I’ve always liked the idea of a series of races with a valuable final as a decent way of promoting a commercial organisation, writes Tony Stafford. Many years ago I was asked by a man called Roger Broomhall – sadly no longer with us, like I fear many of the guests of the 20 days of qualifiers – to devise such an event.
The company which wanted to support the event was Harcros Building Services, also no longer around. They had branches and clients all around the country and we settled on stayers’ races of varying classes, all at different tracks. The Final was run during the St Leger meeting at Doncaster and based on the still-thriving Mallard Handicap over the full Classic distance.
As far as we could tell it was a great success, the guests, who in the main were the firm’s most valued clients lapping it up and around half of the races gaining television coverage. Unfortunately, they discontinued it after a year, but the Final was a smart occasion and I remember sitting next to Gladstone Small and telling him I fancied facing him in the nets. The look he gave me was probably fully deserved.
Before Harcros, Crown Decorators – still very active – had their Apprentice Series, beginning with the then season’s opening race, also at Doncaster, which meant for half an hour the winning rider led Eddery, Carson and the rest with publicity to match.
That tortured intro to this week’s main theme is to outline what I believe to be the absurd framing of conditions of an existing series – Kempton Park’s London Mile. This has eight qualifying races and culminates in a £70,000 Final (£43k to the winner) with no handicap parameters on Saturday September 8, a date which competes as often is the case, with Ascot maybe half an hour down the M3.
So far three qualifiers have been staged, one each in April, May and early June, all with identical conditions, 0-85 handicaps for four-year-olds and upwards. On Wednesday, for the first time three-year-olds are eligible, this time in a 0-80. With opportunities few enough to find for the younger generation at this distance as the summer gets going, it was to be expected that as many as 20 three-year-olds would be entered.
They are supplemented by 19 of their elders, making a 39-horse entry. Kempton race on Wednesday evening and unfortunately, no race can be divided so a maximum of only 14 can run.
I’m not sure whether this situation was envisaged by the BHA’s Race Planning department, but not one of the 20 three-year-olds is guaranteed a run if all 39 are declared. At this stage of the season the weight-for-age scale determines that the younger generation runners receive 10lb from their elders, so an 80-rated 3yo carries the same weight as a 70-rated elder. Even more irritatingly, Seyasah, a four-year-old trained by Chris Wall and rated 70, does not get a ballot figure while three 80-rated 3yo’s all do.
You’ve probably guessed that there is a personal element to this moan, and there is. With few suitable opportunities in this time of ubiquitous fast ground, Hughie Morrison has settled on Kempton, with its forgiving surface, for Ray Tooth’s thrice-raced maiden Sod’s Law.
He was well named. After three runs he has been rated 78. Three years ago his half-brother Dutch Law was originally rated 74, but after a good first handicap effort at Haydock, he was on 75 and ran in and won a mile handicap with that ceiling at Newmarket’s July meeting.
Nowadays, 0-75 races can be competed in by horses rated 1lb or 2lb higher, but not 3! So we’re stuck at 0-80 unless we have another go against novice-race-eligible Group horses. To get a run on Wednesday we need nine to come out. When Dutch Law was running in his last season two years ago he was consistently the last in the ballot when horses were on the same handicap mark and it cost him his chance (by one horse if I recall correctly) of going for the £150,000 Balmoral Handicap at Ascot where he’d previously won a fifty-grand pot. On Wednesday five horses have 9st 2lb, his weight. The other four have higher ballot numbers than us.
The following Wednesday, the fifth race in the series is also run as a three-year-old plus 0-80 and a week later again, the first of two heats restricted to the younger generation, is staged, not as a 0-80, but a 0-70, so that’s out! The final two are on August 21, a 0-90 three-year-old plus and on August 29, just over a week before the Final and belatedly, a 0-80 for three-year-olds only.
Last year’s decider, which accommodated 16 horses, included five three-year-olds, none of which made much of an impact. The race conditions reveal that any horse declared at the 48-hour stage, as Sod’s Law will be, is qualified to be entered for the Final. As to whether he has a chance to run in any of them save possibly the last, is highly doubtful and hoping to make the Final is probably fanciful.
A couple of weeks ago I suggested that Main Edition’s second career win at Goodwood, when she recorded a time almost two seconds faster than a fellow juvenile six-length winner of a later race on the card, gave her a great chance in last week’s Albany Stakes at the Royal meeting.
The Mark Johnston-trained filly duly obliged in a tight finish, but many of the most high-profile juveniles were blown away through the week. Archie Watson got his first Royal Ascot win in the Windsor Castle on Saturday, but Soldier’s Call was possibly a little fortunate that runner-up Sabre had so much to do at halfway.
Sabre, the National Stakes runner-up is by Mayson, one of my favourite young stallions, now producing better-quality juveniles in his third crop. The only flash entry so far for Sabre is Redcar’s Two-Year-Old Trophy in October and I wouldn’t mind betting that Richard Fahey is leaving a space in his trophy cabinet for that valuable prize.
Sprinkled through the week were some memorable performances, but none to rival Alpha Centauri, who matched Ray’s Indian Ink’s six-length winning margin 11 years earlier in the Coronation Stakes. She’ll be a joy to train for the versatile Jessie Harrington for as long as owners, the Niarchos family, want to delay her entry into the breeding shed.
A day earlier Magic Wand won the Ribblesdale in the manner in which many of us had expected her to take the Oaks after her Chester romp; and Stradivarius stayed on to win a very competitive Gold Cup from Vazirabad, Torcello (Mrs Harrington) and Order of St George for owner Bjorn Nielsen. I’ve probably told the tale before but many years ago I used to call him regularly about his horses to his office in Wall Street, New York.
His secretary always greeted me with: “You sound so much like Robin Leach” – the man who presented the cheesy show: Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. While in New York one autumn, I arranged to see Bjorn and when I got to reception, I started to say: “I’m… and the secretary said. “Hi Mr Stafford, you do sound just like Robin Leach, even before you say anything!”
I’m delighted that Bjorn has managed to breed a horse of the quality of Stradivarius. Although US-based, he has always been a purist, preferring to produce staying stock to sharp horses, although he did own the top sprinter Tante Rose.
Day 4, Friday, at Royal Ascot offers another six chances for redemption, wagering glory, or simply to watch the finest thoroughbreds in the land do what they do best. As is the new custom, we begin with a two-year-old race, the...
2.30 Albany Stakes (Group 3, 6f, 2yo fillies)
Six furlongs this time, and fillies only, in the Albany Stakes, a Group 3. A big field of 18 has assembled where many will fail to see out the three-quarter mile trip, and many more will simply be not nearly good enough. One who will stay and who looks good enough is Fairyland, a rare Aidan O'Brien runner not running in the Coolmore silks (though she is, of course, a Coolmore-owned filly).
By Kodiac, a strong influence for speed, Fairyland was much the best in a Curragh Listed race over distance and going. She was good enough to win first time up this season, too, something only three of 26 have been able to do for the yard in 2018. The other two to achieve that are So Perfect (close up fourth in the Queen Mary on Wednesday) and Just Wonderful, who lines up here and is the choice of Ryan Moore.
Moore rode both fillies on debut but it was Seamie Heffernan who rode Fairyland to that Marble Hill success last time, and it may be that he keeps the ride rather than Ryan had the pick. That is, obviously I hope, so much guesswork on my part. At any rate, Ballydoyle have the top of the market between them, and I slightly favour the greater experience and level of form of Fairyland over the deeper potential of Just Wonderful.
In opposition are a number of unbeaten fillies, including the Mark Johnston-trained Main Edition. She has been impressive in winning a brace of novice events by more than three lengths each time, and on ground ranging from soft through to good to firm.
Wesley Ward runs Stillwater Cove, winner of her only start in America. She was all out to hang on over four and a half furlongs there, and though she is bred for this extra 33% range, Ward's record in the race stands at 0 from 7 (1 place). Indeed Ward's record at Royal Ascot in six furlong juvenile races reads 0 from 10, one place. Now that's not a sample upon which to hang a man, but set next to his five furlong record (7 from 25, including Shang Shang Shang yesterday) it is pause for thought.
Of more interest in the overseas raider department may be the French brigade of Reponse Exacte, Byron Bay, and No More Regrets.
It was Matthieu Palussiere's Different League who prevailed in the Albany last term, at 20/1, and he saddles No More Regrets this time. Bought on Monday by the Leicester City owner for £130,000 after running second in an Italian Listed contest, this lass doesn't look to have that one's class, though it is a bit of a guess that that's the case.
Reponse Exacte hacked up in a little race in France last week and is turned out quickly here. That rapid return didn't stop Calyx winning the Coventry on Tuesday, and at 33/1 she is the sort of blind pennies guess I like in a race like this. She was bought at the breeze up sale in May so had clearly done a fair bit of work already.
The other Frenchie is Byron Bay, winner of a six furlong Chantilly maiden in May. She was more patiently ridden than Reponse Exacte but pulled right away by the finish and it might be that that is a more appropriate run style for this big field straight six. It's somewhat irrelevant inasmuch as we're very much in stab in the dark territory, but again 33/1 is worth a quid, maybe two. That boy Barzalona rides.
Not a race about which to be confident.
3.05 King Edward VII Stakes (Group 2, 1m4f, 3yo colts & geldings)
The Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival has acquired the monicker, "the potato race", but perhaps this one - the King Edward VII Stakes - is more befitting of such root vegetable likenesses. Fripperies aside, I have no idea which of these lightly raced improvers might claim primacy in the 'Ascot Derby'. [No, I definitely prefer 'the potato race'!]
What I do know is that outsiders don't win it: 12/1 Eagle Top was the biggest priced victor in more than twenty years; and the first three in the betting have won 16 of the last 21, with nine jollies obliging (43%, +10.25).
The jolly is Delano Roosevelt, sixth in Masar's Derby. He has some good form, but it is shy of top class so, in spite of history, I'm looking further afield, though not much further.
It is the Johnny G-Frankie D axis, teaming up here with the China Horse Club's Raa Atoll, which draws the eye. Second to Nordic Lights on debut, he has won both starts since, most recently when sauntering clear of an equally well-fancied stablemate in a Leicester novice. There were four and more lengths to the rest that day with only the fifth and sixth having run since: the fifth won, and the sixth ran third in a similar race.
Gosden has had three winners of this race, in 2005, 2011, and 2014, and another seven placed, from 18 starters since 2000. His record since 2010 reads 21312(83)(52), the brackets denoting two runners in each of the last two years. With no runner in 2013, that means JHG has hit the board in every King Eddy in which he's been represented since 2010. That's good enough for me.
3.40 Commonwealth Cup (Group 1, 6f, 3yo)
This new race is turning out to be an inspired decision. Not only has it produced some scintillating winners - my favourite was undoubtedly Muhaarar in the inaugural running - it has also invigorated the entire three-year-old sprinting division, and added value and fashion to such pedigrees in the breeding sheds. Nice job.
Muhaarar was also the toughest winner of the three thus far to find. His 10/1 starting price looks wild next to Quiet Reflection's 7/4 and Caravaggio's 5/6; and it has been a feature of the race to date that the market has a solid handle on the best horses. Last year, the first three in the betting were the first three home.
It's a bigger field this time, and seemingly a more open contest, and yet still the pair of Equilateral and Sioux Nation at the head of the market stand out. Equilateral had the stopwatch hounds barking after winning a Doncaster novice by eight lengths last month; he lacks the experience and proven class of some of these but that was obviously a massive effort and puts him right in the frame.
SIOUX NATION by contrast has the top level form: he won the G2 Norfolk Stakes at the Royal meeting last season, following that up with success in the Group 1 Phoenix Stakes (six furlongs, good to firm). Beaten twice on the soft side of good after that, he bounced back on his second and most recent run of the current campaign with a Group 3 win (six furlongs, good to firm).
The feeling is that he needs fast ground - his form is 2111 when hooves have rattled, the wins coming in G1, G2 and G3 company. Sioux Nation is drawn wide apart from Equilateral, and looks to have the speed horses in his part of the track. That ought to provide some tension to the race pace elastic band, if you see what I mean, and allow Ryan Moore's mount to find his stride and surge through, as is his wont.
There should again be little between Sands Of Mali and Invincible Army, but if you want one at a price with which to take a chance, then perhaps Clive Cox's Heartache, winner of the Queen Mary at this meeting last year, is too big at 25/1. Sure, she flopped on debut this season, and yes, she may be better at five than six; but that was her 2018 bow, for which she's entitled to improve, and it was her first attempt at six. It is far too early to say she hasn't trained on, and Clive Cox can boast four Royal Ascot Pattern race sprint winners and four more places.
A terrific race in prospect.
4.20 Coronation Stakes (Group 1, 1m, 3yo fillies)
Another cracking race for the top of the market, it has often been the next stopping off point for the 1000 (and/or Irish 1000) Guineas winner, as it was for Winter who last season snaffled all three of those Group 1 pots.
So it is that the winners of those two Guineas, Billesdon Brook and Alpha Centauri, lock horns with the Newmarket victor offered at twice the price of her Irish counterpart. Throw in the French 1000 Guineas winner, Teppal, for good measure, and we have a worthy gathering of the clans.
Alpha Centauri came closest to arresting Different League's run for glory in the Albany last year before showing that she's a miler through and through by barreling her way home late in the Curragh Classic. Decent ground looks the key to her, on which surface she's 1121, compared with 50 on softer. Conditions are favourable then, but with her Classic formline open to question (though the 2nd there was 3rd in the Jersey Stakes) and at odds of around 3/1 the value must lie elsewhere.
Billesdon Brook was under-rated for the 1000 Guineas - she was sent off at 66/1! - but that doesn't look a fluke, with the second filly, Laurens, now a dual Group 1 winner in France; the third home, Happily, a dual G1 winner last year and thrice Classic placed this term; and four placed Wild Illusion subsequently second in the Oaks and claiming the same position in the Ribblesdale here yesterday. In short, her form is rock solid IF she can run to that level again. Sean Levey may need some luck in running if riding her patiently but she seems over-priced on what she, and the fillies around her, has done. She has a similar profile to 2013 1000 Guineas/Coronation Stakes winner, Sky Lantern, from the same stable.
The first two from the Poule d'Essai des Pouliches - French 1000 Guineas - reacquaint themselves here, David Simcock's Qatari-owned Teppal having shaded the verdict from the Japanese-owned Coeur de Beaute. Simcock's runner is less exposed, and is unbeaten, so looks likely to prevail once more, though it is hard to assimilate that form against the domestics. That said, it is worth noting that the 2015 and 2016 winners emerged from the Pouliches.
The cat amongst the pigeons is Clemmie. She was disappointing in the Irish 1000 Guineas, trailing home ninth. That was her first attempt at beyond six furlongs and, while she's a daughter of Galileo and sister to Churchill, she is out of a five furlong winner and may just be a sprinter plain and simple. She wasn't given a hard time at the Curragh and will improve for the outing, and the evidence is far from damning that she's a non-stayer... but at 7/2 she's a pass.
There are others in the field to have declined the Classic route thus far, but we have to go back six years to find a shunner of the bright lights who tripped it fantastic in the Coronation.
24 fillies, three-year-olds all, hurtling up the straight mile. I only hope that my life won't ever depend on finding the winner in such a race. Despite the perennially bumper turnout, horses priced at single figures have won nine of the last 13, and no winner for at least 20 years has been returned bigger than the 20/1 about Con Te Partiro last term. That Wes winner, tipped in these pages, was as welcome as it was surprising.
Handicap debutants have won ten times since 1997, but those 48% of the winners have come from 57% of the runners, and the percentage play value wise is look for those with a couple of handicap runs under their belts. Such experienced fillies may 'only' have won five of the last 20 Sandringham's, but they have achieved that from just 12% of the runners (5/43), and they have a better place strike rate: 28% compared with 20% for 'cap debs (and 'cap second timers).
One to fit this, granted potentially shoehorned, bill is Charlie Appleby's Dathanna. A winner of four of her last five starts - second on heavy in between - she's clearly progressive and experienced, and has run in - and won - a couple of conditions races since her brace of handicap runs as a juvenile. The daughter of Dubawi made all over course and distance last time, though that was on soft ground: indeed, apart from the obvious 'is she good enough?' question, the only other unanswered niggle is 'will the ground be too firm?' - in the circumstances, she's playable at 10/1.
The other checker of the two handicaps box is Wisdom Mind, Joseph O'Brien's filly currently a 25/1 play. She would be a longer priced winner than any for two decades as things stand, but there's a fair chance she shortens between now and post time - and in any case her price won't stop her winning if she's good enough!
Wisdom Mind sneaks in towards the foot of the weights, a perch of 85 having been unmoved for a third consecutive race. She's six pounds better off for a two length beating by Hence two back, and had terrible luck in running last time. She's certainly interesting at a price.
Ryan Moore rides Hence. I don't especially like backing Aidan O'Brien runners in handicaps, though they have won twice at the Royal meeting - Sir Isaac Newton and War Envoy in case you were wondering - and I'll let him/them beat me again this time.
In summary, there is a good chance a handicap debutante wins the Sandringham for an 11th time in the last 22 years. But trying to establish which of the 15 fillies (63% of the field) that might be is much too tricky. So I'll take a couple of more experienced guesses against the dark horses.
5.35 Duke Of Edinburgh Stakes (Class 2 handicap, 1m4f, 3yo+)
22 runners and nigh on impossible stuff. Ostensibly at least. Plenty of shorties have got it done in recent seasons, mind, and the high draw looks seriously advantageous: since the track was re-layed in 2006, eleven of the twelve winners emerged from a double digit stall, the last three winners coming from 21, 19, 19.
High draw, fancied runner then? Thundering Blue is the answer to that two-part request. David Menuisier's big improver was a highly impressive winner at York last time, but he'll need plenty of luck with his late running style.
Appeared, similarly highly drawn and almost as well fancied, has a more prominent run style. Roger Varian trains and Andrea Atzeni rides this six-year-old son of Dubawi. Second in the race last year from stall 18 and a mark of 101, he now exits stall 19 off a mark of 103. This will have been the target, he's gone well fresh before, including when winning a course and distance (good to firm) handicap first up last season. He'll do.
You want to be out in the clear in this race, jockeys in behind frequently made to look a lot worse than they are by the configuration of the course. Three wide three back is way better than on the rail two back generally speaking.
p.s. it is traditional for there to be no Saturday Ascot preview, a tradition that will continue to be upheld this year. You may very well be glad of that by 5.45 or so on Friday afternoon! Hopefully these posts have provided some insights and entertainment, if nothing else. Of course, hopefully they've nailed a good winner or two as well, but you don't need me to tell you that this is a meeting where it is generally way better to be lucky than good. At least, that's how I view it...
Two down, three to go, and humpback day at Royal Ascot, also known as Ladies' Day, features the centrepiece of the entire week, the Gold Cup. That stayers' Group 1 looks an excellent renewal, though wagering there - and indeed throughout the Thursday card - provides pitfalls aplenty. No matter, for on the day when lassies don their finery, rarely was it truer that faint heart never won fair maiden. So let's have a crack! We kick off in the...
2.30 Norfolk Stakes (Group 2, 5f, 2yo)
A shortish field of ten, though not hugely out of keeping with recent tradition. A few interesting patterns - let's call them trends - have emerged, as follows:
- All bar one of the last 15 winners had a pre-race RPR of at least 106. Only Vintage Brut, Konchek and Land Force fit that bill
- Six of the last ten winners were by US sires. Just Pocket Dynamo, Shang Shang Shang and Land Force tick this box
Land Force is of clear interest on this basis, then. But... he was beaten last time out, over six furlongs, and has never won at the minimum. Those are both negatives in the context of the trends. And yet I still want to be with this son of No Nay Never, the 2013 Norfolk winner. He showed good speed in the Listed Marble Stakes last time, only fading in the last furlong or so.
The other to catch my eye in a race where they'll pretty much all move forward on what they've demonstrated to date is Pocket Dynamo. The Robert Cowell-trained son of US stallion Dialed In is that sire's first British runner as far as I can tell. He was second in a Brighton maiden on debut - hardly Royal Ascot form, though the winner and third have won since - before showing more in winning a Chelmsford novice and then a quite valuable conditions race at Longchamp. He was tenacious in victory there, is more experienced than many and, with an RPR of 105, falls just one note short of ticking both my trendy boxes above. He's 20/1.
Wesley Ward's Shang Shang Shang is the favourite, and could win. In truth I don't know much about the horse, but I do know his trainer is 'only' one from six in the Norfolk, the solitary victor being the aforementioned No Nay Never. Four of his other runners were sent off bigger than NNN's 4/1 SP, with a number of them drifting notably on the day. Keep an eye on the market if you want to back this lady.
Vintage Brut and Konchek represent the Listed National Stakes form, running 1-3 there, and Racing Post consider it the best form in the race allotting them the top two RPR's. Vintage Brut had the favoured rail draw that night at Sandown, whereas Konchek was drawn wide and carried wider before rattling home. Clive Cox's colt must have a great chance to turn the tables on this fairer strip.
But I'll take Land Force and Pocket Dynamo at double digit odds against the field.
3.05 Hampton Court Stakes (Group 3, 1m 2f, 3yo)
The first of four races restricted to three-year-olds on day three is the Hampton Court Stakes. Such races are not really my thing, as I struggle to assimilate what horses have achieved with what they might be capable of doing. Today's preview will be lighter than usual on that basis, and should be taken more lightly also (unless I get all six winners, in which case I meant it, and I hope you backed them all!!)
Although only a Group 3, three of the last four winners - Cannock Chase, Hawkbill and Benbatl - went on to Group 1 glory. The other in that recent quartet, Time Test, was G1 placed on multiple occasions.
Godolphin have won the last two, and they own the early favourite for the 2018 renewal, Key Victory. A winner of his first two starts, he was beaten only three lengths in the French Derby last time. This will be his third run since the beginning of May and, if William Buick can hold a position, he should run well: the worry is that he might encounter traffic problems in this big field around the tight Ascot bends.
Charlie Appleby saddles Key Victory, and also Nordic Lights. This son of German stallion, Intello, was unraced as a juvenile and encountered defeat for the first time in the Dante Stakes at York. Disregarding the facile winner there, he was only a length and a half off second and should progress again. James Doyle rides.
Rounding out the Godolphin triumvirate is Saeed bin Suroor's National Army, who leaps up in grade after winning a novice stakes on debut at the start of the month. He beat fourteen rivals in a fair time and the second home has since bolted up in a similar race. Christophe Soumillon is an interesting jockey booking for a completely unexposed colt with a potentially good draw (if not held up).
Lots more unexposed types where your guess is as good as mine, but one other worth a quick mention is Mini P. Second in a Newbury maiden over this trip on his only start, his trainer Brian Meehan normally knows what he has and is capable of producing big priced surprises.
The Ascot Oaks. Ten more unexposed three-year-olds, some of whom ran in the Oaks at Epsom and some who did not. WILD ILLUSION is the clear form pick. She was fourth in the 1000 Guineas and second in the Oaks, clear of the third there. With no Forever Together to fret about here, a repeat of that Classic run gives her daylight over her rivals that day, though it could be argued that the well beaten and re-opposing Magic Wand didn't handle the track.
Of the rest, Sir Michael Stoute's novice stakes winner, Sun Maiden, looks the main danger. She won that little race by fully twelve lengths and in a fair time. It would be no shock if this typically beautifully-bred Juddmonte filly (Frankel half-sister to multiple Group 1 winner, Midday) prevailed but 3/1 doesn't set the pulse racing.
The likes of Musidora second, Dancing Brave Bear, and Johnny G's Highgarden are interesting projects for the season, but this looks a really good chance for the twice Classic-placed Wild Illusion.
4.20 Gold Cup (Group 1, 2m4f, 4yo+)
A super race in prospect even in the absence of last year's winner, Big Orange. The field is headed by the 2016 champ, Order Of St George, pipped by Big Orange in his repeat bid last term; and last year's Queen's Vase winner, Stradivarius, who went on to beat Big Orange at Goodwood. Further spice is added to the pot by the presence of French staying superstar, Vazirabad, himself a triple Group 1 winner.
In such a race as this we need to consider more than merely the respective form credentials of the field: pace is a key component. Last year, Big Orange was gifted a lead early in the race that he never relinquished, fending off the desperate late rally of Order Of St George and Ryan Moore in the dying strides.
Order Of St George is one of those hide behind the sofa horses. He has obvious class and stamina, but he gets beaten when he probably shouldn't a little too often for comfort. Although winning eleven of the twenty stakes races in which he's competed, he's been beaten at odds on in four of them, including at 1/7. Ouch. He was a little workmanlike last time in a Listed race but that was a prep for this. He may well win and good luck if you want 7/4 about that. I do not.
Stradivarius is the other vying for market leadership. As well as the Queen's Vase and Goodwood Cup, he was a very close third in the St Leger and Long Distance Cup in a terrific three-year-old season. He looked better than ever when bolting up in the Yorkshire Cup on his seasonal bow for this campaign, and could be the champion stayer in 2018. He does have to prove his stamina for this longer trip, something which is not a given for all that he looked robust enough at the two mile range. Again, 2/1 is insufficient in what is a hot race.
Of the front three in the market, I suspect VAZIRABADoffers a little value. Alain de Royer-Dupre's six-year-old has many T-shirts for being there and doing that: he's won two G1 Prix Royal-Oak's, a G1 Prix du Cadran, and has never been out of the first two at races beyond a mile and a half. Indeed, his full form string is 6211111/117121/211112-211, which is rather spectacular when you consider that the last 18 of those 22 runs have been in Group company.
He'll be ridden patiently, but as a veteran of so many races in France he clearly has the gear change required to quicken off a pedestrian gallop. 5/1 looks a very solid each way play.
With little obvious pace in the field, it may be that Torcedor, who adopted pressing tactics in a Group 3 here last time, may again play catch me if you can. He was a nine length fifth (when waited with) behind Big Orange last year, before running up in the Long Distance Cup on Champions Day and, most recently, that five length score last time. Ascot, then, holds no fears. Nor either does fast ground, so 10/1 could be another reasonable each way play - perhaps without the favourite - about a horse whose form ties in pretty closely on a number of lines with Order Of St George.
I'm struggling to make much of a case for the rest, the pick of which might be Desert Skyline.
Really looking forward to this one!
5.00 Britannia Stakes (Class 2 handicap, 1m, 3yo)
No idea. Genuinely no idea. Winners since 2007 at 33/1, 28/1, 25/1 and 20/1 twice mean the market has no idea either. Seriously, why the hell would anyone bet in a race like this?
Crack On Crack On was a good winner last time in a big field at Haydock, and he's ridden by geegeez-sponsored jockey, David Probert. He's improving fast, like most of these. Similar comments apply to Corrosive, who is now on a four-timer after a big field course, distance and going win last time; and Richard Hughes' George Of Hearts, who steps up to a mile having not quite reached the winner over seven here last time.
Twenty-seven others worthy of mention. Where's Mr Felt Tippy's magic pen sticker when you need him?!
5.35 King George V Stakes (Class 2 Handicap, 1m4f, 3yo)
More of the same for all that there are 'only' 21 runners this time. Draw has been material: double digit stalls have bagged ten of the last dozen. Why? Not sure, but I presume because it is very difficult to lead all the way in such a big field over such a trip; and if you don't lead from a low draw, you're probably in the pocket screaming for room entering the straight.
So on that basis I've deselected half the field. Honestly, if you've got a better idea, I'm all ears...!
This has been a decent race for the top of the market, too, with two-thirds of the winners since 1997 coming from the top four in the betting.
That leaves me with Cross Counter and Baghdad.
Godolphin colts have won three of the last four renewals, so Cross Counter is your winner. Maybe.
Royal Ascot really is a super tough meeting at which to back winners, and I make no apology for being almost flippant in some of my analyses above, particular in the last two races. This is probably a sensible time to remind readers that nothing on these pages constitutes financial advice - duh!
Good luck with your Thursday wagers. I've a feeling we'll need it!
In theory, Day 1 is the easiest. That may not bode well if you're already licking your wounds, but with 24 contests still to come there are many opportunities for salvation yet. And, if you went well in the opening skirmishes, don't be getting complacent now...
Day 2's revised line up starts with the juvenile fillies, and the
2.30 Queen Mary Stakes (Group 2, 5f, 2yo Fillies)
Two shy of two dozen fully unexposed fleet-footed fillies dashing harem scarem up the straight five strip: what could possibly go wrong? Where do I start? Perhaps with some numbers...
Peter May's figures have the following as top five:
So Perfect 82
Little Kim 79
Gossamer Wings 78
The rest 72 or lower
Timeform see Shades Of Blue (99p) as top of this pile, with Servalan (94p) and Come On Leicester (93p) next in.
Whilst keeping in mind that all of these young ladies are capable of stepping forward significantly, it is the case that some need to do so more than others regardless of which set of numbers one peruses.
The pace map, which again is subject to change as the field will respond unpredictably to the big occasion, might look a little like this:
Queen Mary Stakes pace map 2018
The above is sorted by draw, and we can see that there is plenty of pace on both flanks, perhaps marginally more so high than low. The fly in the ointment, and the missing line in the grid, is Chelsea Cloisters. Wesley Ward's juvenile entries always demand close scrutiny at this meeting, and they almost always burn away from the traps. Frankie has the steering job: he may elect to veer towards high numbers or to time trial it down the middle. Either way, his filly could be the speed of the speed.
It's a guesser's race, in truth, and one I'm not inclined to get seriously involved in. I'll be taking Clive Cox's Shades Of Blue, Richard Fahey's Kodyanna, along with the Wez wunner, on the placepot. And I might just have a tiny play on Karl Burke's Little Kim: she only won a Carlisle event on debut but did it in a decent time, with the yard's horses generally improving a fair bit from first to second run. She's 33/1, which is a guesser's price in a guesser's race.
3.05 Queen's Vase (Group 2, 1m 6f, 3yo)
Run prior to last year over a two mile trip, this step back to a mile and three quarters makes the Queen's Vase a trial for the St Leger. A field of twelve has assembled, among them Derby also rans and lightly raced staying types. Actually, the only Derby runner is ninth placed Kew Gardens who will be close to favourite for this. He had looked a stayer in the Lingfield Derby Trial before being used as a pacemaker in the Derby itself; here he's expected to be allowed his own head and has already demonstrated a touch of both stamina and class.
But there may be one (or two) to improve past him from this upwardly mobile collective. Lurching into the unknown as we are here, with most of these never having faced this sort of trip, pedigree can offer pointers. That said, I'm going to start on a tenuous footing by discounting the Galileo's in spite of their winning two of the last three, and four since 2007; and in spite of the race being cut back two furlongs. Feel free to skip what follows!
Geegeez Gold has pedigree data which helps understand the performance of sires based on their two-year track record. For instance, we can see that Kew Gardens is a son of Galileo out of a Desert King mare. Galileo's have won at a solid one-in-eight clip (12.43%) in flat staying races, and tend to do very well as three-year-old's. But 11/4 doesn't particularly excite about the pedigree/form combination, hence casting the net more widely.
We can see that Nelson, a son of Frankel, has more to recommend on pedigree. Out of the Oaks second and Irish Oaks winner, Moonstone, he is clearly bred to stay. Frankel's flat stayers have struck at a rate of 18.67% thus far.
Stream Of Stars, by Sea The Stars, also has an 18%+ hit rate with stayers; and look down the list at Henry Candy's Sovereign Duke. He's by Jukebox Jury, who has had 33% winners in flat staying races, and 53% placed. Out of a Lando mare, he's bred for stamina all day long, and yet this is his first try beyond ten furlongs.
Now, of course, it's possible he got found out in that Group 3 last time, but it is also possible that he didn't appreciate the lack of pace in the small field. Here, with Johnston and O'Brien saddling multiple runners, there is likely to be a strong gallop. Which makes 33/1 of mild interest: I'd rather be beaten six lengths with a 33/1 poke than a head at 5/2! Each to their own, I guess...
3.40 Duke Of Cambridge Stakes (Group 2, 1m, 4yo+ fillies & mares)
At last, a race with a bit of form and, therefore, a bit of hope of finding a winner. Only a bit of hope, mind.
The French have a great record in this race, including winning the last two renewals but, surprisingly, as unrepresented this year. Of the domestics, Sir Michael Stoute is the main man, with four victories since the race's inception in 2004. But he doesn't have a runner either. Crikey.
Yet still there are a couple of minor trainer angles, the first of which may be considered a negative. Saeed bin Suroor has saddled ten mares in this, none of them winners. Three of the ten made the frame and that could be the best that either Promising Run or Arabian Hope will achieve.
More interesting is the record of the brilliant James Fanshawe. He has had two winners in this race, and three further places, from just seven runners. The winners were 10/1 and 11/8 with placed horses as big as 25/1, all of which makes Tribute Act worthy of a second glance. She's finished second on her last two starts, either side of the seasonal break, both in handicaps and both here at Ascot.
Handicap form is not generally expected to be good enough to win a Group 2, particularly not with more exposed animals, and in truth it is only the Fanshawe angle that puts her in the mix. But she was close up behind Urban Fox on that '18 debut, with the William Haggas runner re-opposing and priced at half Tribute Act's odds. This will have been Fanshawe's target in which case his filly can be expected to step forward from her last run in a race where the 2016 winner was a similarly unconsidered price.
All that said, by far the most likely winner is HYDRANGEA, a Group 1 winner from a mile to a mile and a half last term. She carried a five pound penalty for that but is rated the best of these by six pounds and more and could progress again this season, as a number of O'Brien fillies have, most notably the superstar, Found. She'll undoubtedly come on for her opening run of the campaign (2nd in a Group 2 last time) so, in what looks a fairly shallow heat for a Group 2, the 7/4 Hydrangea may not last.
4.20 Prince Of Wales's Stakes (Group 1, 1m2f, 4yo+)
Seven go to post for this ten furlong Group 1 - each way backer sigh heavily, particularly in light of the presence of an odds on jolly. That imposing shadow is cast across his field by the mighty CRACKSMAN. He may have had a bit of a fright at Epsom last time, but it would be fair to say that he's no fan of that Möbius strip configuration: indeed, it could be argued that he should be marked up for being able to get the job done in the circumstances.
He is eight pounds and more clear of the next best on official ratings - Hawkbill - and the most likely in the field to run his race. I'd imagine he'll be sent off at closer to 1/2 than his current quote of 4/6, which actually looks value if you have a few spare sixes knocking about.
Poet's Word is comfortably second choice in the betting, which is good news for those of us who like to bet 'without the favourite' in such lop-sided contests. Good news because I think he's rather short all things considered. Yes, he hails from the Sir Michael Stoute Academy of Bring-'em-along-slowly's, and yes, he was a comfortable winner of the Brigadier Gerard Stakes (Group 3) last time; but he was trounced by Hawkbill in Dubai two runs back, and has never won at this rarefied level.
Hawkbillon the other hand has, twice. He won the 2016 Coral-Eclipse, and the Dubai Sheema Classic three months ago. There is often a doubt about Dubai form transferring to mid-summer races in England, something with which a heavy defeat behind Cracksman in the Coronation Cup at Epsom last time seemed to tally. But I expect Hawkbill to come on plenty for that and, hopefully over the jetlag, he can be backed each way without the favourite.
Cliffs Of Moher and Eminent are similar prices. The former must be considered a disappointing sort after promising so much with that close second in last year's Derby. He has since been beaten seven times from eight starts, the sole notch coming in a soft Group 2 at Naas.
Eminent, likewise, has largely let supporters down since a close fourth in the same Epsom showpiece. He too has a solitary hollow-looking Group 2 score in the interim. Although none of Cracksman's rivals are bombproof reliable, Hawkbill is the one with the two Group 1 victories, and the one with the best form this season. Hawkbill may also make the running, a fair tactic on this turning triangular circuit.
Of the rags, Royal Julius is only a pound behind Cliffs Of Moher on official figures. He followed up a heavy ground Group 2 second with a good ground Group 2 victory last time, albeit that was in Italy. That at least shows he can travel and win, so 66/1 might appeal to the Hail Mary players.
5.00 Royal Hunt Cup (Class 2, 1m, 3yo+)
No three-year-olds, as usual, that age heading for other pots at the meeting, so it's basically an older horse cavalry charge up the straight mile. Four-year-olds have won eight of the last eleven renewals, and represent the sort of unexposed improving type that plunders most of the Royal Ascot handicaps.
But... the average odds of those eleven winners were over 17/1, and the eight 4yo winners averaged out at just greater than 15/1. Further, 18 of the last 21 winners were aged four or five. What else?
Half of the last 20 Hunt Cup winners were first or second last time out.
That leaves nine: Zhui Feng, Afaak, Saltonstall, Repercussion, Escobar, What's The Story, Mukalal, Kynren, and Seniority, the last named - owned by HM The Queen - sneaking in as a result of a stablemate being declared a non-runner. Who'da thunk it?
Zhui Feng is the reigning champion, a been there seen that sort of guy who loves this place, big fields and fast ground. But he's eight pounds higher this time, and looks increasingly susceptible to younger improving types. Still, he's quite likely to run his race.
Drawn next door is Saltonstall, last day winner of a decent Curragh handicap and flying the flag for the 2016 winning stable of Mick Halford. He's lightly raced, has very good mile handicap form, including when second in a 20 runner field, and gets the tongue tie for the third time having worn it previously in the aforementioned win and second placed runs. 14/1 with as many extra places as you can get looks fair enough.
Repercussion is another with decent big field mile handicap form, but his best form is with cut in the ground; not so Escobar, whose last day victory on this sort of turf and over this trip marks him as an improver for the step up to a mile. But the other one I want on my team is David Barron's Kynren.
Hyper-consistent, the four-year-old son of Clodovil has career form of 311132, including in a mile Class 2 big field handicap, and he gave the impression last time that a fiercely run race would fit his bill. There's a bit of 25/1 knocking about as I write, and I'll try a slice.
The Queen's Seniority comes here in search of a hat-trick after back to back Chelmsford handicaps. That level turning all weather mile could not be more different from this straight uphill turf one so, while connections are greatly respected, my chips are chucked elsewhere.
5.35 Jersey Stakes (Group 3, 7f, 3yo)
A tough finish - not as tough as the Royal Hunt Cup, of course, but very tricky all the same.
Placed in any Guineas, or ran close ish in the 2000 Guineas, looks a route in, albeit one not lost on the market. The last four winners fitted that bill and, with the pure sprinters now squirreled away to the Commonwealth Cup, we have a theoretically easier task. That doesn't help too much when presented with 23 runners on the race card!
Those on my list are James Garfield, Expert Eye, Headway, and Could It Be Love.
James Garfieldcrossed the Atlantic last autumn to contest the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf: although no-showing that day, he bounced back with a win over seven the Craven Stakes on his seasonal debut. He's been kept busy since, with a four length seventh in the 2000 Guineas followed by a drop to six furlongs in the Sandy Lane Stakes where he again finished quite close but again failed to make the frame.
Staying on over six, not getting home over a mile, and a winner over seven this season... this looks ideal in terms of trip and ground, represents a drop in class, and he's close to top rated in the field. 14/1 is playable each way, again especially if you can burgle an extra place.
Expert Eye is a bit hot and cold: he was electric when winning the Group 2 Vintage Stakes, a performance that saw him installed as ante post favourite for the 2000 Guineas. Three subsequent defeats, two of them heavy, two of them behind James G give him plenty to find. A price of 9/1 does not appeal for all that a reversion to the Vintage form would make him very tough to beat.
Headway, a proverbial cigarette paper second in the Coventry Stakes last term, has a mixed score card since then. Third in the Gimcrack, he won a Listed seven furlong all weather prize first time up this season before running a limp race in the 2000 Guineas. He didn't have the best trip there but even so was disappointing and has a little to prove now. Again, his price is short enough all things considered.
Could It Be Love is the other I like. She just failed to get home when second in the Irish 1000 Guineas, so this drop in trip looks tailor-made. Ryan Moore steers the daughter of War Front, which is always a plus, and she'll further benefit from a three pound fillies' allowance.
Interesting horses abound, including the six-timer-seeking Society Power, Irish 2000 also ran Symbolization, Wesley Ward's US raider Hemp Hemp Hurray, and the trainer switching full brother to American Pharoah, St Patricks Day.
But I'll take Could It Be Love to lead them a merry one, before perhaps James Garfield sweeps by in the last half furlong.