A different Royal Ascot calls for a different approach, for trainers and for punters, especially in the handicaps where, due to the delayed start to the season, the access avenues have been filtered into just a few lanes, a matter of rushed preps or keeping powder dry, adding to the complexities of uncovering a Royal Ascot handicap winner, for which the prestige is great and the rewards greater.
More than ever, a detailed dissection at declaration time is vital to identifying the interesting horses, but, as a means of handicap homework, here’s a shortlist of five who’ve caught the eye on their reappearance, seemingly with an Ascot agenda.
The purpose of a prep run is to put on an edge, that extra 5%, which is all that was missing when Kipps made his comeback at Haydock, where he tanked through 95% of the race, only to be mugged on the line by Walkonby, the result not a true reflection of just how well handicapped Kipps is.
That conclusion is based not only on what he did for most of the Haydock race but also his juvenile form, especially his debut second at Wolverhampton to Listed-class Celestran, with fellow King George V entrant Favorite Moon back in third.
Kipps looks like he’ll relish 12f, always thought of as a middle-distance horse – and a classy one – judged on the fact he held a Derby entry over the winter, and I’m betting on an outpouring of improvement from him on the Wednesday, for a trainer (Hughie Morrison) who very nearly won the race with Corgi in 2018.
A wild swing of the bat to end with, because this is far more speculative than solid, but equally I can’t resist the 33/1 about Baltic Baron for the Hunt Cup, for a horse who would have gone very close with a clearer run in last summer’s Golden Mile at Goodwood, off the same mark he has now.
There wasn’t much to take from his Newmarket comeback, other than it got a run into him, when held up last of all, but he went without headgear there, and it’s fair to assume the visor (in which he ran so well at Goodwood) will return in time for Ascot.
Around this time last year, upon joining David O’Meara (from Andre Fabre), Baltic Baron finished second at Sandown to History Writer, who ended the season a Listed winner. There’s just a chance that the demands of the Hunt Cup will stimulate him, and after one win from its first 30 runners since resumption, the stable has sent out four in recent days, signs of a corner turned.
This one is different in that he hasn’t run this year, but his form has, by proxy, and it makes Ranch Hand look ahead of the game off a mark of 99. When he won convincingly at Haydock last September, over the Copper Horse trip of 1¾m, Ranch Hand drew clear of a strong field that included Moon King. He, Moon King, resumed with a bang in a well-contested race back there, and in between Ranch Hand and Moon King that day was Trueshan, who won his next two, including a Group-standard victory over Hamish.
On the back of that, Ranch Hand was made favourite for the Cesarewitch, which was all too much, on soft ground, for a 3-y-o, but he heads into 2020 with a strong foundation and a stronger sensation that the best is yet to come.
It’s encouraging for his readiness that the Andrew Balding string is absolutely motoring along.
Think back to Dettori’s thrilling Thursday at Royal Ascot 2019 when Frankie won the first four races, and was favourite to make it five, in the Britannia, aboard Turgenev, and they almost pulled it off, beating all bar one of the 27 rivals.
Turgenev was trained by John Gosden and contested the Group 1 Vertem Futurity as a two-year-old, which brings us to Verboten, trained by Gosden and tried in Kameko’s Vertem Futurity last year, who looked at Lingfield like he was being primed for the same race.
He finished only fourth as favourite at Lingfield, but that doesn’t tell the full story as, from stall 10, Verboten was stuck wide throughout, towards the back, over an inadequate 7f, and the way he came home suggests the race no more than scratched the surface of what he can do, a straight mile at Ascot much more up his street.
Dettori hasn’t yet partnered him on the track, but you can bet he’ll pull rank for the Britannia, for which Verboten probably has a few pounds to play with.
Two goes so far at Ascot and two seconds, arguably a touch unlucky both times, but it’s clear that Aplomb goes well at the track, deserving of a date at the Royal meeting this year, now he’s in the premier league of handicappers after a series of promotions last season.
I suspect that no sooner did he cross the Ascot line last October, within a neck of Tinto (who has advertised that form already this month), that the Wokingham was programmed into Aplomb’s SatNav, including a service stop where possible, Newmarket as it turned out, where 5f was too sharp, but needs must, and the run will have tightened the screws ahead of his Ascot assignment.
On his last eight starts, Aplomb has been favourite six times, significant given the stable, that of William Haggas, who has won the Wokingham before. Aplomb is all dressed up with somewhere to go.