Handicappers' Blog (30 June)

    The head handicappers at the British Horseracing Authority review the 2015 Royal meeting, which saw impressive performances from the likes of Solow, Goldream, Buratino and Muhaarar.

Royal Ascot served another five days of top class action, here the BHA Handicappers provide some thoughts on the performances we saw.

Solow not so slow

As is often the case the traditional curtain raiser at Royal Ascot, the Queen Anne Stakes, provided one of the most interesting contests of the whole week – unfortunately on this occasion it didn’t quite live up to expectations as the world’s highest rated miler, Hong Kong’s Able Friend (127) failed to do his “stuff”. I have had the good fortune to see Able Friend a number of times at Sha Tin and he is some performer around there but the straight mile at Ascot is a world away from spinning round his own back yard and maybe that contributed to his lacklustre display, writes Dominic Gardiner-Hill.

That left the contest pretty much at the mercy of the highest rated miler in Europe and the French trained Solow (124) duly ran out a workmanlike winner. With the fancied Richard Hannon pair Toormore (fourth, 119) and Night of Thunder (fifth, 121) running below their best, it was left to another French challenger, the filly Esoterique (117) and the lowest rated horse in the race Cougar Mountain (109) to provide the sternest challenge.

I don’t believe Esoterique is any better than a 117, so have her running to that mark suggesting that Solow has performed to 122, which is 2lb below the mark he ran to when winning the Dubai Duty Free in impressive fashion back in March. This line of reasoning has Cougar Mountain running to 119 which as Senior Irish Turf Club Handicapper Garry O’Gorman said to me after the race “I didn’t see that coming!!” – I don’t think any of us did to be truthful. Pushed along for a good deal of the race, he was going nowhere two furlongs out but stayed on to be only beaten a neck for second. He gave the impression a step up to 10 furlongs would suit and maybe the Eclipse might be on his agenda after this.

The other big mile contest on the opening day, the St James’s Palace Stakes, also featured a disappointing performance from one of the two main pre-race protagonists. Make Believe (118) had run out a convincing three lengths winner of the French 2000 Guineas and whilst that form left him with 4lb to find with Gleneagles on official ratings, he was still expected to give Aidan O’Brien’s star a run for his money. Having proved difficult to settle early on however he faded to finish last of the five runners, running some 25lb off his Poulains form. This left the race at the mercy of Gleneagles who ran out a comfy two and a half lengths winner but putting a rating on the level is difficult to do with confidence as runner-up Latharnach was only rated 104 pre-race and third placed Consort 109. Having looked at the last 10 year’s performances in the race I have settled on 118+ for Gleneagles (second lowest in last 10 years with only Most Improved’s 116 in 2012 lower), 113 for Latharnach (lowest runner-up in last 10 years) and 112 for Consort (joint lowest third place performance in last 10). Hopefully things will become a little clearer as to the ability of the latter two in particular as the season progresses.

As far as the fillies were concerned, Amazing Maria advertised the training skills of David O’Meara when spring a surprise in the Duke of Cambridge Stakes – technically it is possible to have her as high as 116/117 for this performance but I have settled on 115 for the time being. Again, hopefully time will tell us whether she is flattered by this performance.

In the Coronation Stakes, where foreign-trained fillies dominated the home contingent by filling the first four places, Ervedya (114) followed up her win in the French 1000 Guineas by swooping late to nail Found (113), with Lucida (112) a staying on third. Given her turn of foot, the winner is likely to prove difficult to beat against her own sex over a mile, whilst there must be a possibility both second and third will be seen to good effect over 10 furlongs if stepped up in trip.

One filly who earned a return to Group company is Osaila who has been raised to 113 following her victory under top weight off a rating of 107 in the Sandringham Handicap – it will be interesting to see if she can reproduce that level when taking on the best fillies at level weights. Runner-up Always Smile (ran off 100) looked an unlucky loser – James Doyle committing her plenty early enough and then drifting badly left inside the final furlong, allowing Osaila to inch her out right on the line. Given that there was little more than a cigarette paper between them and the way the race panned out for her, I have also raised Always Smile 6lb (to 106) and she is surely up to winning a Listed race at least.

Dreaming of Gold

The Group 1 King’s Stand Stakes was the featured sprint race of the opening day of the Royal Ascot meeting. Sprinters will often remain in training for several seasons meaning that the Group races are often contested by old adversaries. Tuesday’s race was no exception with the first four from the 2014 renewal returning to do battle. On this occasion Sole Power, the winner in 2013 and 2014, was unable to defend his title, writes Chris Nash.

The race was won by Goldream, who nosed ahead almost on the line to deny Medicean Man by a short-head. Muthmir was a further neck back in third, Pearl Secret was a further half-length back in fourth and the defending champion could manage to finish only fifth beaten just over one and a quarter lengths by the winner. 

Goldream arrived rated 111 having won the Group 3 Palace House Stakes at Newmarket on his 2015 return.  Although he is a six-year-old and was having his 31st career run his form has been progressive recently and this Group 1 victory is an obvious career best. Medicean Man is a nine-year-old who was having his 59th start and arrived rated 108. His proximity somewhat casts a shadow over the form although his performances over the 5f at Ascot have traditionally been amongst his best – he was fourth in this race last year running to a figure of 111. Both the third and fourth had won Group 2 races last time out and arrived rated 112 and 110 respectively. Given that both arrived in decent order they seemingly provide a level for this form. That has the winner recording a figure of 113 and the runner up running to 112. Muthmir and Pearl Secret have run to their marks and Sole Power records a figure of 110 – some way below his pre-race rating of 118 which he ran to when winning in Dubai in March.

This interpretation of the form marks the 2015 race down as being a modest renewal. It is the lowest figure recorded by a winner since Dominica recorded a figure of 111 in winning the 2002 running. The next gathering for these sprinters will likely be either or both of the Group 2 King George Stakes run at the Glorious Goodwood meeting or the Group 1 Nunthorpe Stakes run at the Ebor meeting at York.

Buratino impresses

With one notable exception, the Royal Ascot two-year-old races were well up to the usual standard, writes Matthew Tester.

Buratino has been pencilled in at 113 for winning the Coventry Stakes. He had been a surprise package when running away with Epsom’s Woodcote Stakes and he continued to progress on this sixth start. I cannot remember the last time that any horse won the Coventry on their sixth start. And I cannot remember the last Woodcote winner to land the Coventry; so he did something pretty special. I love his attitude and look forward to seeing if he can develop further.

In the Norfolk Stakes I had hoped that stable-mates King Of Rooks and Log Out Island would join battle in the final furlong with one of them the winner. None of us expected them to join battle in the first furlong instead. At the end they had to play second fiddle to Waterloo Bridge. He had shown nothing like this level in four previous starts in Ireland. The winner has been given 104, the only two-year-old race of the week to come out below expectations. King Of Rooks, for his previous win over Buratino in the National Stakes, will be 110 so I still believe that he has the best form of those runners.

On my current figures, Washington DC, stable-mate of Waterloo Bridge, comes out just the better of the two for winning the Windsor Castle (105). This is unusual considering that it was a Listed win against a Group 2 win for Waterloo Bridge but I do expect that to be confirmed by future races. 

The fillies Acapulco (110) and Illuminate (108) were above average winners of their races. Acapulco’s win in the Queen Mary Stakes is the best since her stable-mate Jealous Again in 2009, both those Wesley Ward winners were noted as distinctly larger and more mature than their opponents. Jealous Again never raced afterwards and I really hope that we see Acapulco again and interestingly Jealous Again has a two-year-old daughter, Queen Of Sicily, in training with Jim Bolger and it will be exciting to see how she gets on this year.

Illuminate won the Albany Stakes in very taking style and looks just the sort for the Group 1 Cheveley Park Stakes later in the season. 

Compliments to Commonwealth Cup

This year’s Royal Ascot saw not one, but two races at Group 1 level over 6f, as a result of the welcome innovation of creating the Commonwealth Cup for three-year-old sprinters, writes Stewart Copeland.

Leading up to the meeting, the revamp of early season opportunities for that group has produced some healthy competition and excellent performances, and the inaugural running of this contest looked full of quality and well deserving of its Group 1 status. The performance of the winner more than rubber stamped that view.

Muhaarar went into the race rated 117 on the strength of his win over 7f in the Group 3 Greenham Stakes at Newbury, the highest in the field, and the main question was whether he would cope with the drop back in trip. He answered that in emphatic style; held up travelling well off the strong pace in the centre before quickening in tremendous style in the last two furlongs to run out a most impressive winner by three and three-quarter lengths from the 115-rated Limato, with the sole Irish challenger Anthem Alexander in third, a further three-quarters of a length behind.

Given the strength in depth of the field he beat, there’s every reason to take a positive view of his performance and in rating him 121, puts him on a par with some of the best European sprint performances we’ve seen on these shores in recent years. In finishing second, Limato returned a rating of 111. However there’s every reason to believe he was better than the bare form on the day, being drawn away from the stronger pace in the centre, but it’s highly unlikely he would have been a match for Muhaarar wherever he’d been drawn. A commendable effort, nevertheless.

Muhaarar looks well suited to a stiff six furlongs, so the July Cup at Newmarket looks an obvious next target. His sire, Oasis Dream, still ranks as the joint highest rated winner of the race this millennium – alongside Mozart on 125 – and no doubt connections will be hoping he emulates his illustrious father in a few weeks’ time.

The following day was the turn of the older horses in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes, which boasted a truly international field this year. The race served up an exciting finish with the American challenger, Undrafted, collaring the favourite Brazen Beau close home, currently the highest rated sprinter in Australia, by half a length.

Similar to the Commonwealth Cup, the main pace came down the centre, which Undrafted tracked whilst Brazen Beau did a solo closer to the stands side. The ride on the latter prompted much comment, and whether it cost him a winning chance is difficult to say, though the fact he had nothing to race against for so much of the contest might not have been ideal.

As for assessing the race, there’s every reason to think that this year’s renewal is well up to the standard we’d expect. Both historical and pre-race form standards point to a narrow bracket of 119-120 for the winner, and after much deliberation, I’ve credited him with the latter for now. It’s interesting to note that Undrafted’s best efforts – he was a strong finishing fourth in the July Cup last year – have come on stiff 6f turf tracks, something he’s unlikely to come across in his homeland.

That means Brazen Beau has run to a rating of 119, a couple shy of the 121 he achieved in winning the Group 1 Newmarket Handicap at Flemington in March, his best effort to date. Chasing them both home, and best of the British challenge was Astaire, who arguably has run his best race since winning the Middle Park as a juvenile. Credited with a rating of 114 that day, I have him running to that level here.

All in all, both were races well worthy of their status, and the possible prospect of the principals from each race taking each other on in the July Cup at Newmarket is something to really look forward to at next month’s meeting.

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