The Covid-19 pandemic means we get a new look Royal Ascot this season, although the great meeting keeps its normal spot in what is now an alien-looking fixture list. The stop-start build up to the 2020 extravaganza means many horses will compete without prep runs, making me weary of just how involved I’ll get this year with Royal Ascot from a betting perspective.
Usually, owners, trainers, jockeys, fans and punters will have had a good ten or so weeks of competitive action on the grass; creating a formbook, shaping betting markets and just giving us a much clearer view of what we could expect. That is not the case this year, however.
The cream usually rises to the top at Royal Ascot, but will that be the case this season? You can find out live on Sports Racing, where all 36 Royal Ascot races can be seen.
Below, are ten horses who at the very least will make my betting shortlist in their respective races over the week, before more accurate variables like price, ground, pace and the draw are known.
It’s great to see the Buckingham Palace return to this year’s Royal meeting, for all it will be a one-off. This seven-furlong handicap was culled from the programme to make way for the Commonwealth Cup in 2015, but before that big priced winners were commonplace in the race. The last five recorded starting prices read: 33/1, 25/1, 14/1, 12/1 and 14/1.
That 25/1 winner was Louis The Pious in 2014 and he was trained by David O’Meara, and it’s O’Meara’s Shelir who catches the eye at a huge price of 40/1. Formerly with Dermot Weld and considered good enough to run in last season’s Irish 2000 Guineas, the grey made an eyecatching debut for his new trainer in what looks like a potential red-hot handicap at Newmarket.
He shaped better than the distance beaten, and may well enjoy this drop in trip, but more importantly he ran like there was still some fire in his belly. Now gelded (before arriving at O’Meara’s) and with a trainer who does well with purchases from other yards, if Shelir can reproduce his Listed Tetrarch Stakes victory at the Curragh from last season, he’ll outrun his current price.
Drawn low in stall six, next door to Gifted Master, connections may have got lucky with a good stall allocation around various bits of early paced horses. Maybe not so the old boy Flaming Spear (28/1) in stall 25. Despite his advancing years, his last two seasonal debut efforts would see him go close off a falling mark, especially if his draw turned out to be a positive.
With race-favourite Circus Maximus not having the ideal running style for Ascot’s straight-track and a habit of edging left under pressure, he looks like a horse to take on at the prices in the Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes. A notoriously lazy horse at home and in his races, last season’s St James's Palace Stakes winner may be the type to strip fitter after a run under his belt. I want to take him, but with whom?
There are endless options in what is a wide-open and average-looking renewal, lacking a true star miler; in the end, I came down on Skardu whose strong-travelling abilities I have always thought would be suited to Ascot’s straight mile.
This fluent-moving son of Shamardal made huge progress in a short amount of time last season and just a repeat of his close-up fourth in last year’s St James’s Palace Stakes – 1½ lengths behind Circus Maximus – will see him on the premises.
Trainer William Haggas has his string in decent order and in James Doyle, we have a world-class rider doing the steering so the 14/1 on offer looks a solid each-way play with extra places on offer.
At the current prices available, I want to be against John Gosden’s filly Frankly Darling (6/4). The simple reason being, I feel she is priced up on potential, rather than proven form in the book and looks to be a horse still learning her trade.
The daughter of Frankel was visually impressive in winning at Newcastle in a 3yo Maiden, but it’s fair to say this is a step up in class. I have no doubt she will improve for the trip increase, and her first start of the year, but that’s the case with quite a number of fillies in here.
Ralph Beckett is a trainer that does well with the fairer sex and it is his Trefoil (5/1) who catches the eye at the prices. At this stage, just like the favourite, she has only had two career runs, but she has achieved more so far, 6lb more if my own ratings are correct.
Described as backward last season by her trainer, she impressed to win a late campaign Newmarket maiden on soft ground, finishing with her ears pricked, suggesting there was more in the locker. Her 2020 debut came in the Listed Pretty Polly Fillies' Stakes on June 7th where the early gallop on fast ground, accompanied by a tailwind, meant she raced near flat-out for much of the contest.
I was impressed with her attitude to stay galloping however, and she shapes like a step up to 12f will suit; something her pedigree suggests will be within range. I get the feeling this daughter of Teofilo will take a nice step forward for that effort, and if the favourite happened to get lost early in a potentially well-run race, Trefoil might pick up the pieces for her in-form trainer.
It comes as a small surprise that Jubiloso isn’t favourite for the Group 2 Duke Of Cambridge Stakes given she has Group 1 form in the book, Group 1 form that came at last year’s Royal Ascot when a sound third in the Coronation Stakes behind Watch Me and Hermosa.
Sir Michael Stoute’s inmate won’t meet that calibre of filly and mare here, and while her subsequent runs at Goodwood and especially Sandown last year were disappointing, she may not have enjoyed the former track and drop in trip while at the latter venue, she was clearly miles off her game.
A daughter of Shamardal out of a half-sister to Frankel, there must be a good chance she can at least maintain last season’s level of form. If she does, the rest need to improve passed her.
A strong traveller, I have always thought the straight track Ascot test would suit her. As long as Ryan Moore gets plenty of cover early and switches her off, she should go close at 7/2.
Likely to be at the head of the market for the Silver Royal Hunt Cup, no marks for originality here, but Ouzo looks a well-handicapped horse, on the back of his recent second in a Newmarket handicap, that I feel could be strong form.
A progressive son of Charm Spirit in the care of Richard Hannon, Ryan Moore looks set to keep this partnership intact, having ridden him last time out when the pair were collared close home by a lovely horse of Andrew Balding’s, Bell Rock.
This pair came over 3 lengths clear of the third home despite being held-up on a slick Newmarket track that was favouring front-runners and prominent racers. His draw in 24 could have been kinder, but with Zhui Feng in stall 22, hopefully Ouzo gets a nice tow, with plenty of cover, into the race.
The prospect of racing on good or faster ground will help this lovely moving sort and at 7/1, although the likely favourite, I still make him a bet.
As you may have noticed, I am a fan of the Setting Odds On The Betfair Exchange Handicap run at Newmarket on June 7th. That race was won by Bell Rock, who did incredibly well to overcome a late troubled run to get up and pip Ouzo.
I suppose it should come as no surprise that this son of Kingman, a €240,000 yearling purchase, was up to winning a smart handicap, considering his trainer felt him capable of mixing it with some of last season’s best 3yo milers.
Bell Rock actually ran in the St James’s Palace Stakes at the 2019 Royal meeting, but failed to figure under Oisin Murphy. I get the feeling we were not seeing what Andrew Balding was at home, on the track, but that has now finally come, given Bell Rock rocks up to Royal Ascot this season on the back of a career best, potentially reaping the benefits of a gelding operation.
He has a 6lb penalty to overcome, but I doubt that will stop him, and more of a concern would be the Mrs Fitri Hay-owned galloper backing up relatively quickly on fast ground. The Champion Jockey takes the reins, let’s hope Bell Rock (10/1) took his latest race well.
Highland Chief was a precocious juvenile last season, manging to break his maiden on debut in mid-April at Newbury. That came over 5f, which might suggest he is a horse of fair ability given his pedigree lends itself to stamina.
His Group 3-winning dam, Pink Symphony (by Montjeu), was best over 10 and 12 furlongs and although Highland Chief is by Gleneagles - a 2000 Guineas and three-time Group 1 winner over a mile as a 3yo - some of his progeny have been staying quite well.
This may mean Highland Chief could improve significantly for the first-time step up to 10f. His third at last year’s Royal Ascot in the Chesham Stakes behind Pinatubo and Lope Y Fernandez looks quite strong form now, so a mark of 101 might still be workable, given how green he still looked there.
He did disappoint on his last juvenile run behind Royal Dornoch and subsequent 2000 Guineas winner Kameko in the Group 2 Royal Lodge Stakes when sent off 5/1, but he looked off his game early and also challenged on the wrong side of the track given the strong wind that blew at Newmarket this day.
The draw in 16 could have been kinder, but if he is well-handicapped and the race falls right, he can outrun his odds of 20/1.
This season’s renewal of the Wolferton Stakes could look more like a Group 2 contest come declaration time, but whatever the field, I want to be with Andrew Balding’s Fox Tal, who impressed me hugely with his fourth in the Champion Stakes last season.
The fluent-moving son of Sea The Stars was pitched into the deep-end on just his sixth career start, but showed he belonged at Group 1 level with a fine fourth behind top-class filly Magical. A strong-travelling sort who glides across nice ground, given the underfoot conditions, I was surprised with just how well he ran.
Back on a firmer surface, and hopefully getting a strong gallop to aim at – this really is key – he can hopefully take this drop in class in his stride. His owners King Power Racing have a number of lesser individuals entered (Good Birthday and Johnny Drama), which I am hoping leads to ensuring a stronger gallop for their better fancied stablemate.
Should he get his pace requirements and likely jockey Silvestre De Sousa be able to switch him off, he really should be going close.
I had intended putting up Dubai Mirage in the Golden Gates Handicap (1.15) on Thursday but he goes for the Britannia Stakes instead. He went into my ATR Tracker after a beautiful but slightly unlucky debut effort at Sandown last season where despite just going down a nose, I thought he shaped like much the best horse; only to be undone by inexperience late.
A drop in trip next time out in York’s prestigious Convivial Maiden Stakes maybe didn’t help, but he showed he learned from his debut run, in what now looks like a strong race. The winner, Molatham, went on to beat 2000 Guineas runner-up Wichita in his next start, while the runner-up, Celtic Art, improved in his next two runs.
That pair comfortably held Saeed Bin Suroor’s inmate in third, to be fair, but the son of Dubawi came a huge 4½ lengths clear of the rest and proved his recent wellbeing in a Kempton maiden, winning at odds of 4/11. We learned nothing new here in terms of the formbook, only that Dubai Mirage has come back healthy and sound.
He picks up a 5lb penalty for that success, but a mark of 92 still looks workable; and star apprentice Cieren Fallon takes 3lb off to ease the burden in first-time cheek-pieces.
Clive Cox and top-class sprinters go hand in hand; think Harry Angel, Lethal Force and Profitable. I am hoping Golden Horde will be able to join the aforementioned trio of Royal Ascot Group 1 winners for his trainer on Friday, and how fitting that would be, given this chestnut is by previous Diamond Jubilee hero, Lethal Force.
I’ve got to say, I think this 3yo is a touch of a forgotten horse, as I would nearly have him favourite on the back of his career best effort in the Middle Park Stakes behind Earthlight last season. For me, that form is marginally better than what Pierre Lapin – the current race favourite – achieved in winning last season’s Mill Reef Stakes at Newbury.
OK, the Varian horse is likely open to more improvement after just two starts, with a top-class pedigree to boot, being a half-brother to – wait for it – none other than Cox’s former inmate Harry Angel, but at the prices, I want Golden Horde.
With each run last season, he got better and better, quicker and quicker, and with Cox saying at the end of April he is delighted with how his charge wintered, I get the feeling there is a distinct possibility of more to come this season. Physically, Cox feels that is the case, and pedigree wise, suggests improvement could be on the cards.
Not having a prep race is obviously not ideal, but he is in good hands, and as long as the market suggests he is fit, I expect a bold bid.
Fingers crossed for a good draw and the sun to continue shining.