Thursday, day three at Royal Ascot, Ladies' Day, features the signature race of the entire week, the Gold Cup, first run in 1807. The Ribblesdale Stakes, Group 2, further bolsters an exciting seven race card with three impossibly difficult handicap puzzles, a two-year-old Group 2 sprint and a Group 3 for the Classic generation completing the menu. As ever, we get underway at 2.30, with the...
2.30 Norfolk Stakes (5f, Group 2, 2yo)
The Norfolk Stakes, first run in 1843, was originally called the New Stakes and run over less than half a mile! It was renamed in reference to the Duke Of Norfolk in 1973.
Favourite this time is The Antarctic, for the Coolmore collective. He's two from two at this minimum trip, the second of which was when beating the smart yardstick, Mehmar, and subsequent scorer and Windsor Castle entry, Wodao. He's the pick of the Irish and may be the pick of the lot, but some have run faster than him to this point.
Walbank is one such. Football agent Kia Joorabchian has invested heavily in the sport in the last couple of years under the AMO Racing banner; and he forked out over half a million for this lad, the first foal of No Lippy - a three-time winner over five furlongs as a juvenile - by Kodiac, at the breeze up sales. A highly promising debut over course and distance when giving best only to Coventry fancy, Noble Style, was improved upon when bolting up by seven lengths in a four-runner York novice. He's obviously quick.
Andrew Balding saddles the once-raced unbeaten Bakeel, and we know already of the Kingsclere handler's deft touch in Royal Ascot juvenile events. Bakeel's win was over course and distance on good to firm, so no reservations about conditions. He will of course progress from first to second start as almost all of Balding's horses do.
Crispy Cat is another about whose level of form we will know more by race time. He's been close to both Maria Branwell and Blackbeard in defeat, those two fancied for earlier juvenile contests in the week. When I say 'close', he's a short head and a neck away from being three-from-three, with fresh air back to the third in the Listed National Stakes last time. I expect he'll be near the lead early.
If Pillow Talk runs here - she's still in Friday's Albany as well - she could be a contender. She beat her 14 rivals in the Listed Marygate Stakes at York last time and, while the margin was only a neck, she was going away at the death: that bodes well for the rise to the line here.
A typically competitive two-year-old race at the Royal meeting, with the winner almost certain to reveal more than the level currently in the book. As such, it's a question of value guessing! Pillow Talk, in receipt of three pounds from the colts, could give the boys plenty to think about and is offered as an each way play more in hope than expectation in a cracking little contest.
3.05 King George V Stakes (1m4f, Class 2 handicap, 3yo)
One of the quirkier draw biases in Britain is Ascot's mile and a half when big fields line up. For whatever reason, low numbers seem to have a devil of a job as the images below break down.
The first chart, above, is a simple percentage of rivals beaten (PRB) by draw third. Below is a rolling three-stall average percentage of rivals beaten (PRB3).
With PRB, every runner in every race receives a score for the percentage of rivals they've beaten. For example, in a five runner race, the winner has beaten 100% of rivals and the last home has beaten 0% of rivals. The second horse across the line lost to the winner but beat three others - he beat three of his four rivals and, therefore, had 75% of rivals beaten. Still with me? Good.
From there, we can calculate a PRB score for each stall, or for a trainer's runners, or for... well, lots of things. It's a really useful metric and is always my 'go to' when looking for a draw bias.
We publish PRB on a scale of 0 to 1, representing 0% to 100%; thus a PRB of 0.5 means 50% of rivals beaten, which is slap bang in the middle - no edge, positive or negative. A good PRB score is generally considered to be anything from 55% (0.55) upwards, while a poor PRB score is anything from 45% (0.45) downwards. Remember that, now!
Getting back to our second chart above, we see that stalls 1 to 6 are all at or around 0.45 or lower; this is not good. Stalls 7 to 9 or so hover on 0.5 - no edge - while stalls 10 to around 16 surge into the advantageous zone before the widest stalls of all lapse back towards 0.45 for box 19, the maximum width of starting gate used at this distance.
Because every runner receives a score, that means we have a sample size of 461 in spite of there only having been 26 races under these conditions since 2009, from when our data commences.
The management summary - and I appreciate some of you would have been screaming for this several paras earlier - is that a double-digit draw though probably not higher than 16 or 17, might be optimal, all other things being equal. Phew. [I wanted to share the above because I believe it has much more general utility for the more curious Gold subscribers, and I hope it might help you to gain a more nuanced understanding of draw biases].
Focusing exclusively on the presumed warm zone, let's start with Henry and Jamie - de Bromhead and Spencer - who might be something of an odd couple in one regard but who both know the time of day in another. They combine with Vina Sena, who has been held up in defeat the last four times, largely over ten furlongs. He's gagging for the extra quarter mile and looks to handle quick turf well. Naturally, a charmed passage will be needed but he's a very fair price about which to take that chance.
This is an interesting slot for the William Haggas handicap debutant, Post Impressionist, who was second to Eldar Eldarov (runs in the Queen's Vase on Wednesday). The trip should be no problem as a son of Teofilo whose mum won over hurdles (and was Group placed on the level). Depending on how the Vase goes, his opening mark of 89 could look lenient by the time they enter the stalls.
Israr is a Shadwell colt who has been running as if this mile and a half will suit better than the ten furlongs over which he won last time. That's hardly surprising given that his dam is none other than 2014 Oaks and King George heroine, Taghrooda. He's clearly bred to be good and we have not seen the best of him yet. He's another late runner from a presumed good draw.
And how could I not mention Clock Watcher horse, Franz Strauss? He was noted as an upwardly mobile type in this post in January since when he's run a middling sort of race in a ten furlong Nottingham novice having also run only fairly in a Group 3 the time before. Sights are lowered to handicap company, and Frankie climbs aboard for the first time.
A typical Royal Ascot handicap with oodles of unexposed regally-bred possibles. I'm going to split two units between three horses each way, such is my lily-livered uncertainty (whilst still wanting to be involved, natch). The trio is comprised of Vina Sena - could be a classic Jamie closer; Post Impressionist (bet him before the Queen's Vase, because he'll shorten if Eldar runs well); and Franz Strauss, who might have been pegged for this for a little while - he'd have needed that novice spin to qualify.
3.40 Ribblesdale Stakes (1m4f, Group 2, 3yo)
The 'Ascot Oaks', as just about nobody calls it, thankfully, was named after the fourth Baron Ribblesdale, Master of the Buckhounds between 1892 and 1895 and, these days, is contested by three-year-old fillies over a mile and a half having formerly been a mile race.
Three trainers since 1977 have notched five Ribblesdales: the late John Dunlop, Saeed bin Suroor and John Gosden. Saeed is without a runner this time and Gosden 2.0, the John and Thady variant, have decided against sending Oaks runner up Emily Upjohn just 13 days after her narrow defeat at Epsom. As it turns out, only six are declared to run.
With Emily absent, Sea Silk Road is quite a strong favourite having run like she was crying out for further when winning the Listed Height Of Fashion Stakes at Goodwood (1m2f, soft) last time. That was only her third career start so she is likely to progress from that perspective, too, and she'll be tough to beat if dealing with the much quicker turf.
Another for whom the longer distance looks a positive is Magical Lagoon, by Galileo out of a strong staying German mare whose progeny have already won over as far as two miles. Connections made plenty of use of her last time when, having raced prominently throughout, she was just out-sped in the closing stages of the Listed Salsabil Stakes (1m2f, Navan, good). It looks as though the Jessica Harrington-trained filly will be able to get a lead from Mystic Wells, but may again have to try to bring her stamina to the fore.
Mystic Wells herself has progressed from a Brighton handicap to winning the Listed Lingfield Oaks Trial last time. She will again try to lead her field from start to finish but will find this a good bit tougher opposition.
The Ballydoyle filly, History, cost a cool 2.8million guineas as a yearling and had looked faintly like justifying some of the massive price tag when going back to back in a Gowran maiden and a Leopardstown Group 3; but she was rumbled over the mile of the Irish 1000 Guineas and is now jumping half a mile up in trip. Out of a Showcasing mare, she is not necessarily bred for middle distances, though there is no track evidence yet that it will be beyond her. She has a bit to find on the book as well as the pedometer.
Godolphin have a ticket to the Ribblesdale party, too, and send their twice-raced Life Of Dreams. She was a facile winner of a Newbury maiden over ten furlongs on debut in April and then got closest to Emily Upjohn in the Musidora at York last month. That was still more than five lengths adrift of the Oaks second but she, like a number of her rivals, can be expected to progress further, and also has stamina in her pedigree.
Rounding out the sextet is Mukaddamah, trained by Roger Varian. She won a Wolverhampton novice on debut before taking silver in an Ascot conditions race over a mile, and then most recently a bronze behind Nashwa in the Listed Newbury Fillies' Trial (1m2f, good). She is yet another with pedigree and natural progression ahead of this tilt, though she has a little to find on numbers.
It was a striking performance by Sea Silk Road at Goodwood last time, albeit on very different turf, and she'll take plenty of beating if adapting to this faster lawn. A sporting alternative might be Magical Lagoon who will very much appreciate the extended distance and who might be able to get first run; the balance of her form to date is about as good as any of her rivals.
4.20 Gold Cup (2m4f, Group 1, 4yo+)
The highlight of Ladies Day is the Gold Cup, 215 years old, and for horses that have class and stamina in equal measure. The nature of the race, and of breeding fashion, means that we've been blessed with a clutch of serial winners, the latest of which was Stradivarius, who rattled off a hat-trick between 2018 and 2020. There was a feeling that he ought to have secured the four-timer but for a rare lapse from big race perfection by his peerless jockey, Frankie Dettori; whilst it's certainly true he didn't get a clear run, I'm unconvinced he'd have won on the day in any case.
Since then, the now eight-year-old has found Trueshan too good twice, both times on a softer surface, but has also won thrice, each time on sounder turf. Therein lies the crux of the matter: both Trueshan and Stradivarius appear somewhat picky about underfoot requirements. The former wants it soft or at least softish, the latter wants it quick or at least quickish. On this occasion, the weather gods appear to have smiled upon the three-time champ and, granted normal luck in running, he's going to make a bold bid once more.
But neither is favoured. That honour goes to Kyprios, a relative newcomer to the staying ranks who is now unbeaten in two since stepping up beyond a mile and a half. However, hitherto, he's only stepped up marginally beyond that range, and here will be invited to see out an additional three-quarters of a mile against teak tough veteran warriors. A 14 length last day win was all but expected - his SP was 1/10 - and I'm not (yet) buying the hype on this fella. He's the upstart, all right, but he still has several unanswered questions on his exam paper.
There are other pretenders in the field. Princess Zoe has been at the top table for a while now, winning the G1 Prix du Cadran (2m4f, heavy) in 2020. She was also closest to Subjectivist in last year's Gold Cup (good to firm), so we know she stays very well, has class and handles pretty much any turf. But she was five lengths second and it's hard to believe she'd have finished in front of Stradivarius if he'd had a clear passage. Princess Zoe warmed up for her Gold Cup tilt with a Group 3 score in the Sagaro Stakes on this track though at the shorter two mile range: she shapes up well against conditions, I just wonder if she has the class needed.
For dreamers and fantasists - that's me, in case you'd not already fathomed as much - there's an interesting one in the long grass. Brian Ellison trains Tashkhan, a four-year-old who has improved with age and racing from 0-70 handicaps to Group races. He was second here in the Group 1 Long Distance Cup on British Champions Day (two miles) - Stradivarius third - and was only three lengths behind Strad in the Yorkshire Cup (1m6f) last month. This longer distance looks tailor made, he handles all ground conditions, has only five lengths to find on official figures, and he's a bit of each way value at... wait, what? 40/1? First or last, that's way too big.
Mojo Star was last seen 278 days ago in the St Leger where he ran a mighty race to finish second. He occupied the same position when running an even more impressive race in the Derby so, if he is fit enough after that layoff and if he stays, he could be in the mix. Those are a couple of big if's but his class is demonstrable.
France comes to the Gold Cup via Mikel Delzangles' Bubble Smart. She was third behind Trueshan in the Cadran last October, and had previously rattled off a hat-trick at trips around two miles; but she's been beaten both times this season with no obvious excuses for a below par effort last time. She handles good ground but is unlikely to have raced on turf this rapid, which is another question mark.
This is a race that ostensibly revolves around Kyprios and Stradivarius in the presumed absence of Trueshan. If the last named does run, there are clear reservations about fast ground. Kyprios has to prove he stays this far and that he's a Group 1 horse - he probably does and he probably is, but his price seems to have factored more 'definitely' than 'probably' into it. I can see Stradivarius taking strong support with the Frankie factor in play, and I think he has a great chance to add a fourth Gold Cup to his sumptuous CV. If you want a hail mary play, consider Tashkhan, who looks like he'll appreciate the longer distance and has form in and around Strad and Trueshan - he's 40/1 or so.
5.00 Britannia Stakes (1m, Class 2 handicap, 3yo)
This is too difficult for me, frankly. A means of shortlisting three-year-old handicaps at the Royal meeting is this:
- Not making their handicap debut
- Ran 1st or 2nd last time out
- Won, or beaten two lengths or less last time out
That removes half the field. Alas, it also leaves half the field! A few of the remaining 15 I like the look of are:
Whoputfiftyinyou - unbeaten in four, he won a strong-looking handicap at Haydock last time beating St James's Palace Stakes-bound Mighty Ulysses. As with other entries in the second part of the week, we'll have a better idea on the merit of the form after other runners have franked, or clunked, the form. Held up to get the trip on his first try at a mile at Haydock, he saw it out very well and now comes to a race where closers are the de rigeur run style.
Tranquil Night - winner of his last three, the form of which has worked out very well. He was nearly four lengths too good for Outgate at Newmarket last time, that horse having won twice since. The 3rd, 4th, 8th and 9th have also won since, none of which were in the same postcode as the winner at the jam stick.
Atrium - another from the January Clock Watcher post, he was a three length winner over course and distance in early May since when he's been saved for this. Held up there, he stormed through to score decisively, and the second and third have both won since. The remainder were more than five lengths adrift of the winner.
Koy Koy - race was lost at the start last time when he was badly interfered with and almost fell; despite that he passed all bar the winner around Chester's Roodee, a track where it is almost as hard to overtake as the Monaco Grand Prix. Entitled to improve both for a straight mile and a second run of the season.
Obviously, millions of others with chances. Good luck but don't ask me to choose a winner!
5.35 Hampton Court Stakes (1m2f, Group 3, 3yo)
Contested since 2002, the Hampton Court has had other names: it was initially the New Stakes because, well, it was new; then, in the midst of its Hampton Court days, it was renamed the Tercentenary Stakes in recognition of 300 years of racing at Ascot. It has now reverted to, and presumably will remain - until 400 years of racing at Ascot at least, the Hampton Court.
I'm bound to say that that short gallop through the naming history of the race may be more exciting than either its victorious alumni or this year's entries, both of which could be argued are a trifle underwhelming for the Royal meeting.
However, there is a story hereabouts, and that is the odds on favourite, Reach For The Moon, is owned by The Queen. How wonderful most people would consider it were Her Majesty to enjoy a winner here in the year of her Platinum Jubilee. I would be amongst that group, though I respect others' right to be less excited at the prospect.
To the form, and we again will know more after an earlier race; in this instance, the St James's Palace Stakes will reveal more about the level of My Prospero's ability, RFTM having finished second to that Group 1 aspirant last time. He is already a Group 3 winner, last summer in the Solario Stakes, and was just a neck second in the G2 Champagne Stakes at Doncaster thereafter. Reach For The Moon is entitled to step forward for his seasonal pipe opener, is bred to relish the extra quarter mile and has the help of Signor Dettori up top.
Prospective party-pooper-in-chief is Claymore, second in the Craven Stakes on his only 2022 appearance. That form has worked out well with the winner, Native Trail, finishing second in the 2000 Guineas before winning the Irish equivalent. And third placed Hoo Ya Mal hardly let the side down when getting closest to Desert Crown in the Derby.
In contrast, the form of Cresta's second to Star Of India in the Dee Stakes at Chester took a whack when that one ran a stinker in the biggie at Epsom. I'm not sold on this four-time loser since a novice score so, naturally, expect him to win!
Hughie Morrison looked as though he had another good one on his hands when Maksud won in spite of greenness on debut, though some of that initial optimism dissipated with a close up fourth in the Listed Cocked Hat at Goodwood. Fully entitled to step forward again on this third career start, he'll need to find close to a stone on official figures.
The other pair, Howth and Kingmax, are not obvious contenders though could surprise if the race got extremely tactical.
Frankie will probably try to keep this simple by bouncing out and gradually winding up the pace in the hope of burning off his five rivals. I hope that he, and Reach For The Moon, achieve that. Next best looks like Claymore but aside from the Royal angle I'm not too fussed for this one...
6.10 Buckingham Palace Stakes (7f, Class 2 handicap, 3yo+)
Or this one, either... it is too hard for me. A little bird tells me Vafortino, winner of the course and distance Victoria Cup, might still be sufficiently ahead of his mark to go in again. I didn't want to risk wasting my time, and potentially your money, by offering any of my own thoughts on this most inscrutable of handicaps. The bar beckons...