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Great Ambassador leads Walker’s Ayr raid

Great Ambassador and Popmaster give Ed Walker a formidable hand in the Virgin Bet Ayr Gold Cup.

The trainer of top-class sprinter Starman is excited at the prospect of firing a twin assault on one of the most prestigious sprint handicaps of the season, with the hat-trick seeking Great Ambassador clear at the head of the market.

A close-up third in the Stewards’ Cup at Goodwood earlier in the season, the four-year-old has since impressed in handicap company at Newmarket and then in the Listed Garrowby Stakes at York – a victory which earned him a 5lb penalty for Saturday’s assignment.

Walker said: “We’ve targeted Great Ambassador at a few of these big races this year, and it hasn’t worked out for one reason or another.

Great Ambassador in the York winner's enclosure
Great Ambassador in the York winner’s enclosure (PA)

“We’re under no illusions how much luck is required, and he’s actually a pound wrong at the weights. He went up 4lb for winning at York, but carries a 5lb penalty.

“Anyway, I hope this will be his last run in a handicap. He’s in good form, so let’s hope he can pull it off.”

Great Ambassador has already gone up more than a stone in the weights since joining Walker from Ralph Beckett’s yard – and the Lambourn handler admits he has been surprised by how much he has improved this year.

“I never really thought he’d develop into such a good sprinter – but he’s got bags of speed, and I don’t think we’ve got to the bottom of him yet,” Walker added.

“Hopefully he’s got a great chance in what is a wide-open and competitive race.”

Popmaster is an interesting second string to Walker’s bow, turning out a fortnight after an impressive win at Ascot under Ryan Moore.

Hollie Doyle takes over in the saddle, while the trainer hopes the application of blinkers will bring about further progress.

Walker said: “Ryan’s advice after at Ascot was that he wasn’t doing much in front, and putting the blinkers on was actually something I’d toyed around with at home. I think it will really help.

“He’s a good horse, Popmaster – and while I think he’ll be better again next year, I’m really looking forward to seeing him run.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see him run a really good race.”

Commanche Falls after wining the Stewards' Cup at Goodwood
Commanche Falls after wining the Stewards’ Cup at Goodwood (John Walton/PA)

Michael Dods has been saving Commanche Falls for this race since his Stewards’ Cup success in late July.

The Darlington-based trainer is hoping for rain in Scotland to give his charge the best possible chance of claiming a fifth victory in seven starts this season.

“We just thought we’d give him a break after the Stewards’ Cup because he’d had a few hard races,” said Dods.

“He’s in good form. Connor (Beasley) rode him on Wednesday and was very pleased with him.

“Any rain they get would help. If he doesn’t do anything else this year he’s had a good season.”

Dods also saddles outsider Pendleton, of whom he added: “He’s a good horse, he just needs a bit of juice in the ground.

“He was second at Ascot and won at York on his first couple of runs this year and just got completely bogged down in the ground in the Wokingham at Royal Ascot and didn’t show his form.

“At York last time, the ground was just plenty quick enough for him.

“He’s in good form, but he would want rain.”

Starman heading for Ascot – if weather stays dry

Ed Walker hopes the weather is kind at Ascot next month to give Starman a chance to atone for his agonising defeat in Haydock’s Unibet Sprint Cup.

The Lambourn trainer admitted “it was a tough one to take” – but was still proud of his horse, who went within a head last weekend of adding to his impressive victory in the July Cup.

All roads therefore lead to Ascot for the Qipco British Champions Sprint on October 16 – as long as the ground is not too demanding. Starman could not handle the testing conditions in 2020, and was well-beaten in the six-furlong showpiece behind Glen Shiel.

“We’re all licking our wounds a bit,” said Walker, reflecting on Starman’s near miss at Haydock.

“It was a tough one to take – he ran a huge race but unfortunately he didn’t quite get rolling in time to peg back Emaraaty Ana, who is in the form of his life.

“I don’t think he lost anything in defeat – another stride, and he was in front.

“If someone could guarantee me good ground I’d say Ascot would be a certainty. I just don’t want it to be bad ground.

“We’d happily run on good to soft, and in anything apart from heavy ground. We just need a bit of luck with the weather.”

After the acute disappointment of Starman’s defeat, Walker enjoyed success with two more talented sprinters last weekend, Great Ambassador and Popmaster.

Great Ambassador took the Listed Garrowby Stakes at York, which Starman won in 2020, while Popmaster was successful in a six-furlong handicap at Ascot.

The pair could clash in the Virgin Bet Ayr Gold Cup on September 18.

“Great Ambassador was awesome,” said the Lambourn trainer.

“We were quite confident going into it that the race would really suit him – I know it seems madness to get a penalty going into the Ayr Gold Cup, but it just felt like the right race in the right conditions. I think we justified going there.

“We’ll see how he is, and the Gold Cup is still very much his target. He just needs to tell us he’s in cracking form. He seems to have come out of the race very well.

“If Popmaster gets into the Gold Cup, he’ll go.

“He won’t go for a consolation. He’s a sprinter going places, and I think he’ll have a good year next year.”

Ambassador highlights York treble for Tom Marquand

Tom Marquand took the riding honours at York with a 40-1 treble highlighted by the success of Great Ambassador in the Biowavego Garrowby Stakes.

The four-year-old took the step up to Listed company in his stride as he gave both Marquand and trainer Ed Walker back-to-back victories in the six-furlong event.

They struck with subsequent July Cup hero Starman 12 months ago and Great Ambassador repeated the trick in good style.

Third in the Stewards’ Cup and winner of a Newmarket handicap on his last two starts, the Exceed And Excel gelding took full advantage of this opportunity in a higher grade against three rivals.

Great Ambassador tracked the leader Gulliver in the early stages before Fivethousandtoone took it up. Leading in the final furlong, Great Ambassador (11-10 favourite) kicked away to hold main market rival Tabdeed by a length and a half.

“I was most impressed by the way he jumped into the race a furlong and half out and put it to bed. He didn’t do an awful lot in front but he seems to be thriving at the moment and Ed has got him in great order,” said Marquand.

“Hopefully he can carry on with his improved form and go on from today.”

It was a double for Walker and Marquand after the victory of Kindness (13-2) in the opening IRE Incentive, It Pays To Buy Irish EBF Novice Stakes.

The No Nay Never filly, wearing the Starman colours of owner David Ward, made it third time lucky when beating Buckshaw Village by half a length.

“It was great for the owners to have a home-bred winner at York,” said Marquand.

“It was a tough day yesterday with Starman beaten in a Group One. I was over the moon with the run but you’ve got that element of heartbreak as well. It’s the nature of the game and they’re super people to ride for.

“They both turned up today and had smiles on their face, happy to be there. It makes the job so easy. It’s always a pleasure riding a winner.”

Marquand went on to complete his treble on the William Haggas-trained Aramaic in the Hanson Springs Handicap.

The three-year-old colt, making his handicap debut on his fourth start, looks to have a bright future after he swept to an emphatic success over seasoned campaigner Pivoine by three and a quarter lengths.

“He’s a lovely horse. I rode him first time and then on his reappearance after a long time off at Kempton. He’s progressed really nicely,” Marquand added.

“He won at Musselburgh and today was a big step up and an extra furlong as well, but he’s shaping into a really nice horse. It’s great to ride for Sheikh Isa who is heavily involved in my sponsors, Bahrain’s Rashid Equestrian and Horseracing Club, so it’s nice to have a winner for them.”

Walker to raise his sights for Ascot victor Dreamloper

Ed Walker will select from an array of Group One and Two targets for Dreamloper after the talented filly put her career back on track at Ascot.

Walker was hugely disappointed and at a loss to explain Dreamloper’s lacklustre performance when she could manage only 10th of 18 as favourite in Royal Ascot’s Kensington Palace Stakes.

But she was back to winning form with a vengeance on her return to the Berkshire track for last month’s Valiant Stakes – and the Lambourn trainer is therefore encouraged to factor in top-level assignments such as the Matron Stakes at Leopardstown and Newmarket’s Sun Chariot later in the season.

He has even contemplated a possible trans-Atlantic trip to Saratoga this month – although at present, that challenge for this month’s Grade Two Ballston Spa Stakes is on the back-burner.

Walker said: “I left (Royal) Ascot so gutted and disappointed.

“I (then) did the slightly unorthodox thing of running badly in a handicap and sticking her in a Group race (next).

“But she’s a well-bred filly, and we’d always agreed that the plan was always to try to win the Kensington Palace and then go and find black type after Ascot.

“So just because she threw in the first real dud of her career, I still thought it was worth sticking to the plan.”

Dreamloper belatedly proved her trainer right.

He added: “In her run before Royal Ascot, she and (Sir Michael Stoute’s Valiant Stakes runner-up) Lights On were in a head-bobbing finish which we came out the wrong side of – and then she (Lights On) went and won a Listed race by 10 lengths at Pontefract.

“That gave me the confidence that she is a Stakes filly. So it paid off in spades, which is great.

“Everything from here is a bonus – we’ll aim for Group Twos and Group Ones.

“I’ve entered her up, against colts as well. We actually supplemented her for the Matron – so the Matron, Sun Chariot, and I’m toying with taking her to Saratoga for the Ballston Spa (on August 28).

“I think we’re probably not going to do that, but we’re weighing up our options really. I think the only reason we wouldn’t go to the Ballston Spa is it might just hinder some of her opportunities here, in Ireland and France.

“So we will probably keep her over here for now, and see.”

Dreamloper’s near five-length Group Three win at Ascot came over a mile, but Walker believes she may be equally adept at that distance or a furlong shorter.

He said: “She’s a very good filly. She’s been quite hard to train – she’s always been a bit over-enthusiastic.

Great Ambassador may be set for a rise in class after his fine Stewards' Cup run
Great Ambassador may be set for a rise in class after his fine Stewards’ Cup run (John Walton/PA)

“The girl who rides her every day, Molly Stratton, has done a magnificent job just switching her off – and it’s all come good.

“Where we go from here, I’m not entirely sure (yet). But we’ll hunt black type, with obviously the eye on the big prize of going for some Group One form.

“She’s got bags of speed. They didn’t go fast at Ascot, in the Valiant, and started quickening it up from four out.

“She hit the line really well and won well, but I don’t think it was a massive stamina test. I think it probably really suited her good turn of foot, so I would happily come back to seven.”

He was also enthused by Great Ambassador’s efforts as a close third in Saturday’s Stewards’ Cup at Goodwood – and he too may soon be set for a rise in class.

“I was thrilled and gutted at the same time with Goodwood,” said Walker, who believes Great Ambassador could easily have bagged the famous handicap prize with better fortune.

He added: “If he’s drawn the other side he probably would have won, and he probably would have won if he hadn’t lugged across the track looking for some company.

“It’s gutting, because I think we’ve been second, third and fourth in the race now in recent years. It’s a lovely race to win, and I’ll keep trying.”

The next stop for improving four-year-old Great Ambassador, meanwhile, may or may not be in handicap company – and could involve a further drop in trip.

“Maybe a Portland (at Doncaster next month), five and a half (furlongs),” said Walker.

“It’s amazing how much speed this horse has – (jockey) Will (Buick) said you could bring him back to five.

“I think he’ll end up being a Pattern book horse before the end of the year.

“We’ll see whether we keep trying to win these sprint handicaps, that are nearly impossible to win, or we go up (in class).

“We’ve had a couple of goes (in big handicaps) now. He’s a very good horse.”