It wouldn't be a big Ascot race day with a nasty handicap to deal with. The Balmoral Handicap concludes the programme; if you need this race to bail you out....good luck!
Returning to the fold to preview this minefield of a race is the astute @rightjudgeiam.
The Balmoral Handicap
Class 2 Handicap, £250k, one mile (straight)
Ascot 1625 BST, 0225 AEST
Generic prices quoted from time of writing
This extremely valuable Ascot handicap is being run, for just the third time, over the straight mile on Saturday 15th October. It is precisely the course and distance of the Royal Hunt Cup run at the Royal Meeting however instead of a field of 30 this race is restricted to a maximum field size of 20 runners. The going is set to be somewhere between good and soft depending on how much rain falls from Thursday afternoon when I started writing this piece. Currently the going is given as good, good to soft in places and with just a few millimetres that could be soft by 4.25pm on Saturday.
As with most very valuable handicap races, top class handicap form will be a pre-requisite and by having a look at all 20 runners we should be able to come up with a short list of candidates who fit the bill which should narrow the field. In race card order:
GM Hopkins: 5-year-old Gosden-trained regular in these valuable, large field handicaps. He won the Royal Hunt Cup over C&D in 2015 and was a decent second in this race off one pound lower last October. Here he races off 110 which is 7lb higher than his last win in the Hunt Cup. Last time out he ran in the Cambridgeshire, which could well be a key trial for this event as it was last year, where he was slowly away after rearing as the stalls opened and he can be considered a fair bit better than that. He is a high class horse who could go very close. However, as with any horse racing off such a lofty mark he faces a stiff task in my view. 12/1
Tullius: 8-year-old trained by Andrew Balding, regularly runs in Group and Listed races and has his first try in handicap company since the Lincoln of March 2014 where he was second off just one pound lower. He won the Group 3 Diomed Stakes in June and goes well on soft going. If he were able to produce his best form he may go close. I always question whether horses of his age and profile ever win these big field races. 25/1
Firmament: progressive 4-year-old from the O'Meara yard; been running extremely well in top handicaps and beaten half a length into second on both last two starts over seven furlongs here at Ascot. He now finds himself 12lb higher than when winning three starts ago over a mile yet still seems to have more to come. Got put up 2lbs after last run. He's 8/1 and clearly well fancied in the market.
Master The World: 5-year-old David Elsworth representative and a regular in most of the valuable races of this type. Indeed he ran in this race last year off a mark 4lb lower where he came third. Ran a huge race in the Golden Mile at Goodwood when chasing home a very well handicapped Franklin D but was tailed off in the Cambridgeshire last time out. 25/1
Here Comes When: 6-year-old from Andrew Balding yard; has only run in four handicaps in his 23 turf runs, the last in the 2014 Royal Hunt Cup. Goes well with cut in the ground and won a minor event on his latest outing. Some of his Group race form would appear very attractive in handicap company such as getting beat just three and a bit lengths in the Group 1 Lockinge Stakes of 2015. How relevant that kind of form proves in a race like this is open to interpretation. 25/1
Bronze Angel: Now a 7yo, this Tregoning trained stalwart has won two renewals of the Cambridgeshire and this race two years ago off the same mark and under the same jockey as this time round. He has only made the track twice this term finishing down the field both times. Really asking a lot for him to find the form required to win such a red hot contest off that preparation in my eyes and 33/1 is only fair.
Chil The Kite: Another 7-year-old, this time trained by Hughie Morrison, and another regular in the big field handicaps. He has won over this course and distance, been placed in a Hunt Cup off 6lb higher. He won a valuable race at York in 2015 off 5lb higher than today and is another where he would be competitive if running to his best. The question as always is, will he? Unlikely in my opinion. 25/1 may tempt a few who think he might rediscover that York /Hunt Cup form. To produce his best he really needs a really fast gallop from the start that collapses in the final furlong. Always hard to predict whether that will occur.
Emell: Hannon trained 6-year-old who has won only one handicap race over seven furlongs, a pound higher than when in midfield in this year's Hunt Cup. That was a very strong race but with no win at the trip I would think he will struggle. 33/1
Sea Wolf: 4-year-old Irish raider from Ger Lyons' yard, only four starts ago he was second in a class 4 handicap at Ayr and now he's 20lbs higher after winning a good race at the Curragh last time out. He will definitely have to improve a fair amount to win this race from a mark of 102 which always remains possible. 14/1
Morando: Roger Varian trained 3-year-old, has won three of four lifetime starts, up 8lb for decisive win at Ayr in weaker grade, still unexposed and likely to go on the going. This is a significant step up in grade, if you think he can win you are relying on him improving plenty which he might (or might not) 8/1
Dream Walker: Brian Ellison-trained 7-year-old who has hit a rich vein of form, winning three of his last seven starts, and now finds himself on a mark 10lb higher than his last win. I find it hard to imagine that at his age he will be able to find another 6 or 7lbs of improvement required to defy his lifetime high mark. 33/1
Yuften: Roger Charlton trained 5-year-old who has been subject to an ante post gamble following tips from well known pundits. Very interesting runner who was placed in a French Group 1 two years ago. Clearly if he were to reproduce that level of form he would take high rank here off 101. His last start in a seven furlong handicap offered some promise, he won't mind any softening of the ground and the mile trip looks right. 7/1
Third Time Lucky: Fahey-trained 5-year-old who won the Cambridgeshire in 2015 and ran an excellent 4th there this time round despite not getting the best runs. Goes well on a softer surface and hit form in the autumn last year. 10/1
Highland Colori: Andrew Balding runner, eight years old carrying a penalty for winning last time out, that was his first win at a mile and came in first time blinkers. That was his first win since October 2013 and it would take something to believe he would then win back to back races. 25/1
Instant Attraction: trained in North Yorkshire by Jedd O'Keeffe this 5-year-old has run consistently in plenty of good races including the Hunt Cup, likes soft ground if it goes that way but remains 13lb higher than his last winning mark in a class 3. I suspect he lacks the scope or class to win here. 33/1
Donncha: 5-year-old, top class handicapper trained by Robert Eddery, he contests many of the top mile handicaps. Looks like he was given a break before his last start in order to be cherry ripe for this race. He was 4th beaten around five lengths in this off 3lb lower last year so will need to improve to win. 16/1
Remarkable: Gosden trained 3-year-old who was well fancied for the Challenge Cup on his last start but only finished 12th although not beaten far. He may improve for that run and for the longer trip, he will need to if he is to win. That was a very strong race though and the form is to be taken seriously. He has yet to try the trip however. 12/1
Mutarakez: Brian Meehan applies first time cheekpieces to his 4-year-old on his first start since the Lincoln in April. You could only really back him if you had information or if there were a market move. 14/1 seems skinny in the circumstances
Zhui Feng: Champion jockey Crowley rides this three year old for Amanda Perrett. He scraped home by a nose over 10 furlongs in a small field but was a fair fifth in the Cambridgeshire. Needs to find more to figure here. 33/1
Afjaan: Haggas 4-year-old who was well fancied in the Challenge Cup where he ran respectable seventh beaten around two lengths. Has won over a mile on the AW and may appreciate the extra furlong. The yard has been performing really well for some time. Again clearly fancied at 9/1
Comments and Analysis:
When trying to cut the field down to a manageable size in a handicap like this I apply some general rules. Firstly, I would think the winner will already have won at a mile or more, won a class 2 race and is likely to be still improving with strong performances in good handicaps. I focus on the three to five-year-olds as they are the most likely to have scope for improvement. The older horses may be able to recapture form but from a betting point of view I find it hard to support that angle and so I passed on all of them. I'll take it on the chin if one of them wins.
When looking at the form of these runners the key races are probably the Cambridgeshire and the Challenge Cup. Morando won a race worth £15k at Ayr which looks significantly weaker than those two top class races so it will be quite something if he can prevail off 8lb higher. He still makes my short list however which after applying all the above leaves these:
Third Time Lucky
Master The World
Firmament very nearly won the Challenge Cup and may well confirm the form with Afjaan, Donncha and Remarkable despite being on worse terms. Yuften remains a bit of a mystery horse, he might bounce back and may well be favourite to do so. He is not the kind of horse I typically back though.
Donncha is solid and may run really well, he just has no real secrets from his mark of 100 despite what appears a plan by his trainer. He couldn't win this off lower last year either. Master The World has to bounce back from finishing one from last in the Cambridgeshire and off a mark he has found insurmountable.
The horse that comes out best for me is THIRD TIME LUCKY. He has had just four starts in 2016 and arrives on the back of an excellent run in the Cambridgeshire where he was fourth overall and second in his group on the far side. Prior to that he was a close fifth in the Clipper Logistics at York where he was just a nose behind subsequent Cambridgeshire winner Spark Plug. Just ahead was Firmament who now meets my selection on 16lb worse terms including the excellent jockey's 5lb claim which to me makes him look really well weighted. Certainly he's far better weighted to reverse the form with Firmament than those who were beaten in the Challenge Cup. My selection will like any cut in the ground, stays the trip strongly, has won a valuable handicap before and I believe can be upgraded on his last run where drawn on the wrong side (was previously close to the winner).
I also note that both of the previous winners of this race had run in the Cambridgeshire on their previous start and both were ridden by apprentice jockeys. Third Time Lucky also meets both those criteria although with such a tiny sample it could easily just be coincidence. It does give me a little warm feeling about my bet though!
My only concern is that the draw may defeat us but as that is quite unpredictable I won't let it put me off and I make Third Time Lucky an excellent betting proposition. He is going to be hard to keep out of the frame. I do think a possible saver bet, on one drawn on the other side, may be in order in case the low numbers have a track advantage. Perhaps YUFTEN might be the sensible option as he really might be well ahead of his mark whereas Morando definitely has to raise his game, Master The World has to bounce back from a dismal run and the only other I could consider from the low draws would be Gm Hopkins but top weight and a mark of 110 put me off.
THIRD TIME LUCKY 1 point each way 10/1
YUFTEN 0.5 point 7/1 generally