The famed Royal Ascot meeting is always one of the most show stopping week's on the racing calendar and this year should be no different! Rory Delargy wades through this season's ultra competitive fields to find you 3 value packed picks ahead of next week's showpiece.
The Royal Hunt Cup, run over Ascot’s straight mile since 1956 is one of the most prestigious handicap races in the horse racing calendar, and is invariably well contested. While this seem to make the race something of a lottery, the fact that the runners must be rated in the high 90s by the BHA in order to make the cut means that the majority of runners are more or less exposed, and the holy grail for punters is to spot a late-maturing Pattern performer who is able to qualify for such an event while still progressing.
Certain trainers specialise in producing such horses, notably John Gosden and Sir Michael Stoute, while the Godolphin ranks can be relied upon to produce plenty in a similar mould. In an ideal world, we are looking for a lightly-raced colt who is on an upward curve and likely to be suited by the demands of s straight mile contest. Failing that, the obvious fall-back position is to concentrate on more exposed horses who have shown their form in similar races at Ascot in the recent past. With a selection of high-value seven furlong and mile handicaps through the season, such horses are easy enough to identify.
In terms of profile, the Hunt Cup is more likely to go to a four-year-old than an older horse, and the reasons are simple, in that younger horses are more likely to be open to improvement that fully established handicappers. The betting tends to favour less exposed runners as a rule but backing four-year-olds blind in this race since the track was relaid has actually produced a small profit, so it can be seen that the market doesn’t adjust quite enough for this advantage. The last four winners have all been of that age, and there are several in the entries who fit the bill in terms of age and profile.
Jassaar is interesting for Dermot Weld, and looks well treated on a mark of 93 after winning a decent Curragh event on his handicap bow, but he may be too well treated, and needs a lot to come out of this contest as number 68 in the long handicap. John Gosden’s Stylehunter has caught the eye in a few strong handicaps that haven’t shown him to best effect, but he might need a little more time and a slightly longer trip to show his best after making his reappearance after a gelding operation at Newmarket last weekend. Sir Michael Stoute’s Elector had excuses at Epsom, but is another who stays further.
Like that pair, NEW GRADUATE, a 10/1 shot with Black Type, has an entry in the John Smith’s Cup (or John Smith’s Diamond Jubilee Handicap as it is known this year) at York, but he looked fully effective at this trip when slamming Kaeso, Fayez and Crownthorpe at Ripon in April. All three of those have won handicaps since, Kaeso off 3lb higher at Chester, having been placed in the Victoria Cup in between, Fayez twice, including off 5lb higher back at Ripon, and Crownthorpe, also twice, including off 3lb higher at Newcastle.
It can be seen that the Ripon form is extremely strong, and the beaten horses have been running in 0-95 and 0-105 handicaps, rather than picking up easy gains against inferiors. New Graduate didn’t just win at Ripon, but tore his rivals to ribbons, winning by a five-length margin without being fully extended. A conservative estimate of his superiority is 15lb, which is what the handicapper has raised him, but the subsequent efforts of the placed horses suggest that James Tate’s colt is still around 7lb ahead of the assessor even without factoring in natural improvement from that run, which was just the fourth of his career.
A look back at New Graduate’s racecourse debut also tells a story. On that occasion, he was beaten just a length at lever weights by Sir Michael Stoute’s Zaaki, a Group 3 winner at Epsom on Derby Day. It’s clear that he’s a Pattern-class colt in his own right, and his trainer has wisely not given the assessor another chance to get his sums right, with the result that he goes into Ascot ahead of his mark and with outstanding claims. 10/1 may seem short for a race of this nature, but all the facts tell us that he should be much shorter still.
There is no great mystery in finding the winner of the Commonwealth Cup in that it has gone to top-class sprinters more often than not and there is no under-the-radar approach required. The race favourite is Ten Sovereigns, who didn’t quite stay a mile when favourite for the 2000 Guineas and had looked a tremendous prospect when winning the Middle Park Stakes last autumn.
The Middle Park ought to be the ideal stepping-stone for Commonwealth Cup contenders, given the trip and the quality of the respective races, and last year’s race was well up to scratch. I have no issue with the Aidan O’Brien colt topping the list, especially with Calyx on the sidelines, but if he merits his skinny odds, then Middle Park runner-up JASH must be overpriced at 8/1 with Coral assuming he is confirmed for this, his only entry at the Royal Meeting after connections abandoned the idea of running him in the St James’s Palace Stakes.
Jash’s price for this race has been remarkably big all year, largely I feel because Simon Crisford had been talking him up as a miler, with a bid for the 2000 Guineas only abandoned as he didn’t come to hand as early as expected. He was originally given a choice of options at Ascot, and with connections mulling over his options, I can understand that punters wouldn’t want to commit.
On the other hand, it looked blindingly obvious to me that he barely stayed seven furlongs when winning the Listed King Charles II Stakes at Newmarket on his belated return, and that also appears to have been the nudge connections needed to confirm him as a sprinter for the time being, his only outstanding entries being this contest and the July Cup. I have backed him for the latter as he has run three eye-catching races at Newmarket, but I reckon he should be clear second favourite for the Commonwealth Cup on his juvenile form, and I’m happy to take the current odds.
Comments made about the Hunt Cup are roughly valid here, except that archetypal sprinters tend to develop later than milers in terms of physique, and also tend to thrive a little more on experience for that reason. Lightly raced types can still be ahead of the handicapper, but the emphasis is not as marked.
One angle I quite like is finding a late-maturing handicapper with plenty of experience, but still relatively unexposed at the trip, on the basis that many horses actually get faster as they get older, and there are examples of Group 1 winning sprinters like Les Arcs and My Best Valentine only showing their real talent quite late in life having been tried over longer trips, and in the case of that pair, over hurdles!
Things haven’t been so extreme for SPANISH CITY, a 25/1 shot with 888Sport, but the six-year-old has only had 18 lifetime runs, and having run more often at seven furlongs than shorter has hinted that if he’s going to win a big handicap it could well be at this trip. He got to the front easily on his return at Newmarket but was run down late, and has shaped well on both starts since at this trip, despite Epsom not suiting him on the first occasion. He gives the impression that the stiff six at Ascot will be ideal, and his course record is much better than form figures of 664 would suggest.
The field sizes for those races, namely the Victoria Cup, International Stakes and Cunard Handicap have been 27, 27 and 20, and he has been beaten an average of a length each time. All those runs have come over seven furlongs, but having finished well but too late on the first two, he actually hit the front a furlong out in the Cunard before being outgunned, and it’s clear watching his races that he’s gradually showing more natural pace. That makes me think that the drop to six in a race which traditionally falls to one coming from off the pace, will be ideal for Roger Varian’s gelding, and 25/1 with the best horse racing sites is a big price in the circumstances.
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