next time out winners at Newbury. He was well fancied for the Challenge Cup that was abandoned and should still be well handicapped despite going up 11lbs for his latest win. He ran well over Lingfield’s 6f earlier this season and although well handicapped that day (18lbs lower) and looking like he wanted further it does still cast some doubt over his ability to get a mile.

The sire’s runners tend to get worse the further they go and this isn’t really the kind of ground you want to be testing your stamina in so he’s much easier to oppose here than he was over 7f, although he’s respected based on his achievements this season. Stall 14 gives the jockey some options at least.

Bell Rock

Finished 3rd in the Cambridgeshire, a quarter of a length ahead of Tempus. That run was a career best but he was well drawn that day, has seemingly improved for trips beyond a mile on his last two starts and is unproven on soft ground. There is also a doubt mark over the first time cheekpieces. Bell Rock is by Kingman who has a 17.67% strike rate with his progeny. That drops to just 12.82% when cheekpieces are applied which isn’t the worst record but is hardly a ringing endorsement either. Too many question marks.

Blue Mist

He's generally been expensive to follow and although he won a big pot here in July, that was over 7f in a race where only one of the first fourteen finishers has won since. He doesn’t convince over a mile and William Buick, who rides well here on soft, will need to get some improvement from this horse to reach the frame.

Orbaan

He has some decent form to his name with a 7th at York in August potentially a career best with the 5th and 6th winning handicaps since. He’s been behind Tempus twice this season though without real excuses and although a 6lb swing in the weights should get him closer it might not be enough to get 3 lengths closer. He should run creditably but in all probability he’ll finish just outside the places. He can win in slightly calmer waters.

Kynren

Was amongst the favourites for the Challenge Cup but a run at 6f at York last week looked a mistake with him finishing well beaten. No surprise to see him bounce back from that at a track where he has run plenty of good races but this trip seems to stretch him a bit – he’s finished 5th, 5th and 6th over course and distance on softish ground and those first two runs were off lower marks. He’ll need a career best to take this, although he’s nicely drawn in 13.

Alternative Fact

Frankie Dettori is an interesting booking, he’s finished 2nd and 3rd on this horse in two runs and is clearly booked when a big run is expected. The last time they paired up was here in the Silver Hunt Cup when just 1.75 lengths behind Sir Busker, who has since rated 15lbs higher. Alternative Fact has gone up 7lbs himself since then though having run three excellent races at Haydock, where he often gets his required ground. His last run at York when 6th of 20 deserves marking up as he was drawn very wide and ended up with too much to do.

He doesn’t scream brilliantly handicapped but the course and the ground are in his favour, as is the jockey booking. Stall 16 isn’t the end of the world, even if they go far side, and he’s one at a price that could easily run into the places and looks nailed on to give his running.

Best Of The Rest

It's slightly surprising to see Solid Stone priced up at 20/1 given he’s normally overbet (started favourite in eight of his thirteen runs including five of his last six). He hasn’t encountered this sort of ground since his 2yo days though and has presumably been kept away from it on purpose. He’d have a chance if handling conditions.

Greenside will handle the ground and does well here but looks better at 7f these days. Prince Eiji has run well on both starts here and handles the ground but he ran a shocker last time out and Atzeni doesn’t have a good record here in soft ground. Ropey Guest will like the ground and has Ascot form but he looks better at 7f and he’d have had a better chance had the Challenge Cup gone ahead.

Jamie Spencer could potentially get a tune out of Hortzadar but he looks handicapped to the hilt now and hasn’t run well in two starts at Ascot. Graignes has some smart French form in Group 1 races but if he was capable of winning this off  104 you’d have expected him to run better in similar conditions last time out in a Group 3.

Verdict

This perhaps isn’t quite as difficult a puzzle as it first seems with some of the main protagonists not likely to be seen to best effect over a mile on soft ground. Other simply don’t look well handicapped anymore.

The most interesting trio may well by King Ottokar, Njord and Alternative Fact. Tempus and to a slightly lesser extent Raising Sand should run well also but neither are fancied for win purposes.

Njord seems to enjoy the hustle and bustle of these kinds of races and is still reasonably handicapped. He seems most interesting at the prices of those drawn low. Meanwhile Alternative Fact is perhaps the ‘safe each way’ given he has everything in his favour and he’s not drawn far from the middle. At around 12/1 (well backed in the past 24 hours) with as many as 6 places on offer he’s worth a bet.

But as far as likely winners go King Ottokar seems to have an awful lot in his favour. He loves soft ground, he has run well here before, his trainer is in excellent form, he’s run well in a handicap on his last start and has been dropped 2lbs since then and he’s completely unexposed as a miler still. If there is one question mark it’s his very high draw but by the time the three reserves have come out he’ll effectively be racing from stall 19. If a high draw was to be an advantage he’d look an extremely good bet but we won’t know that until it’s too late. He’s shortening all the time and 8/1 in a big field like this might still seem short but he’s a very interesting runner and I’m willing to risk the draw. It might be worth backing him win only as around 8/5 to finish in the top 5 or 6 might not look great after a couple of furlongs if they all go far side.