It's Royal Ascot 2018, the finest week in the flat racing calendar. The finest but, from a wagering perspective, very far from the easiest. It's a meeting which, as a consequence of one too many bloody reversals, I personally take fairly lightly, and the following ruminations should be consumed in that context.
As well as this post, you may also be interested in Andy's Royal Ascot Day 1 Trends.
2.30 Queen Anne Stakes (Group 1, 1m, 4yo+)
The Royal meeting begins with a bang. Actually, given its G1-G2-G1-G1 opening quartet of races, it begins with a two hour firework display of equine superstars. The grand overture is the Queen Anne Stakes, a test of speed, class and stamina up the straight mile course.
As was shown in this article on Ascot pace and draw biases, it is very difficult to lead all the way on the straight mile here. While those waited with have fared the best of the four general run styles over course and distance, it should be noted that a number of recent winners of this race were more prominently placed in the opening quarter.
Deauville looks set for a relatively uncontested lead and if the race is run at less than championship pace, it may again suit those near the fore. Deauville's stable mate, Rhododendron, will not be far away; after needing every yard of Newbury's round mile to collar Lightning Spear (re-opposes) in the Lockinge, she appears well suited to this stiffer task. The only reservation is that this will be the first time she's raced on a straight track, and her first visit to Ascot. Regardless, she will give those mythical favourite backers a run for their money.
More appealing, though undoubtedly more of a punt also, is BENBATL. Godolphin's four-year-old son of Dubawi, unraced as a juvenile, was asked to do a number of things he couldn't last year - run over a mile and a half, and race on heavy most notably. In between twelve furlong spins, he was dropped to ten furlongs at Royal Ascot and duly won the Hampton Court Stakes.
This season he had four runs in Dubai, all over nine furlongs, winning three of them including, most recently, the Group 1 Dubai Turf. The stopwatch boys have raved about his times in the Emirates so, if he's been well enough rested since returning to Blighty, Saeed bin Suroor may 'have it right back at ya, Charlie' in this prestigious heat. He's worth a go at 5/1.
It's a deep race, though, and the likes of overseas raiders Recoletos and Yoshida may be slightly longer prices than they ought to be. At huge odds, Century Dream has a strikingly progressive profile. This is a big ask of course, and there's a slight reservation about the ground, but he may well run better than his odds imply, albeit that that may not be good enough to nick a place or more.
3.05 Coventry Stakes (Group 2, 6f, 2yo)
Total guesswork here... Here's what I know:
- No Nay Never has started very well as a sire and represents the Scat Daddy lineage - numerous strong performers at this meeting in recent years.
- Peter May's figures have Cosmic Law and Sergei Prokofiev at the top, closely followed by the once-raced Indigo Balance.
- 13 of the last 16 winners had either one or two previous career starts.
- Once-raced debut winners have fared well, scoring in the Coventry in 2007, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014, and 2017.
- Those off the track for more than a month have done very well, in terms of wins and places to runners.
That leaves me with a shortlist of two - though neither with especially high speed ratings: Advertise and Getchagetchagetcha.
The former is trained by Martyn Meade, winning comfortably in maiden company at Newbury, a race which has worked out quite well so far. The latter comes from the Clive Cox speed camp, and won his debut at this track. That was over five furlongs on softish ground in a four-runner field, however, meaning he has a bit more to prove against conditions than the Meade runner.
I'll take a chance on another once-raced debut winner in the form of Jessica Harrington's Indigo Balance. He won a six furong Curragh maiden beating Decrypt, himself a subsequent winner.
In an open race where those at the head of the market - Sergei Prokofiev (Scat Daddy), Calyx (debut winner), Cosmic Law (No Nay Never), and The Irish Rover (No Nay Never) - all tick one box or another above. But in a race where guesswork is the order of the day, why not side with a couple of 'could be anything' blank canvasses at a price?
Advertise and Indigo Balance for small stakes.
3.40 King's Stand Stakes (Group 1, 5f, 3yo+)
Back to Group 1 action, and a five furlong dash. There are some very fast starters in this field, perhaps none more so than the electric Kachy, whose performance when smashing his rivals by nine lengths at Chester had to be seen to be believed.
That was Chester, around the bend, and this is Ascot up the straight; that was a Class 3 and this is a Group 1: rapid he is, but I doubt he has the class of a number of these.
Lady Aurelia is also lightning from the stalls, and she comes here bidding to defend an unbeaten course record: she beat a field of 17 by seven lengths in the Queen Mary of 2016, and she beat the same size field in this race last year, prevailing again by daylight, three lengths on that occasion. The daughter of Scat Daddy will be very tough to beat if turning up in that sort of form. But she was beaten on her seasonal bow, albeit when very likely half-cooked and with this in mind. She's going to be a short enough price as the second most popular Lady on Day 1 of the Royal meeting, but I couldn't put you off her.
Battaash is perceived to be Lady A's main rival, this fellow having been a new man since suffering the misfortune of decoupling after fluffing his lines in the 2016 Windsor Castle at the Royal meeting. He's not returned to this piste in the interim so there is something of a leap of faith required to back him at around 9/4, for all that when he's good he's very good. He was generally very good last season, in fairness, and his narrow last day triumph can probably be marked up a jot. Still, of the pair, I'd rather be in Wesley's corner and that of his marauding mare.
The quest for a value loser is not always in vain in this race - as Choisir, Equiano and Goldream have all reminded us since 2003. In that spirit, and although I don't especially fancy him, Washington DC advertised his outside chance when chasing Battaash home at Haydock last time. The five-year-old son of Zoffany has only won once over the minimum since his juvenile season; but then, way way back in 2015, he did win the Windsor Castle from 26 rivals. He's quirky and a late runner, and it is hardly in his favour that Ryan Moore has plumped for a thrice-beaten-this-season stable mate upon which he doesn't wear the Coolmore silks; but 16/1 might just make the frame for the ever more accomplished-looking Donnacha O'Brien.
But, actually, the more I look at it, the more I think LADY AURELIA will win.
4.20 St James's Palace Stakes (Group 1, 1m, 3yo)
My heart is screaming for the underdog, Roger Teal's Tip Two Win. Not only trained by one of the sport's lesser-known names, he is ridden by one of the more under-rated jockeys in the weighing room, David Probert (who just happens to sport the liveries of this 'ere website on his breeches). It would be spectacular for Roger and David, not to mention owner Anne Crowley, if he could prevail.
Having finished closest to Saxon Warrior in the 2000 Guineas, he has a legitimate chance, too. That followed up solid two-year-old form and helped sandwich a brace of lucrative victories in Doha around the turn of the year. Sure, he hasn't the progression of some of these but he has the most in the book of all of them. Come on David!!!
OK, partisanship aside, the most exciting horse for neutrals is probably Without Parole. Trainer John Gosden has brought this fellow along slowly, shunning the bright lights for wins at first Newcastle (actually, that was under the bright lights, last December!) and then Yarmouth, before raising his sights a touch in the Listed Heron Stakes.
That trio of wins are only mildly interesting in or of themselves, but the manner of victory, particularly on Without Parole's second start, has flagged him as a colt of rare potential. The problem for would be backers of a horse stepping up to Group company, not to mention Group 1 company, for the first time is that his price suggests he's already an established top tier performer. As such, fully cognisant that it may end in tears, I want to try to take him on.
Romanised, another from an unfashionable stable - this time that of Ken Condon, bounded forward from his 2018 bow to put the Irish 2000 Guineas field to the sword in convincing manner last time. As a two-year-old, he ran second to Masar, form which obviously looks oodles better in light of the latter's resounding Derby success. He, like Tip Two Win, is more exposed but has achieved more.
French raider Wootton is also a very interesting contender. Unbeaten in three going into the French 2000 Guineas, he was two lengths fourth there. He didn't get the run of the race off what looked steady fractions, and he ought to be suited by a quicker tempo this time. However, whether he wants fast ground remains to be seen. Trainer Henri-Alex Pantall is 0-14 in Britain and Ireland since 2013, including unplaced runners at 5/2, 5/1, 7/1 twice and 8/1.
And what of Gustav Klimt? Like his namesake's paintings, this fellow has always been more impressionist than lifelike when it comes to top class winning form, though it should be remembered he was Saxon Warrior's better-fancied stablemate in the lead up to the 2000 Guineas, and he did run third in the Irish equivalent. Progressive as a juvenile it is starting to look as though he hasn't improved from two to three as much as others in the line up, though he retains the scope to bounce back yet.
This is a truly fascinating clash of established form versus unexposed early-season three-year-olds, and it is hard to choose between them. What is for certain is that my heart says Tip Two Win; but one rarely needs to invest capital where one is already emotionally in the game. Thus it becomes a choice between the unexposed sorts Without Parole and Wootton. The former may be the pick for all that I don't want to back him at the price. Indeed, I'm not betting in the race: it's too difficult with not enough meat on any wagering bone to justify a punt.
5.00 Ascot Stakes (Class 2 handicap, 2m 4f, 4yo+)
Twenty older horses, many of them used to facing obstacles rather than morning suits, and the first of the week's near impossible handicap puzzles. A trend may be our friend in the circumstances, so here are three:
13 of the last 16 were won by a predominantly National Hunt stable, including the last eight
10 winners since 1997 (92 runners) won last time out, for a LSP of 19.50 points
The best win and place strike rates were achieved by horses returning from an absence of 14-60 days
That leaves five, though there is a strong possibility that bubba was lobbed with bathwater in the above. Did I already mention I find this meeting tough?
No matter, for our shortlist looks promising, as follows: Whiskey Sour, Look My Way, [White Desert, Sam Missile], Garo De Juilley
Outsider Garo De Juilley has not been seen on the level since notching a four-timer in France in the autumn of 2015. The last of that quartet was in a big field mile and a half Saint-Cloud handicap, where as far as I can tell he carried top weight off an official rating of 43.5, which I think equates to 95. I might be wrong here, but that gives him a bit of a chance off the same mark. He's changed stables twice since then, first to Paul Nicholls and now to Sophie Leech, for whom this will be the six-year-old's first run. He's fit from hurdling and might run better than 66/1, especially if you can nab a bonus place or two.
More likely perhaps is Whiskey Sour from the Willie Mullins yard. Mullins has won this twice in the last three years and three times in the last six. He has other bullets to fire but none with the matching profile to my guessing game trends above. This five-year-old had a successful hurdling season, including winning a Grade 1 at Christmas and running second in the Punchestown Champion Novice Hurdle (also Grade 1) when last seen. He won his final two flat starts last term, both fifty grand big field Galway Festival handicaps - in the space of five days, so comes here progressive in that sphere and battle proven. Christophe Soumillon is an eye-catching jockey booking for the 10/1 chance, though Whiskey Sour will need plenty of luck in the run if adopting his usual hold up tactics.
Look My Way repelled the fast-finishing Coeur De Lion in the consolation Chester Cup last time and ought again to get first run on that rival. But the stiffer test of Ascot could play to the presumed stronger stamina of the latter who may finally bag the big one he's promised for so long - albeit that it will be too late for connections who flogged him at the sale last month (looks like some of the outgoing syndicate bought him back in for £110,000, half of which they could claw back here).
Charlie Appleby is looking to supplement his Derby win with a Royal Ascot score to truly mark his 2018 season. He'll have a number of fine chances in better class races than this, but White Desert should not be under-estimated. It may not have been much of a race he won last time, in the context of this gig at least, but he won it by six lengths. The application of first time cheekpieces may have been a factor, and those are retained. He has solid turf form as well as the services of William Buick, who rides the course well.
A winner at the track last month, Sam Missile bids to double up in this notably better race off a seven pounds higher mark. That will make life trickier but Jamie Osborne's five-year-old remains unexposed at staying trips.
The last two above are, of course, not from NH yards, so as per the arbitrary pruning of the field at the start of this race preview, I'll choose from the other trio. Whiskey Sour's run style concerns me in a race of this nature: he might have a lot to do in the last quarter mile and there will be plenty of horses going backwards and getting in his way in the short home stretch.
Garo De Juilley is worth a very small each way fun punt, as his flat form of old was both progressive - he's on a five-timer - and high class. The ground is a bit of a question mark, how much flat ability he retains is a bigger one, but 66/1 justifies the tickle.
Look My Way is usually thereabouts, stays quite well and is likely to be in the right place turning for home; with his trainer in fine form just now, 16/1 is fair enough even if there is a chance that Coeur De Lion - among many others! - will go by him in the final furlong.
5.35 Wolferton Stakes (Listed, 1m2f, 4yo+)
A change to both the race order and conditions, with the Windsor Castle moved to later in the week and its replacement as the Tuesday nightcap, the Wolferton Stakes no longer a handicap. It might have been marginally easier if it was a handicap in truth as 5/1 the field attests.
I genuinely have no clue how this will play out, so the following is little more than to fill the gap between race five and the end of the piece. With that said, if you're still reading, John Gosden won three of the last seven handicap renewals and has also had two placed runners, from ten sent to post.
Johnny G saddles two here, the better fancied of which appears to be Monarchs Glen. This Frankel gelding seemed to be getting it together at the end of last season with a brace of wins in Listed and Group 3 company. That was prior to a thumping in a Dubai Group 1 first time up this season. If one can overlook that setback - class and the travel are acceptable excuses - and if he can pick up that previously ascendant thread, then 10/1 is fair in a race which is no great shakes. Frankie Dettori rides, his mount wearing a hood for the first time.
Gosden's other runner, Muntahaa, has been disappointing since winning a mile and a half Group 3 last midsummer. But the fact he won a G3 puts him a step ahead of many of these, with race conditions (fast ground, decent pace, big field) reasons to be hopeful.
Elsewhere, Henry Candy has an excellent record when teaming up with Harry Bentley (11/31, +18.49) in the last two years, and they try with the filly, Chain Of Daisies. She looks like she might get a softish lead, and may find this more straightforward than the Group 2 Musidora she contested last time. The shorter straight here than at York is in her favour making 16/1 attractive about a filly with a verdict over Ulysses in her back catalogue (same ground and distance, Group 3).