2:30 Norfolk Stakes
A surprisingly small field for a 2yo race at Royal Ascot featuring nine runners which may be eight if Mind Of Madness (only 15th in the Windsor Castle as second-favourite on Tuesday) is withdrawn. After the Coventry, the Norfolk Stakes is the best two-year-old race at Royal Ascot for punters to get really stuck into with eight of the last 11 runnings going the way of the favourite or second-favourite, positions in the market currently held by The Great War and Baitha Alga. The Great War had been ante-post favourite for the Coventry Stakes up until his non-declaration on Sunday with connections preferring to keep him to 5f like for his two wins from as many starts and, of winners since 1997, just three had previously been tried at further than five furlongs. His connections withdrew him on the day when he would have started hot favourite to win a Listed race two weeks ago on account of soft ground so this drying surface is very much expected to suit and, physically, he is a most imposing looking individual for an early-season two-year-old. Baitha Alga was beaten on his debut but impressed at Chester where he had to wait for a gap before coming clear and he also impressed winning the Woodcote Stakes (Listed) at Epsom on Derby Day where he never really looked in any danger of defeat as he tracked the leaders and led over 1f out and ran all the way to the line. His stable have secured victories with Niche (1992), Lucky Lionel (1995) and Baron’s Pit (2002) in addition to saddling two runners-up going back to 1994. Woodcote winners don’t have a good Royal Ascot record however, maybe it comes too soon afterward?
From far fewer runners than the Hannnon stable, Mark Johnston has won the Norfolk Stakes with Russian Valour (2003) and also supplied two seconds on the last six occasions where he has saddled a runner and he runs Mukhmal who followed up a debut win at Musselburgh with a victory in the Lily Agnes at the Chester May Meeting from the widest draw and giving weight all to his rivals. Given his early speed he found himself in front from the start to overcome the number 10 draw on that occasion to made all and it wouldn’t surprise me if he challenged Baitha Alga hard for second-favouritism. The recent Roll of Honour of winning sires is packed with sprinters so it is no surprise that 15 of the last 18 winners were by stallions with a Sire Index of no bigger than 8.3 furlongs. The Great War is by a sire who with a SI of 8.6f. More significantly, however, is that eight of those 18 winners were produce of stallions with a Sire Index of less than 7f as there aren’t too many of them and Mukhmal is by Bahamian Bounty whose SI is 6.3f. Wesley Ward saddled his fourth 2yo winner of Royal Ascot when Hootenanny won easily on Tuesday after being well backed and he was not considered his best chance of the meeting (Spanish Pipedream in the Queen Mary was according to his sound bites) so To Be Determined is not to be dismissed lightly and the yard won this race last season with No Nay Never beating an O’Brien-trained favourite in Coach House into second. His sole start saw him finish third beaten 8½l at Churchill Downs where he disputed the lead until the final furling so it would appear that he has the raw pace for the 5f Norfolk and it is a question of how much improvement he will find on that debut run. Plenty I imagine or he wouldn’t be travelling across the Atlantic Ocean but just two Norfolk Stakes winners since 1991 had tasted defeat on their previous start. Mignolino and Fine Prince were also beaten last time out (as was Mind Of Madness if he runs), in fact, all three could not even place so they would not be for me.
Ahlan Emarati and Snap Shots arrive here off the back of winning their only start. Ahlan Emarati is trained by Peter Chapple-Hyam who has won this race on three occasions but he has not run since winning at Bath two months ago and I don’t associate Bath as being a place to run Royal Ascot winning quality horses. Snap Shots made his winning debut in a six-runner race at Haydock for the Tom Dascombe yard where he made all having been nicely backed in what looked a decent race as the runner-up was also very well fancied.
CONCLUSION - The Great War is the one to beat and he reminds me a little already of Johannesburg who won this race for the same stable being a physically-imposing type for his age but arguably he is tight enough at 11/8 against a professional Woodcote winner in Baitha Alga, a probable Wesley Ward-trained improver in To Be Determined and, most notably of all, the speedy Lily Agnes winner, Mukhmal, who represents a yard with a great record in this race and he looks each-way material to me at around the 11/2 mark with maybe the ‘dead eight’
3:05 Tercentenary Stakes
Previously run over 1m4f and also known as the Hampton Court Stakes up until 2011, this contest was upgraded from Listed status to Group 3 three years ago having been a 1m2f handicap since 2000 so only patterns from the turn of the century are of interest. A contest featuring mainly progressive three-year-olds from the top stables in recent years, of the 14 winners since 2000, six had been contesting and getting beaten in Group races, three others contested a maiden on their last start with another three running in a handicap last time out. Eight of the last ten winners could be found in the first four in the betting and those market positions are currently held by Cannock Chase, Obliterator, Mutakayyef and Barley Mow.
The horse I like is Cannock Chase who won the London Gold Cup handicap at Newbury last time out. That handicap has a strong tradition lately for bringing on later-developing three-year-olds that go one to much greater success and not only did Cannock Chase win what looked a strong running in fine style where I particularly liked the way that he ran right through the line, the right horses also followed him home. There was talk of the Group 2 King Edward VII Stakes, a race in which the same yard’s Hillstar won last year after he was beaten in the London Gold Cup, after the race but they have opted for this easier option and to stick at 1m2f for the time being. I concluded my argument for included him in the Horses To Follow section with “It wouldn’t surprise me if he ends up being the best 3yo middle-distance horse in Britain come the autumn if he improves like I think he will for the step up to 1m4f as he has the make and shape of a horse crying out for that trip.” That was probably a tad ambitious and I might have been getting carried away but I do fancy that this race over 1m2f will be another step up on the ladder.
Four of the nine runners met in a Listed race at Newmarket at the Guineas Meeting when Barlow Mow beat Mutakayyef by a neck with Postponed 2½l back in fourth and Cloudscape the disappointing favourite when a well beaten fifth. Since then Barley Mow has finished fourth of five in a bunch finish in a Listed race at Goodwood, Mutakayyef won a Sandown maiden by 7l at long odds-on on soft ground, Postponed has remained in his box and Cloudscape, who had earlier won what is usually an informative handicap at the Craven Meeting, was beaten into second off a handicap mark of 95 in a seven-runner handicap. Of that quartet, I fancy Mutakayyef has the most improvement to come and he would be my pick to come out on top of the four.
Spark Plug brings an unbeaten record of 2-2 to the table and Brian Meehan’s charge won a Bath maiden before just winning at Doncaster in a handicap off 86 so he has to find improvement as he faces six horses rated 100+ plus Cannock Chase. Somewhat was second in last year’s Chesham Stakes at this meeting but has plenty to find on 3yo form having finished fifth in the Fielden Stakes some 7l adrift of Obliterator. The field is completed by Stormadal who has 17lb to find on official figures with the top-rated Obliterator and was 7l behind Cloudscape when they met at Newmarket three weeks ago.
CONCLUSION - I respect Mutakayyef and Obliterator but like the chances of Cannock Chase most of all.
3:45 Ribblesdale Stakes
Not a massively strong trends race and it generally pays to look to a later-developing improver as just five winners in the last 19 years had been contesting Group races as juveniles so the Ribblesdale boasts a very similar pattern to the colts’ equivalent of this race at the Royal Meeting, the King Edward VII Stakes.
Five of the last six winners had won at Group or Listed level of which there are four in today’s line up so I will look at that quartet first and they are headed by the unbeaten-in-three Italian-trained Final Score who won her first two races on soft ground by wide margins before taking the Group 2 Italian Oaks at a shade of odds-on by half a length from her stablemate on decent ground so she is not a mudlark. However, she is penalised 3lb for that win and an Italian Group 2 wouldn’t be the equivalent of likewise in Britain, Ireland or France so effectively she is penalised for nothing too special. It can be unwise to overlook Italian horses in Britain however which is what many will automatically do but she has to be respected being an unknown quantity to an extent. Aidan O’Brien has turned to a hood for the first time for Bracelet who beat the well-touted Balansiya in the Irish 1000 Guineas Trial before only finishing 14th behind Miss France in the 1000 Guineas having been a quite well-fancied 11/1 shot. She did well to win that Group 3 at Leopardstown previously as O’Brien’s horses were needing their runs at the time but the runner-up would not have appreciated the soft ground and travelled like the best filly in the race. Aidan O’Brien’s Ribblesdale record is poor by his standards with two seconds from 13 career runners. In addition to Bracelet, O’Brien also runs Terrific who was a disappointing fifth as favourite in the Cheshire Oaks and Moore rides. Lustrous caused a 20/1 upset when winning a fillies’ Listed race at the Dante Meeting beating a filly I like called Radiator by a neck, an improved performance which rather came out of the blue. She did make most of the running at a meeting where it proved hard to come from off the pace so I have doubts whether she can build on that win here. Alain de Royer-Dupre and the Aga Khan send over Vazira who won a Group 3 on very soft ground at odds-on at Longchamp in April before finishing a 3l second to We Are (would have been fancied for the French Oaks but met with a setback) in the Group 1 Prix Saint-Alary for which she started favourite. In normal circumstances, Vazira would have gone to the French Oaks but his owner had the favourite in Shamkala. I have been keeping 3yo fillies by Sea The Stars on side this season with good success as I expect them to keep on improving as the season progresses and she has to be considered a big player. Over a longer period of time, 11 of the last 20 winners had previously won a Group or Listed race.
Winning form this season is a big bonus as 13 of the last 15 winners had won either of their last two starts which is a positive for Final Score, Bright Approach, Criteria, Lustrous, Talmada, Vazira and Wonderstuck. [ by Sea The Stars] after she was third in debut at Ascot behind Marsh Daisy. That decision paid off quickly as she then won a Newmarket maiden well at 11/4 showing a good attitude and this is the next natural progression to find out where she is. Four winners in the last 11 years won a maiden last time out. Bright Approach and Criteria both represent John Gosden who has trained a winner and four seconds in this race in the last ten years. Buick rides the Cheshire Oaks third, Bright Approach, so she would appear to be favoured ahead of Criteria who was just touched off in the Lingfield Oaks Trial as she would have the more scope for improvement on just her third start. Talmada was beaten 1¾l in a Newmarket handicap last time out off 90 so has it all to do.
Five winners since 1997 were being turned out again quickly after running in the Oaks (three of which finished in the first four) though only two of those came in the last decade and the sole Epsom representative this year is Inchila who finished a 4l fourth at 40/1 but might have finished second with a clearer run. It is guesswork though whether she can back that very good run up just 13 days later. The field is completed by the maiden, Nancy From Nairobi, and Emaratiya Ana who was fourth behind Marsh Daisy in the Goodwood Oaks Trial and both look out of the depth.
CONCLUSION - the Oaks fourth Inchila sets the standard but I generally like to take on horses who ran in the Derby and Oaks at Royal Ascot so soon after Epsom and prefer the chances of the other filly jostling for favouritism, Vazira, with Wonderstruck the best each-way option of those currently trading at double-figure prices.
4:25 Gold Cup
Estimate winning the feature race of last year’s meeting in the colours of The Queen made for a fantastic story but, let’s be honest, it was a poor renewal and she will do well to become the seventh of the last 18 returning champions to hold on to their title in a better running and off the back of a less-than-ideal preparation which will see her make her seasonal debut at Royal Ascot unlike last year. Yeats, Sadeem, Drum Taps and Royal Rebel won back to back Gold Cups in that time whereas Kayf Tara also won it twice but not in successive years. Simenon got to within a neck of her in last season’s race but he is 0-8 since which underlines last season’s renewal was a poor one and Estimate herself had no excuses when a 3l seventh to Royal Diamond in the staying race on British Champions Day on her only other start. Back in fifth last year was the German-trained Altano who was given far too much to do and has since added the Group 1 Prix du Cadran over 2m4f on soft ground so his stamina is in absolutely no doubt and he warmed up here with a Group 3 win over 2m at Hoppegarten. I like his each-way chances at a double-figure price if ridden closer to the pace and to come out best of those who ran in last year’s race and he is officially only 1lb shy of the top-rated Leading Light. History tells us that only exceptional horses over the age of six tend to win the Gold Cup, and stayers don’t get much more exceptional than Yeats who won here as a seven and eight-year-old, so I am happy to treat the four-time Gold Cup winner as an exception to the rule. Prior to Yeats, we have to go back 68 years to find the last winner aged seven or older which is against the likes of Altano (so why I see him more as an each-way play) and Tac De Boistron who he beat by 2½l to win the Cadran on soft ground and Marco Botti’s charge has since won the French St Leger (all aged race) on very soft ground, the Sagaro on soft going and finished second in the Yorkshire Cup. There are rumblings however that Tac De Boistron might not run if it is fast ground so even Good ground would therefore concern me.
Other contenders aged older than six and therefore statistically up against it are the Galway Hurdle winner, Missunited, who is very game but I am not sure she has the class, Simenon, and Royal Diamond who was a gutsy winner on British Champions Day (Pale Mimosa a close-up fourth) and prepped by splitting Leading Light and Pale Mimosa in the Vintage Crop Stakes and Johnny Murtagh had turned to Richard Hughes. I don’t doubt that Royal Diamond will improve for that return but I also feel likewise about last season’s St Leger winner, Leading Light, who was 4/1 a few weeks ago, before is prep race is now likely to start at under half those odds, as O’Brien left plenty to work on when Yeats won his four Gold Cups and also with Fame And Glory. Leading Light is also quite lazy so to win as he did on his seasonal return suggests that he has improved since last year. Having won the Queen’s Vase at 2m at this meeting last year, he shouldn’t really be failing for lack of stamina a year on as 2m in June at Ascot for a 3yo is a very notable stamina test. The Irish have won six of the last eight Gold Cups (clearly skewed somewhat by Yeats’ dominance winning on four occasions) and I can see that Vintage Crop Stakes being the key guide this year so I also wouldn’t rule Pale Mimosa out of running a big race as she was weak in the market suggesting she needed the run in her prep race.
Godolphin’s winning trio of Classic Cliche, Kayf Tara (x2) and Papineau were very classy middle-distance horses stepping up in trip so combine that with five winners for Coolmore with 1m4f horses as 3yos and such horses have held the advantage over horses always regarded as out-and-out stayers over the last 15 years or so which is in Leading Light’s favour. Yes, he won a St Leger over 1m6½f and Queen’s Vase over 2m but I have no doubt that he would also have been Group 1 class over 1m4f. Godolphin’s representative is Ahzeemah who just beat Simenon in the Lonsdale Cup last year after finishing second to Brown Panther in the Goodwood Cup and he returned with a 4l sixth in the Yorkshire Cup. He is not good enough to win on all known evidence but this longer trip may suit him but Brown Panther could easily be good enough as five of the last eight British-trained winners contested the Henry II Stakes which he won in style by 3½l to a good yardstick in High Jinx with Oriental Fox well held back in seventh. He has to prove he can stay but, like Leading Light, he shapes like it should not be a problem. That Group 3 event at Sandown was downgraded from a Group 2 three years ago despite being the most productive Gold Cup guide in recent years supplying eight of the last 20 winners. Havana Beat, Ralston Road and Shwaiman look out of the depth.
CONCLUSION - Leading Light was value at 4/1 before his prep win but looks about the right price now and arguably the price differential between him and Brown Panther is too big. The each-way value at a double-figure price is last year’s fifth and subsequent Group 1 winner, Altano, if ridden closer to the pace than 12 months ago who is only 1lb off being top rated so it would appear we are under-rating German horses yet again.
5:00 Britannia Handicap
Featuring 30 three-year-olds, many of which are unexposed and from top yards, for my money the Britannia Stakes is the most competitive (though not impossible) three-year-old handicap of the season. That said, despite its highly-competitive edge, it has actually been a very good race for favourites with five of the last 15 obliging including last season’s winner. In fact, 16 of the last 23 winners could be found in the first half-dozen in the betting which is good going for a race that is trumped up as being a punter’s nightmare. Many punters fall into the trap of backing a last-time-out maiden winner from a big yard but no horse with such a profile has won since John Gosden’s North Song 17 years ago. Richard Fahey’s bottom weight, Abbey Village, is the only contender with such a profile this year.
The last three winners won a handicap on their previous start which is in stark contrast to the previous nine runnings when beaten horses on their previous start came out on top and horses with that most recent winning profile are Table Rock at Naas for Aidan O’Brien following up a conditions race win at The Curragh and is now 2-2 in blinkers, Chatez for Alan King at Haydock when he was the Million Pound maker in the Scoop6, Hors De Combat at Newmarket on Guineas day for James Fanshawe where they also had him in the Classic but went for easier pickings, Legend Rising for Martyn Meade on soft ground at Chester, Ifwecan at Musselburgh by 5l for Mark Johnston so he may struggle off a 10lb higher mark, Idea for Sir Michael Stoute at Kempton in a good time and Minduryourownbusness at Yarmouth for David Simcock under Oisin Murphy claiming 3lb so with his 5lb handicap raise as well he is basically 8lb higher with Hayley Turner taking over. Of that septet, I am most drawn to Hors De Combat for a yard that does well in Royal Ascot straight-course handicaps and has had two placed horses in the Britannia with his last three runners and Idea who could be the proverbial Group horse in a handicap (though as eight of the last 15 winners were drawn no more than four positions off either rail I would have preferred them not to be drawn centrally), especially as just three of the last 24 winners have carried have carried over 9st which is a stat against Table Rock and Chatez. That stat is also against Bow Creek, Magnus Maximus, Zarwaan, American Hope and Complicit.
It has also paid to overlook horses that failed to notch up a top-four finish last time out as just two winners since 1991 did not adhere to this so Complict, Lyn Valley, Nezar, Zampa Manos (now in a first-time visor), Mawfoor, Pupil, Dubawi Fun, Bilimbi, Almargo or Madeed would be bucking this strong pattern if successful. Going back to and including 1994, with four winners, a second and two thirds from 28 runners, John Gosden knows what it takes to prepare a horse for this race and he runs Hunters Creek. Significantly, all four of his winners ended their juvenile season without a victory and also failed to break their maiden tag at first time of asking as a three-year-old but Hunters Creek did win once as a juvenile. Drawn in stall 1, Godolphin’s First Flight also interests me under Kieren Fallon. A winner on his debut, he has raced three times since including a third to Chatez last time on soft ground having also finished third to the progressive What About Carlo also on testing ground at Sandown. If he can improve for better ground, he then becomes interesting with the far rail to run hard up against.
CONCLUSION - my three stabs in the almost dark for a 30-runner handicap would be Hors De Combat, Idea and First Flight.
5:35 King George V Handicap
With 15 of the last 21 winners failing to win as a two-year-old, we should be looking towards the later-developing types in this 3yo handicap and preferably from one of the higher-profile yards. The more lightly-raced the individual, the more interested we should be and also respect the value of a good run last time out as 23 of the last 25 winners either won or finished placed on their most recent start so that would be against the likes of Carlo Bugatti, Bremner, Trip To Paris, Galizzi, Storm Force Ten, Fun Mac and the Mark Johnston-trained quartet of Stars Over The Sea, Fire Fighting, Swivel and Alex My Boy. However, it is worth remembering that Johnston has pulled off some shocks in this race before which he has won on an impressive five occasions and he has also supplied three close-up placed runners.
That big stat helps reduce the starting point from 22 to a more manageable dozen and, of those, Wrangler, Arab Dawn, Captain Morley, Venezia, Art Of War and Zee Zeely fit the profile of not having won as a juvenile so are later developing types so I will concentrate on that sextet.
Wrangler is chasing a hat-trick for William Haggas, and Ryan Moore retains the ride after he guided him to success at Haydock last time when the soft ground came into his favour big time. And that is the concern for his chances today as he loves testing ground and took a while to get on top so he may be too far back on this quicker ground before he really finds his feet as he looks a stayer in the making. Haggas also runs Zee Zeely who, after three defeats in maidens, then won on his handicap debut at Newmarket when buzzed up by first-time cheekpieces and he is now off an 8lb higher perch. After that victory his trainer described him as “a lazy bugger” so the headgear looks key to him if it works a second time. Arab Dawn has won all three starts this season starting off a lowly perch of 66 and now he is rated 90. A raise of 10lb for his last win by just ¾l at Kempton looks harsh enough but he won cosily under Hughes who has guided him to his last two successes but he is required for Windshear for Richard Hannon whose chances will have increased if Cannock Chase runs a blinder earlier on the card having finished runner-up to him at Newbury, so Jimmy Fortune takes the mount.
Captain Morley has finished second and first at Chester (he is owned by Chester-obsessed Marwan Koukash) on his last two starts and his previous two runs were at Woverhampton so Ascot will provide a very different test for him. There is no reason to suspect he shouldn’t treat Ascot like any other course and, if he improves for a more normal terrain, then he is a big player. The Melrose over 1m6f at York is on his agenda before next year’s Chester Cup so a strong gallop in a big field can suit him. Venezia is a maiden after four starts but the 66/1 winner, Cosmic Sun, five years ago was a maiden as was Heron Bay when scoring on his handicap debut in 2007 whilst the 1999 winner, Elmutabaki, was beaten in four maidens before winning here on his first start in a handicap, so I am not fussed about that at all. Runner-up on both starts this season beaten no more than half a length on both occasions in 13-runner Newmarket maidens, Martyn Meade is an adept placer of horses and he has booked the boy wonder, Oisin Murphy, who takes off a valuable 3lb for his handicap debut. On the latter occasion, he and the winner pulled 5l clear of the remainder and it usually turns out to be a good maiden, though the winner didn’t do much for the form last time out. Art Of War made it third time successful in maidens last time out when getting home by a short-head at Ripon so he needs to up his game.
The Charlie Appleby-trained pair of Personal Opinion (Buick) and Gold Trail (Atzeni) are also worth consideration. Personal Opinion has two Wolverhampton wins to his name before finishing a half-length second to the fancied Arab Dawn last time and meets him on 9lb better terms and Gold Trail was disappointing on soft ground last time but as a two-year-old he was second to the Oaks third, Volume, on this better surface.
CONCLUSION - I like the each-way chances of Venezia on his handicap debut and also have time for Captain Morley and Personal Opinion’s each-way chances who is weighted to turn the tables on Arab Dawn