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.