Welcome to the COVID version of Royal Ascot! And to fit perfectly with what a prick of a year it has been, they dish up an utter bastard of a handicap, a race they've added to the programme after a hiatus since 2014. Most sites and tipsters have gone for the easy option of focusing on the Group races, I'll take on the challenge of the handicap.
Interesting trivia - John Gosden won the very first one in 2002 and has a big chance of winning the 'first' edition of the second spell. David O'Meara won the last running with Louis The Pious and has two or three shots to go 'back-to-back'. Other current trainers with a chance of winning it again are Kevin Ryan (2006 and 2013), Jamie Osborne (2010) and Roger Varian (2012 - yes, he's been training for that long!).
Similarly with jockeys: the only previous winners are Silvester de Sousa won in 2014, Martin Dwyer in 2011.
Previously it was worth £100k, but it's down on the minimum for this year.
And possibly most notably, the meeting kicks off at 1.15 rather than ridiculous 2.30 after the in-bred freeloaders have had their horsey ride down the green carpet. More of this please.
First race of the Festival, watch for the bookies to go crazy with the offers - extra place terms, taking on the favourite etc. Spend wisely.
The Buckingham Palace Handicap Stakes
Class 2 Handicap, 7f, £35k
1315 local (2215 Sydney, 0815 New York)
Ground - currently Good. Check the excellent Ascot weather page for latest info.
1. First Contact - lightly raced Godolphin 5yo, with just eight of 14 career starts in Britain. Seems harshly weighted based on running third in the G1 Jebel Hatta in Dubai 15 months ago (narrowly ahead of Century Dream which won the Diomed Stks on Saturday). Best win in a Listed race at La Teste du Buch in France, and ran 11th in the 2018 Britannia Hcp for a bit of course form. First up for 255 days, not for me.
2. Habub - speaking of harshly weighted, here's a horse with 10 starts, just one on turf, and three of his four wins have been at Chelmsford. Went up 9lb for winning a three-horse race there in October and hasn't finished closer than fifth in three runs since. Positive angles for his prospects:
- they say Ascot has the best correlation for all-weather horses
- Hot apprentice Cieren Fallon takes off 3lb, he rode a 200/1 winner on Saturday.
- Sire War Front has a solid Royal Ascot record
- Wears blinkers for the first time, but progeny of War Front only have an 8% win rate the first time they are engaged.
3. Blown By Wind - a five-time winner for Mark Johnston, he's gone up 4lb for last weekend's win at Newmarket, bumping him up to a career-high mark. Has encountered big (20 runners or more) fields on three occasions, beaten 6.5-6.75L each time - remarkable consistency. Has won at Ascot, over 7f and handles any going (three wins on Good-Firm, one each on soft and heavy). Drawn the far rail, probably a negative but there'll be no evidence until long after this race.
4. Gifted Master - old warhorse for Hugo Palmer with a remarkable strike rate of 11 wins from 34 starts. Won the Stewards Cup (26 runners) at Goodwood in 2018 off a mark of 111, but hasn't greeted the judge since. Is now back off a more manageable 104 and Gabriele Malune takes off three. Tried his hand in the Wokingham last year and got knocked out of the race when he'd probably finished his run anyway. The sort of horse who bobs up now and again and probably wins a half-decent race this season. Unlikely to be here though.
5. Daarik - Gosden, tick. Dettori, tick. Has won three of his last four (all at Newcastle), including a handicap last weekend. Up 7lb for that and thrown into a much deeper race. Just the one start on turf, his debut at Nottingham which was too poor to be his true ability. Has all the elements of a favourite the public will latch onto and could end up a silly price, but on the other hand, could still have progression left on his profile.
6. Silent Attack - ex-Godolphin horse now trained by Tony Carroll, who got straight to work with him after the October sales, running six times during the colder months. Another one with stronger AW form, with three wins from 10 starts on the synthetic, while on turf, he's just 1/12. Stuck above 100 now in the ratings, his last two wins have come when he's dropped just below the ton. 25/1 in early markets and that might be unders.
7. Flaming Spear - old warrior owned by Tony Bloom, and for exactly that reason, don't expect any fancy prices - bookies are too wary of Bloom handicap plots these days. Ran fifth in the Royal Hunt Cup two years ago and won a big Goodwood handicap later that season off 104. However last year he only beat eight horses home in four runs and would need to rediscover old form to be competitive. Watch the betting but probably too old now.
8. Mutamaasik - another of the four Hamdan Al Maktoum runners and in with a great shot. Winner of three from five starts, all over this distance, and the last couple on turf, down the long straights at Newmarket and Doncaster. Was very impressive in Doncaster, not so much in brilliance but determination. He was headed a furlong out, by as much as a length, then dug deep to get back and win. Stable has noted that he's not a flashy trackworker and they still don't know how good he is. Rider Dane O'Neill in fine form, with a 25% win rate (7/28) since racing resumed. Right in this with a big chance.
9. Glen Shiel - honest handicapper who hasn't run on good ground since arriving in Britain, only heavy and AW since being bought out of Andre Fabre's yard last year. Probably just as capable on firmer ground but not sure if this big pressure handicap is his go. Ran fourth in the Balmoral on Champions Day last year, not one I can side with but Watson and Doyle have been in great nick since the resumption.
10. Hey Jonesy - has always promised plenty but now has a disappointing scoreboard of one win from 18 starts to show for it. Stable said he was plagued by niggles all last season and he's now dropped from 107 last April to a reasonably attractive 99. He ran fifth in the Commonwealth Cup of 2018 to Eqtidaar, at his best he is very quick. On the side with the better Hamdan al Maktoum runners, I'd not be backing him with any great confidence but certainly interested if 33/1 comes along.
11. Greenside - lightly-raced 9yo from the yard of Henry Candy, renowned for training quirky sprinters like Limato. Solid strike rate of five wins from 21 starts, and last time out ran a close second in the Challenge Cup (a 7f Heritage Handicap) here on Champions Day, off 94, with Marco Ghiani aboard. Note that the talented apprentice Marco Ghiani retains the ride but will be suffering from a severe lack of practice. 5lb claimers are only allowed to resume race riding this week, with a single ride booked for Goodwood on Monday. Drawn close to the outside rail and performs on any ground, I doubt many 9yos have won Royal Ascot handicaps (only Jennies Jewel in the Ascot Stakes jumpers flat race, 2016) but definitely a EW chance.
12. Kaeso - failed on resumption on the AW at Newcastle behind Daarik ten days ago but has an impressive record on turf. Beaten a head behind Raising Sand in the International Stakes (7f Heritage Handicap) here last July and third behind Cape Byron in the Victoria Cup (7f Heritage Handicap) here last May, big fields and big straight races are right up his alley. Hollie Doyle gets the flick in favour of champion jockey Oisin Murphy looking for that change of luck on the big stage. Off a career high mark here but may not have stopped progressing.
13. Alexander James - wildcard entry hard to line up on form. Started his career last April with Iain Jardine, winning on debut by 13L, then ended the year being trained in France, winning a Listed race over a handy local called Rocquemont. Three runs back that horse finished a length behind Bowerman, who won the Irish Lincolnshire on Friday night, which has to be comparable line of form, even if a little tenuous. Unusual choice of trainer to take a Royal Ascot handicap. Gay Kellaway is 0/66 at Ascot in the past 15 years. Not here but one to keep an eye on in future.
14. Straight Right - boasts six wins from 24 starts overall but nought from nine on turf. Tried the 'AW form converts well to Ascot' angle twice last year and was well beaten in the Victoria Cup and Wokingham Stakes. Blew the start badly last time out at Wolverhampton, needs to sort those barrier manners out. Has dropped 7lb since those big handicap runs but still can't get interested in this one.
15. Motakhayyel - another one owned by Hamdan al Maktoum (four runners, four different stables), and in with a great shout. Just five starts to his name, has won down the straight miles at Doncaster and Newmarket before overracing and failing on good to soft ground here last July (trainer reported unsuited by the going). Immediately spelled and not seen since. A handy combination of connections, and looks to be drawn the stronger side. Watch carefully.
16. Lethal Lunch - handy sprinter in a very savvy stable, particularly with sprinters. Form lines up through Habub, beating him last September, in receipt of 4lbs (equivalent terms here after Fallon's claim considered). Hasn't won on turf for two years, might need to have found a bit over the winter to capture this prize.
17. Documenting - very handy AW sprinter yet to exhibit the equivalence on grass. Finished second at Wolverhampton in a AW Championhips qualifier in March, defeating several rivals in this field. Rated 10lbs higher on the synthetic, that's a big concession for a talented galloper with solid related formlines. It's a take on trust but in the hands of the very capable Rossa Ryan, and on the warm side for speed, he might be a fair price...
18. Shelir - ex-Aga Khan-owned gelding trained by Dermot Weld who won his first two starts before tailing off in form. Has raced mostly in Pattern company at up to 1m2f, new trainer David O'Meara admitted they weren't sure what his best trip was. Well beaten at Newmarket over a mile at his stable debut, he raced quite keenly and tired quickly. The faster tempo might improve his chances and it's notable the stable have brought in the big gun, Danny Tudhope, for this race. SP profit of £25 with two winners from 16 runners during the Royal meeting. Untapped, not the worst.
19. Jack's Point - up 5lbs for his all-the-way win at Newmarket on opening weekend, his first win on turf from 14 attempts. Seems to have an affinity for the undulations of Goodwood and Newmarket, where his best runs have come. The 7f at Ascot mightn't be as rolling but it certainly ain't flat. Likely to lead on the grandstand side, will be in it for a long way.
20. Keyser Soze - stable star for the Richard Spencer string, and is rated 8lb lower on turf than the AW. Gets the services of Ryan Moore, a big asset in a chaos race like this one, particularly coming from off the pace. Said to be targetting the big handicaps this year and would be very competitive if he could match his AW mark. Has seen early support in the market, 33s into 16s. Take on trust but Ryan Moore's record on Royal Ascot outsiders isn't flash - 0/47 on rides starting 16/1 and above in past 10 years.
21. War Glory - another AW star trying to take advantage of a weaker turf mark, this time 12lbs lower. Ran 11th in the Hunt Cup last year behind Afaak, hasn't done a great deal else, winning just once from 26 turf starts. Has wins last season over today's rivals Gifted Master and Documenting (twice) but probably needs to be feeling the sand in his hooves to get over the line here. Another one drawn the 'hot' side.
22. Cliffs of Capri - runner-up to Jacks Point earlier in the month, has won two smaller field handicaps here in the past and ran a close fifth in the Cunard Cup here, Sep 2018. Winner of six from 30, half of those on turf and likes the track and handicap conditions. Again on the hot side of the draw, solid lightweight chance.
23. Firmament - veteran from the David O'Meara stable. Rarely runs a bad race, but similarly, rarely wins with just 3/45 on turf and 5/61 overall. Still, he's won £282k in his career, so I'd not be moaning too much if I owned him. Won a big York handicap over 7f off 93 last season, his last victory, and has been slowly falling down the weights since. Has run some nice races here in the past, particularly early in his career. Would need a lot to go his way in the run to win.
24. Ebury - lightly-raced 4yo for Martyn Meade, won up the straight here last season and resumed for this year at Newmarket, beaten several lengths behind Cliffs of Capri when seemingly too fresh. That was his first run since being gelded and sons of Iffraaj have a 15% win strike rate in UK/Ireland at their second run after the snip (vs 7% first time out). In the mix if he comes on for that last run.
Will pass on the emergencies. Stupid system to have them taken out of the field the day before the race, make it early on race morning (eg 8am like Australia), otherwise it defeats the purpose...
So Beloved - emergency.
Brian Epstein - emergency.
Dirty Rascal - emergency.
While it looked like easy pickings for Hamdan al Maktoum and his string initially, the deeper you look, the harder it gets, which explains why at time of writing, no horse is longer than 40/1.
This represents the first race of the globally commingled Tote Superpools, which means there will finally be deep liquidity in the exotic pools. If you land the trifecta in this, you'll be handily rewarded - go wide!
17. Documenting 25/1
10. Hey Jonesy
21. War Glory
22. Cliffs of Capri
Backing Documenting EW, and will probably form the trifecta 2x5x9 (first two listed to win, first five listed for second, nine...) which forms 56 lines.