Handicappers' blog

The British Horseracing Authority handicappers analyse the pick of the action from Royal Ascot 2018.

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HEAD SCRATCHING FOR THE HEAD OF HANDICAPPING

The week started off with a real “head scratcher” with a shock result in the Queen Anne, writes Head of Handicapping Dominic Gardiner-Hill.

In a race that normally gives a major clue as to who will be crowned the best older miler in Europe during any given year, this renewal saw the two lowest-rated horses in the race finish first and second. 33-1 shot ACCIDENTAL AGENT (1st: pre-race 109) edged out 20-1 shot Lord Glitters (2nd: 107) in a bunch finish.

There is no obvious answer to putting a figure on the race with any confidence at this stage. Normal form analysis using previous performances provides a wide variance of figures ranging from 121 at the top end through to 108 at the bottom end so I had a good look at previous runnings of the race for guidance.

Given the relatively low ratings of the first two home, plus the 112 rated Century Dream finishing less than a length behind in fourth my gut feeling is that this year’s renewal would be at the lower end in comparison with other years.

In the previous five renewals the lowest winning performance figure was 117 recorded by Declaration of War in 2013, whilst the lowest recorded figures for those colts placed 2nd to 5th during the same period are 115 (2nd), 114 (3rd), 115 (x3 for 4th) and 110 (5th).

Using these figures as a guide I have settled upon figures of 116-115-114-114-113 for this year’s race, suggesting the performances of Lord Glitters (2nd: 115), Lightning Spear (3rd: 114), Century Dream (4th: 114) and Yoshida (5th: 113) fit relatively neatly with those historical figures.  It will now be fascinating to see if the form stands up in the top mile races in the second half of the season.

If the Queen Anne produced a shock result for the betting public, the St James’s Palace made up for it with favourite WITHOUT PAROLE taking his career record to four wins from four runs with a workmanlike half-length success.

This was a little easier to work out with both form analysis and recent levels of the race throwing up similar conclusions. I have Without Parole, tackling Group company for the first time, improving 10lb to a new mark of 119, whilst runner-up Gustav Klimt is also credited with a career best at 118. This puts Without Parole’s performance on a par with Barney Roy’s last year and slightly better than Gleneagles figure of 118 in 2015.

French challenger Wootton was given a fair bit to do from rear and looks to have run a couple of pounds off his very best whilst Kings Shield (pre-race 107, performed to 108) and Gabr (108, performed to 107) give the race a solid look from a form perspective.

Given his progressive profile I would fully expect Without Parole to improve again on this figure but he will need to if he is to get the better of impressive Coronation Stakes winner ALPHA CENTAURI if ever they meet.

In breaking the course record for her six lengths success I believe she posted the best Coronation winning performance since my personal records begin in 1999.  Her figure of 122+ beats the 121 posted by Indian Ink in 2007 and the 119 recorded by Sky Lantern (2013), Ghanaati (2009), Lush Lashes (2008) and Crimplene in 2000.

There is a distinct possibility she might be under rated at 122 given the nature of her performance but, with 1000 Guineas winner Billesdon Brook (4th), O’Brien challenger Clemmie (5th: following up a disappointing effort in the Irish 1000 Guineas) and French challenger Coeur de Beaute (6th: possibly unsuited by quick ground) all failing to show their best, I would prefer to see her confirm the level either against the older fillies (possibly in the Falmouth) or against the colts later in the season before raising her any higher.


THE COVENTRY CONUNDRUM

CALYX cemented his place as the best around at the moment in winning a memorable Coventry Stakes, writes Graeme Smith.

The field split into two groups with Calyx racing on the opposite side to the next three finishers.  All four had looked high-class prospects before the race so it is encouraging that they pulled well clear of the rest.

It could easily be that Calyx deserves more credit than the bare winning margin of 3lb suggests having pulverised the group on his side by six and a half lengths. There is also a chance he was better placed close up than Advertise and Sergei Prokofiev, however, given the speed figure was a shade shy of the performance at 107. As such, I have trusted the bare result for now and hope to get a better handle on these horses as the summer rolls on.

Calyx is the leader of the class at 113. It is no surprise he’s proved himself smart so early in his career as his wide-margin debut success at Newmarket ten days earlier had been most striking in terms of the closing sectional he clocked. 113 puts him around the average level for recent Coventry winners with Advertise (110 but not yet eligible for an official rating), Sergei Prokofiev (109) and Vange (106) all above average for their respective positons.

The Norfolk attracted ten runners and SHANG SHANG SHANG’s (102) narrow winning performance rates towards the lower end of recent winners even if you factor the fillies’ allowance back in for comparison against winning colts. That puts her on 105 for comparison which is the same figure that SOLDIER'S CALL ran to in winning the Windsor Castle in more decisive fashion.

With the first eleven finishers in the Queen Mary covered by little more than two and a half lengths, the figures of the principals were always going to be low. SIGNORA CABELLO is certainly tough and very likeable but her winning performance of 100 is the lowest I have on record for the Queen Mary. The next lowest since 1990 are the 102 performances from Gilded in 2006 and Langs Lash in 2008. That’s not to say some of those involved won’t do better another day, possibly at 6f+.

The Albany was almost certainly the better of the fillies’ races. The margins involved meant MAIN EDITION’s 106 performance still rates a little shy of the average but nothing like as below par as the Queen Mary.

The emphasis looked to be firmly on stamina in the Chesham and race standards pointed to a winning performance of 106 from ARTHUR KITT. That figure may well prove fluid, however, with very little 7f form having been available to factor in.

With Ascot over the start of the nursery season is almost upon us. Entries for the first nursery close this Friday and the full list of two-year-old handicaps marks has now been published in the usual places.


THE MERCHANT AND THE ANGEL

It’s not often the start of a race grabs as many headlines as the finish, writes Stewart Copeland,  but that certainly felt the case in this year’s 6f Group 1 Diamond Jubilee Stakes.

Last season’s champion sprinter Harry Angel was sent off favourite to notch his first success at the Berkshire track on his fifth attempt but his race was over before it even started. Having got caught up in the stalls, he lost all chance with a very slow start and that was that. Let’s hope he fully recovers from this unfortunate episode and we get chance to see him again at his brilliant best.

This year’s race attracted a truly global field – no less than five different countries were represented in the twelve strong field – and it was one of the Irish-trained contingent that prevailed in an exciting finish.

Formerly trained in Australia, MERCHANT NAVY had advertised his claims with success in the Group 2 Greenland Stakes at the Curragh last month posting a rating of 117. He prevailed by a fast diminishing short head from the French trained City Light – impressive winner of this year’s All Weather Sprint Championship at Lingfield – with Bound For Nowhere flying the flag for America a further three quarters of a length back in third.

The responsibility for publishing rating on these horses rests with their respective countries rather than the BHA. Therefore in assessing the race I liaised with my Irish counterpart and also sought the views of fellow international colleagues around the world.

We collectively took the view that Merchant Navy had run to a career best rating of 119, which is bang on the standard we’d expect for the Diamond Jubilee winner. That means City Light, who I had running to 115 at Lingfield, has improved his rating to 118. The third Bound For Nowhere reproduced his pre-race rating of 116 confirming the view he is much improved since we last saw him on these shores running fourth behind Caravaggio in last year’s Commonwealth Cup.

Aside from Harry Angel, if there was another unlucky horse in the race it was The Tin Man, last year’s defending champion and again the pick of the British runners. He was just looking to improve his position when short of room 2f out, causing him to lose ground and momentum for a few strides. It is to his credit that he ran on strongly for fourth, finishing a neck behind Bound For Nowhere. But for that it is reasonable to suggest that he would have been at least third and may have even pushed the first two close.

The other Group 1 I dealt with was the fourth running of the 6f Commonwealth Cup. The introduction of this race has been a resounding success and this year’s renewal produced the biggest field to date with twenty two runners.

The race had a wide open look to it beforehand with the ratings being headed by Sands of Mali at 116, winner of last year’s Gimcrack at York and more recently the Group 2 Sandy Lane Stakes at Haydock.  He was denied by EQTIDAAR and, arguably, by the draw. The field split with the majority coming down the centre and a smaller group coming down the stands’ side. At the two furlong pole it was clear the centre group held sway. Eqtidaar emerged from that pack to prevail and, despite drifting to his left throughout the final furlong, held on by half a length from Sands of Mali.

Sands of Mali fared best of those in the smaller group and the overriding impression was that he was at a disadvantage being drawn away from the stronger pace in the centre.

This renewal is some way below the heights achieved by Muhaarar and Caravaggio, 121 and 120 respectively, with Eqtidaar posting a rating of 114, up from his pre-race rating of 107. He is a lightly raced individual in the hands of a great trainer and there is every likelihood of more to come from this progressive individual.

PROVING A POINT

The only 5f race for older horses at Royal Ascot was the Group 1 King’s Stand Stakes, handled by Chris Nash.  

It was billed as a battle between Battaash and Lady Aurelia.  We had been there before as last year’s Nunthorpe at York had an identical build up; and Marsha came and won the race. This time it was BLUE POINT who took the honours. The field raced in one group, the pace was honest and none of them found any serious trouble in running so it should prove to be reliable enough form. Battaash pinged the stalls and set the pace but had no answers when Blue Point swept by inside the final furlong.  

Blue Point has a decent record at Ascot but was largely untried at the 5f trip. This was his first Group 1 victory and I have rated it at 120 which is, unsurprisingly, a career best.  In an historical context over the last ten years this only ranks behind the figure of 122 allotted to Lady Aurelia when she won this so decisively last year. In being beaten 1¾ lengths, Battaash ran a figure of 114 – he arrived rated 123 based on his win in the Abbaye last year. That form has taken several knocks since so I have lowered him to 122.  

That obviously has him higher than Blue Point but my faith in him being the best 5f horse in Europe remains. It is possible he might be at his very best on slightly softer ground. Mabs Cross was a further neck behind Battaash in third and ran a figure of 110 – that is a career best for her and her profile remains progressive. The next meeting for the main protagonists in this race might be at either Goodwood (in the Group 2 King George) or at York (in the Group 1 Nunthorpe) although both Blue Point and Battaash are entered in the July Cup at Newmarket over 6f next month.

THE GOLD STANDARD

The Ascot Gold Cup was a fascinating and exciting race, says Matthew Tester, and there should be more to come from the winner. But there are also doubts about the race.

Take nothing away from STRADIVARIUS whose bravery in having a shoe ripped off a furlong from home but still out-battling Vazirabad was thrilling. But connections of Vazirabad said that the horse comes with one run and was not up for a fight. It was also his first race ever on faster than Good and the impression has been that they have been choosing their targets to avoid quick ground.

Torcedor in third was only a head away and was rated 115 before the race, Stradivarius was 118 and Varizabad was 117.  

I have left the first two on their ratings and raised Torcedor a couple to 117.  However, Stradivarius was the youngest, the least experienced and the most likely to improve.  118 under these circumstances suggests that there may be more to come and he is clearly the one they all have to beat in the staying races for the rest of the year.  

WAND TURNS THE TABLES

Mark Olley says that the pick of the mile and a half performances at Royal Ascot was MAGIC WAND in the Group 2 Ribblesdale Stakes.

Magic Wand was a decisive winner of the Cheshire Oaks at Chester in May beating the unlucky-in-running, and subsequent Oaks winner, Forever Together. That race was on Good ground and those positions were then reversed on Soft ground at Epsom.

On fast ground for the first time at Royal Ascot, Magic Wand was a different proposition.  She powered clear for an impressive four length win. She was always well placed under Ryan Moore and came well clear in the final furlong. I called the four length winning margin 7lb and have her running to a figure of 115. As she is trained in Ireland her Official Rating will be published there and will be 114 as they valued the winning distance at 6lb.

From an historical perspective this is the highest winning performance in the Ribblesdale since Princess Highway (117) in 2012 and the second highest this century.

Wild Illusion finished in front of Magic Wand in the Oaks. She ran another fine race here but had the positions decisively reversed on this quicker ground. We have Wild Illusion performing to 111 at Epsom and again at Ascot and that is now her new rating – down 2lb from the 113 she achieved when winning in France as a 2yo.

Sun Maiden won a novice stakes at Salisbury by twelve lengths prior to Ascot. She came from further back in the race than the first two and this was a run full of promise. Her opening handicap rating is 106 and I cannot believe that we have seen the best of her yet.

The Group 2 Hardwicke Stakes at Royal Ascot on Saturday saw a fine win by CRYSTAL OCEAN. He was a class above his rivals, especially with Idaho disappointing, and did not have to run to his rating to win.

I have him performing to 118 and his rating remains unchanged at 122. Red Verdon moves from 109 to 113. Although this figure has a degree of uncertainty to it, he was as high as 114 in 2016 and as this was only his second career start on quick ground so I have credited him with it for now.

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