With Royal Ascot on the horizon, Declan Rix takes a closer look at the eight Group 1 races due to be run from a tactical perspective.
A TACTICAL LOOK AT THE ROYAL ASCOT GROUP 1S
After a quiet weekend on the domestic front and the biggest week of the Flat racing year on the horizon, I thought I’d look at how the eight Group 1 races at Royal Ascot could well play out tactically.
Obviously, without declarations and knowing the ground, circumstances can and will likely change, but researching how races may pan out is always worth its weight in gold. After looking at the ability of horses, this is one of the next variables I tend to tackle when trying to break down a race.
Below, I’ll hopefully make the waters less muddy while also commenting on who may or may not benefit most from potential tactics.
2.30 TUESDAY - QUEEN ANNE STAKES (24 entered)
A hugely open-looking renewal of the Queen Anne Stakes – for a second year running – may not be run like a top-level mile race, again for a second year running. Of those entered, Ancient Spirit, Chief Ironside, Hey Gaman, Matterhorn and Laurens all like to go forward.
Of those, Ancient Spirit is the only habitual front-runner, but whether he is good enough to run here is another matter. With it common knowledge that making-all up the straight Ascot mile a tough feat to pull off, jostling for cover against the elements could see this race potentially getting messy.
Normally, this kind of scenario would put you off a hold-up horse from a tactical point of view, but the demanding Ascot mile, where they can sometimes get racing earlier than ideal means it’s an equalizer of sorts, strategically.
In terms of stats, those that run in the Lockinge Stakes at Newbury are favoured which includes four of the first six in the betting market. Of those, Laurens is the one who may be most disadvantaged from a slack gallop given she likes to get on with things and travels well.
She is one horse I’d love to see tuck in second or third off a strong gallop getting cover and a good lead, and if that scenario does play out here she has little to find with any of this field. Factor in her ability to stay further, and her tough and genuine nature, if there is a horse that could make-all it is her, but as I say getting a lead and cover looks ideal.
3.40 TUESDAY - KING’S STAND STAKES (27 entered)
This season’s King’s Stand has the potential to be a messy affair from a pace perspective, especially if Alpha Delphini and the three-year-old Soldier's Call don’t run. If they are declared, you’d expect the gallop to be even, but a break-neck pace doesn’t look likely, which may well play against some of the market leaders.
Last season’s 1-2-3 of Battaash, Blue Point and the mare Mabs Cross currently head the ante-post betting. The 2018 renewal, from a tactical perspective, couldn’t have gone much better for the winner Blue Point who had a dream run through with cover and a lead.
It couldn’t have gone much worse for Battaash, who hit the lids quickly, saw daylight from the get-go and raced over-enthusiastically into the stiff track and elements. He was a sitting duck late and was eventually picked off.
Where this year’s race is interesting in association with last season’s renewal, Mabs Cross is without a doubt a much better horse, and her come from behind style is maybe more suited to the race and track.
That said, there is also no doubt that, in terms of raw ability, Battaash is comfortably the best horse in this race, but while he can be brilliant, he can also be sub-standard, for him, and inconsistent. Too much is made of his mental state still. He looked a more relaxed horse last season and may well be again this.
Take out his two York Nunthorpe Stakes efforts over the last couple of campaigns, and his record looks pretty solid when you assess his other losses objectively from a tactical point of view. Charlie Hills’s horse wouldn’t be the first to not have a love affair with The Knavesmire.
That said, a potential lack of a strong gallop this year doesn’t make Jim Crowley’s job any easier and the rider will be best served by getting his mount to purposely miss the kick, get a lead and some cover if possible and just let his raw talent do the talking late.
Blue Point may not get the ideal set-up he received last season meaning the mare Mabs Cross (10/1 best priced) may well offer better each-way value in a race likely to cut up.
4.20 TUESDAY - ST JAMES’S PALACE STAKES (27 entered)
With Phoenix Of Spain looking so good under front-running tactics in the Irish 2000 Guineas, Jamie Spencer surely won’t change much, if anything, as the pair bid to back up their 16/1 success at The Curragh.
With that likely to be the case, and the presence of French 2000 Guineas runner-up Shaman potentially lining up, from a tactical perspective, the best horse should win the St James’s Palace Stakes, although you’d ideally like to see the draw.
If Magna Grecia recovers from his reported hamstring injury suffered in the Irish Guineas and is declared, there is scope for this race being run at an overly strong pace. Ballydoyle have three other stablemates entered and with the horse to beat (Phoenix Of Spain) now thriving under front-running tactics, the Coolmore team may elect to run a spoiler to allow Magna Grecia to come off a strong gallop.
This could potentially be a negative for the current 7/4 favourite Phoenix Of Spain. Another point of note would be conditions at The Curragh during their Classic meeting favouring horses on the early speed; fast ground and maybe a hint of a tailwind at times helped. Whether Ascot will ride quite as speed favouring remains to be seen.
I wouldn’t be in a rush to assume Phoenix Of Spain will certainly come forward for his first run of the season either, especially as he must back up 24 days later having travelled to Ireland, on the back of what has been an interrupted campaign.
I remain a fan of Skardu who ran his race back to front in the Irish 2000 Guineas. With a strong gallop maybe on here, a return to hold-up tactics will surely suit while the French Guineas pair of Shaman (20/1) and the pacey-looking San Donato (25/1) look overpriced in a division that is struggling for a standout contender.
We may get a definitive answer where a star 3yo miler is concerned here, and the likely good gallop will help in that regard.
3.40 WEDNESDAY - PRINCE OF WALES’S STAKES (25 entered)
This season’s Prince Of Wales’s Stakes, despite the defection of Enable, is a fascinating race, especially from a tactical point of view. If Magical doesn’t run, meaning a pace-maker won’t, Wednesday’s highlight has real scope to get messy.
Furthermore, the first four in the market, Sea Of Class, Magical, Crystal Ocean and Waldgeist, for my money, are all proper 12f horses, but because the Royal meeting doesn’t have a Group 1 12f race, these horses are in some ways forced to run here instead of the Group 2 Hardwicke Stakes.
Fifth favourite is last season’s Derby winner, Masar, whose crowning moment came over 12f at Epsom’s stiff track. He, like favourite Sea Of Class, if they make it, will being having their first start of the season which further complicates matters in trying to find the winner.
Pace-wise and form-wise, this looks a tricky contest to have a strong opinion on at this stage, although if forced, with Ascot form in the book and a likable straight-forward nature intact, Crystal Ocean would get the nod.
4.20 THURSDAY - GOLD CUP (20 entered)
Given the nature of the race, 2m4f for Flat horses, the Gold Cup is rarely run at a strong gallop, but more often a sound, even pace, or slower, with many jockeys wisely looking to conserve stamina for what is a proper marathon distance for Flat campaigners.
This year’s renewal is tough to get a handle on at the moment from a pace perspective for one reason. Aidan O’Brien. Of the 20 runners entered, O’Brien has six in, including the strangely campaigned but classy front-runner Flag Of Honour.
Last season’s game Irish St Leger winner has run three times this, all over 10f, as he has been chosen as a pacemaker for the stable’s classy filly Magical. Considering the distances he has been competing over, the son of Galileo has been running well and strikes as the type to thrive over this extreme distance.
So too does Kew Gardens, but he has been chosen to represent the stable’s colts over 12f this campaign, but against the likes of Enable, Crystal Ocean et al he lacks their class over middle distances and would maybe be best served by running here.
At this time, it is unknown if he or Flag Of Honour will run here, but if the latter doesn’t that makes things easier for habitual pace-setter and third favourite Dee Ex Bee. A lone lead for Mark Johnston’s stayer makes him beating race favourite Stradivarius that bit more likely, although where tactics are concerned, the reigning champion has no concerns given his straightforward nature along the presence of Frankie Dettori on his back.
3.40 FRIDAY - COMMONWEALTH CUP (29 entered)
Tactically, this season’s Commonwealth Cup is pretty straight-forward from a pace perspective; the best horse should win. With the likes of Hello Youmzain, Jash, Vintage Brut, Big Brothers Pride and Lady Kaya – should they all run – in, the pace will be honest.
Both Jash (from 7f) and the filly Lady Kaya (from 8f) will be dropping in trip to 6f, meaning they should likely receive no-nonsense rides and go forward. Favourite Ten Sovereigns, for me, last season’s second-best juvenile behind Too Darn Hot and just ahead of Quorto is another dropping back from 8f after his gallant 2000 Guineas fifth.
We don’t know the draw yet, which isn’t a help, but the likely pace scenario means the best horse should win.
It is noteworthy, that plenty of the market leaders here do like to go forward, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a big-priced, well-drawn hold-up horse hit the frame. Which one is that? I’m not quite sure yet.
We need the draw to be more concrete, I think it will be important in this race.
4.20 FRIDAY - CORONATION STAKES (24 entered)
Friday sees the 3yo fillies take centre stage and the likely return of what may be the best miler of not just her sex, but generation, in Hermosa. The dual Guineas heroine has been redirected here from the Prix de Diane and that looks a good move; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Tactically, where this race is concerned Hermosa is bombproof. As a front-runner she has dominated both Guineas, more so the Irish one, where she simply looked a better, quicker and improving filly.
Just like her tough sister Hydrangea, Hermosa appears to thrive off a sound gallop, meaning, should she be taken on for the lead, they will likely be going too fast and her class and stamina will really kick in late.
There is a chance that scenario may pan out too, with the likes of Castle Lady, Foxtrot Liv, Jubiloso and Pretty Pollyanna in, but should they leave Hermosa and Ryan Moore to their own devices, she will obviously be tough to beat.
4.20 SATURDAY - DIAMOND JUBILEE STAKES (25 entered)
The Final Group 1 of the week goes the way of the older sprinters in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes and if the front-running Kachy doesn’t go, American raider and last season’s close-up third in this race Bound For Nowhere could well get things all his own way.
As already touched on above, it’s not easy make-all up this Ascot straight but Wesley Ward’s inmate gave it a fair go last season, leading much of the way.
There is a chance the son of The Factor wasn’t in tip-top shape as he hung left across the track last year, but if produced in slightly better order and he runs straighter, in what looks a weaker renewal the 14/1 on offer about a potential lone front-runner looks far too big.
Last season’s runner-up, City Light is likely to be back again, but he doesn’t help himself at the stalls and getting behind in a race that may not suit proper hold-up types could prove a bridge too far.
The two market leaders Invincible Army and Inns Of Court shouldn’t be to inconvenienced by the likely pace scenario, but are priced up like being a class or two above the field, and I’m not sure that’s the case, especially where the Ward horse is concerned.
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