Royal Ascot: The Groundwork - Thursday

Short-cut the form study! Kevin Blake has done the hard work for you and presents his cheat-sheet for three races on Thursday.

The process behind finding the winner of a race can be as long or as short as one wishes to make it. It can be as simple as eeny, meeny, miny, moe or as complicated as an hours-long dive into every conceivable variable in search of relevant information.

For me, it tends to veer more towards the latter than the former. The process is ever evolving, but for the last number of years it has started with a process that I refer to as groundwork. This involves attempting to establish what the shape of the race is likely to be in terms of the pace and draw. This is absolutely crucial information, as having a feel for how the race is likely to pan out gives ones a much better idea of what type of horse is likely to be favoured by the run of the race. It can be particularly valuable in the case of handicaps, as given that ability is theoretically balanced out by the weights, those that get the run of the race regularly overperform and vice versa.

To give a simple example, there might be a hold-up horse in a race that you think is well handicapped. However, if the groundwork for the race reveals that the early pace is likely to be steady making it difficult for hold-up horses, that should have a major impact on how you view that horse’s chance.

Another important element of groundwork is assessing trainer form. This is even more relevant than usual at the minute given the unique situation that the Covid-19 crisis has put is in, as many horses will run at Royal Ascot having not been seen on the track for many months. How their stable mates have been faring in recent days can give a guide as to which trainers have their horses in above or below-average form. Trainer form tends to be assessed using some very blunt instruments such as strike rates, but I use the average of the percentage of rivals beaten squared. This is sourced using Proform and represents a more powerful measure of what we are seeking to assess.

In common with any other sort of pre-race analysis, estimating the pace of a race, the impact of the draw or trainer based on past evidence doesn’t always work out as hoped. Horses can end up being ridden differently than anticipated either by design or not, draw analysis can be turned on its head by jockeys taking unexpected routes and trainer form can swing around in a relatively short period of time. Even considering that, I have found that the groundwork process to be the best starting point in the search for winners.

So, with that in mind, I am going to show my groundwork for a selected group of races to for all five days of Royal Ascot. I’ll put in the hard yards so that you don’t have to and with a bit of luck, it will prove to be a help to you in the search of winners.

Here is my groundwork for Thursday's racing:

13.50: Wolferton Stakes (Listed) - 1m 1f 212y - 4yo+

Pace: Dubai Warrior (3) produced a career-best effort when making all to win the Winter Derby at Lingfield last time and seems likely to push forward again back on turf. Mountain Angel (5) has made the running in two of his last three starts. Forest Ranger (4) has been alternating between leading and racing prominently in his most recent starts. Crossed Baton (9) and Mountain Hunter (13) often race prominently. Walkinthesand (1), Fox Tal (2) and King Ottokar (8) tend to chase the leaders. Bubble And Squeak (15) changed tactics when making the running on her seasonal reappearance earlier this month, but a below-form effort there and her wide draw here suggests a return to more restrained tactics is likely.

There are three solid candidates to potentially want to make the running that are all drawn low as well quite a few that like to sit prominently, so on balance this race looks likely to be run at least at an average pace and possibly a bit faster than that. This will be a help to those drawn wider that like to be ridden patiently, as it will help stretch out the field earlier and make it easier for them to find slots that don’t leave them caught overly wide.

Draw: The tendency for high numbers to be favoured on the round track at Ascot isn’t as pronounced over this sort of trip as it is over a mile-and-a-half, but the following stats for handicaps run over a mile-and-quarter at Ascot (there hasn’t been enough races run over the specific distance of this race to offer a strong sample size) show that high numbers are still anything but a negative. This list is ordered with the best-performing draws on top and the worst-performing draws at the bottom. It is worth noting the same size of runners for each stall, with those with higher numbers of runners being more robust reflections of the performances of horses that started from them. 

Trainer Form: I have included the full table of trainer stats for those that have runners on Thursday’s card and have had at least eight runners since the return of racing up until the time of writing on Wednesday morning. You can view it at the bottom of this article.

All of the trainers that are responsible for runners in the top half of the betting market in this race are prominently placed on the in-form list.


14.25: Jersey Stakes (Group 3) - 7f - 3yo only

Pace: King Of Athens (11) has made or disputing the running in two of his last three starts and looks likely to push forward. Lord Of The Lodge (3) has made the running in his last three starts and might well push forward again, though the fact that this is his first run beyond ix furlongs raises the possibility that his connections won’t want to be as forward with him. Above (10) races prominently and has no stamina doubts. King Leonidas (15) raced prominently over a mile last time, albeit at a much lower level. Final Song (13) has tended to chase up the leaders and her stamina is proven. Mystery Power (5) raced prominently on a couple of occasions last season. Ventura Lightning (8) raced more prominently on his seasonal reappearance, but this is his first try at seven furlongs so he might not be as prominent here.

This race isn’t always the easiest to accurately predict the pace in, as many of the runners are either testing their stamina for seven furlongs for the first time or reverting to that trip having been racing over further. On paper, there isn’t a great amount of what could be described as solid pace, with King Of Athens (11) looking the likeliest leader.

Draw: There is of course potential for change between the time of writing and the race, but if high-drawn runners continue to be favoured on the straight track, the field can be expected to make their way over to the stand-side rail. This, coupled with the potential for this to run at a below-average pace, means that there could be significant traffic problems for hold-up horses that are drawn high if the field compresses against the stands rail. Thus, siding with horses that are drawn in the top half of the field and are likely to be ridden prominently could be the way to go.

Trainer Form: Most of the horses at the front end of the market represent trainers that have their horses in notably good form. Kevin Ryan (Repartee) is performing right on the average, while horses trained by Karl Burke (Lord Of The Lodge) and Richard Fahey (Ventura Lightning) have been running below average. George Margarson (Ropey Guest) is towards the bottom of the list.


15.35: Gold Cup (Group 1) - 2m 4f - 4yo+

Pace: Withhold (7) is a habitual front runner and has very few doubts about his stamina for this trip, so he looks the likeliest leader. Moonlight Spirit (3) improved for more positive riding tactics when making most of the running in his final two starts last season. His stamina is unproven beyond one-mile seven-furlongs, so his connections may be reluctant to have him ridden very positively. Nayef Road (1) likes to race prominently and can occasionally make the running. His stamina is unproven beyond an extended two miles. Prince Of Arran (8) has run well when racing prominently, most recently in the Melbourne Cup last November. While he has been ridden with more patience since then, a return to more positive tactics in this would not surprise. Stradivarius (2) likes to stalk the leaders and strike relatively late.

Despite the relatively small field, there is very solid front runner in Withhold (7) and any one of three of his rivals could potentially push forward to keep him honest. The pace looks likely to be at least average and could well be faster than that. This will be a help to those that are usually ridden with patience such as Cross Counter (6) and Technician (5).

Stradivarius (2) has made a career out of showing a fine turn of foot in steadily-run races over staying trips. The finishing speeds in the two Gold Cups that he won were brisk (107.2% and 107.6%), emphasising how steadily run they were. Were this year’s renewal to be run at an above-average pace throughout, it would bring Stradivarius into unknown territory in terms of stamina reserves. He might well cope just fine with it, but considering his greatest attribute is his ability to quicken at the end of staying races, one would have thought it would be in the interests of his rivals to make this as strong a test of stamina as possible to try and drag Stradivarius into deep and unknown waters. Being such a short price serves to put a bullseye on the chest of Stradivarius and if his rivals want to get him beaten, that is likely to be the best chance they have of doing so.

As well as that, given that Stradivarius (2) is drawn on the inside, there is also the likelihood of at least one of his rivals trying to get up on his outside and “put him in jail” by blocking his route to the outside. Frankie Dettori is a master of extracting himself from these potential traps, but he will need to be sharp to avoid it from his draw without expending unnecessary energy to do so.

Trainer Form: Most of the trainers involved in this race are prominently placed on the in-form list. Of those that aren’t, Charlie Fellowes (Prince Of Arran) is on the wrong side of the average and horses trained by Jamie Osborne (Mekong) have been performing a long way below the average.

Royal Ascot: The Groundwork - Thursday
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