Posts

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

Your first 30 days for just £1

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.

Ropey Guest ready to cash in at Ascot

George Margarson will happily trade off what he feels is an acceptable rating for next season if Ropey Guest wins the Balmoral Handicap on Qipco British Champions Day.

Until his recent win at Chelmsford, Ropey Guest had the unwanted title of the best maiden in training.

Placed in several Group races in a busy juvenile campaign, this season he picked up where he left off when fourth on his reappearance in the Jersey Stakes.

Margarson thinks he will come into his own next year in big-field handicaps – but given he is already rated 103, he could end up too high in the weights and find himself forced back into Group races.

“He’s run well in big fields before at Ascot, in the Coventry and the Jersey Stakes,” said Newmarket trainer Margarson.

“I think we’re drawn (three) on the right side with the favourite (Raaeq), because I think it will favour the stands side myself.

“He handles every ground – he was unlucky not to win the Horris Hill at the end of last season on heavy, and it was pretty soft at the Royal meeting.

“He’s in good form, and we’ve kept him fresh for this – hopefully it will give us an idea for the future as to where we go with him.”

Your first 30 days for just £1

Ropey Guest ran well in so many big races without gaining a deserved success that many questioned if it would ever come, but Margarson reports that his confidence never wavered.

“He doesn’t take getting beaten personally – he always came home and ate up,” he said.

“Katie (Margarson) rides him most mornings and says he’s bouncing – and by this time last year he’d had 11 runs, so he should be feeling very fresh, but there haven’t been the races for him this year.

“I’m really looking forward to next year for him and the big handicaps. But if he wins this then he might be too high – I’d take that, though, if it meant winning £100,000!

“He ran all those good races in Group races, and I always thought he wasn’t rated as high as he probably could be – we’ll get to find out now.

“I’ve had horses like Imperial Guest and Excellent Guest for the good handicaps, and I’d rate him above those two.”

Keats (navy blue) winning at Gowran earlier this season
Keats (navy blue) winning at Gowran earlier this season (PA Wire)

Aidan O’Brien’s Keats is another three-year-old in the field, and arrives on the back of a Listed win at Cork last time out.

“We’ve run him over further, but each time he drops back to a mile he’s very comfortable,” said O’Brien.

“Seamus (Heffernan) won a Listed race on him the last day and was very happy with him.

“He looks to be off a nice enough mark, even though he’s a three-year-old. He seems to be in good form since his last run.”

Brian Meehan’s Raaeq has headed the market since winning at Ascot by five lengths earlier this month – for which he carries a 6lb penalty, just like Keats.

“He’s an exciting horse with a big future,” said Meehan. “He’s gone up to 108 and will be off 103 on Saturday, which hopefully gives him a head start, but in big handicaps such as this you’ve got to be cautious.

“His rating means he’s in Stakes category now, and I’ve no doubt whatsoever he is up to it.”

James Doyle takes the ride on the Charlie Fellowes-trained King Ottokar, who has never quite lived up to his tall reputation.

“I rode him at Royal Ascot last year to be third in the Hampton Court, but for one reason or another he never quite went on from that,” said Doyle.

“I was in to ride him out last week and he felt really well – and one thing is for sure, he’ll love the ground. He loves to get his toe in.

“Hopefully it’s the sort of race he could go well in.”

Escobar set to bid for title defence in Balmoral

Escobar is likely to try and defend his crown in the Balmoral Handicap at Ascot on Qipco British Champions Day.

David O’Meara’s six-year-old is without success since beating subsequent Prince of Wales’s Stakes winner Lord North in the race last year – but he has been set some stiff tasks.

Now rated just 3lb higher than 12 months ago, he also has the option of the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (sponsored by Qipco) – but O’Meara favours the handicap option.

“Escobar’s a little bit caught between two stools at the moment, but he will run in one race or the other on Champions Day,” said O’Meara, who also won the race in 2017 with Lord Glitters.

“He’s in the QEII, but that’s probably going to be a little too hard for him, and the Balmoral is probably a more realistic target. We thought he was (fast) ground dependent, but he won it well on heavy last year, so he’s versatile in that respect.

“He won it off 105 and is now on 108. That might make him more vulnerable, but he ran OK in Ireland last time – and this seems to be his time of the year.”

Stablemate Orbaan is likely to join him too – with Shelir, Hortzadar (who won at Goodwood on Wednesday) and Sagauteur also in the mix.

A surprise entry is Jim Goldie’s Euchen Glen, who won the Old Borough Cup on his penultimate outing over six furlongs further.

“We thought we would have a look,” said Goldie.

“It’s a stiff mile, he’s got winning form at the track (won over two miles at the Shergar Cup meeting in 2017) and he goes on anything.

“Soft ground would make it more of a staying race, but I would not be worried if it was good to firm, either.

“He nearly had his first run of this year in the Royal Hunt Cup, and the owner said he was going to get the white jacket out for me! But we keep speed in their legs, and fast-run races suit him.

“He’s in good nick, and the handicapper will probably tell you he ran a career-best at the weekend (behind Addeybb). We will also consider the Cumberland Lodge for him beforehand.”

There are 69 entries in total – including Al Rufaa, Haqeeqy and Magical Morning from John Gosden’s yard.