The highlight of the summer racing season gets off to a fast start Tuesday with three Group 1 events ushering in the Royal Ascot festivities.
As ever, balancing the claims of favorites against better-priced win contenders is a challenge, and classy overlays are a common theme. Adding to the traditional handicapping puzzle is the new Pick 4. On Tuesday, the Pick 4 comprises the 3RD through 6TH races, ending with a marathon handicap and a listed stakes.
Here’s one set of subjective opinions on how the four Group races may play out, with a footnote on those tricky last two legs of the Pick 4.
1ST Race, the Queen Anne, “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1)
#3 BENBATL (4-1) rates the top selection in light of his superb Dubai Carnival, although his prior Royal Ascot victory in last summer’s Hampton Court (G3) (at 1 1/4 miles over the round course) is a plus. Trained by Saeed bin Suroor, who owns the record for most wins in this race (seven) in the postwar era, the Godolphin runner was a smart sophomore. His class was apparent when motoring from far back for fifth in the Derby (G1) at Epsom, but the combination of maturity, and cutting back in trip on good ground, has been the making of him.
The son of Dubawi and Grade/Group 1 winner Nahrain reached a new level at Meydan this winter, displaying a startling turn of foot to win three of four, all in Group stakes. He arguably should have been perfect but for a difficult trip in his one narrow loss. Benbatl was equally lethal off a steady pace or a fast one, and he clocked a blistering 1:46.02 when last seen landing the March 31 Dubai Turf (G1). Although his Dubai heroics came at about nine furlongs around a turn, that translates well to the Queen Anne’s rigorous mile down the straight.
#10 RECOLETOS (5-1) has a similar profile as a 2017 classic performer who’s found his niche in the mile to nine-furlong range. A potentially significant difference is that the French shipper’s best form is on softer going than he’ll encounter here. The Carlos Laffon-Parias trainee was visually impressive in both outings this term, blowing by his rivals in the Prix du Muguet (G2) and Prix d’Ispahan (G1). If those weren’t the deepest renewals, Recoletos had already proven his mettle on this circuit with a fourth to Cracksman, Poet’s Word, and Highland Reel in last year’s Champion S. (G1). Considering that’s the upper edge of his stamina, he’s entitled to go a lot closer versus these at a mile – with ground conditions being the only proviso.
#15 RHODODENDRON (5-2) owns the key trend line as the winner of the most informative prep, the Lockinge (G1). The Aidan O’Brien filly has been a mightily appealing type throughout her career, from her brilliant success in the Fillies’ Mile (G1) at two to her hard-fought decision over Hydrangea in the Prix de l’Opera (G1) going an extra quarter-mile at three. And if she’d been drawn better at Del Mar, we might be describing her as the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1) winner instead of the runner-up. The one hesitation is that Rhododendron shaped as though she wanted further than a mile when a belated second in last spring’s 1000 Guineas (G1), and her Lockinge win doesn’t necessarily contradict it. Despite benefiting from a perfect trip, she barely got the better of #6 LIGHTNING SPEAR (7-1), who’s a solid campaigner but still a Group 1 bridesmaid. Rhododendron is absolutely good enough to win this, especially as a renewal lacking a pure mile standout, but her price in the circumstances is a bit short.
Longshot: You can make a persuasive case for several in this category, and my longstanding loyalty may be clouding my better judgment in succumbing to the #7 LIMATO (15-1) temptation. While he’s 0-for-3 at a mile, and I was among those wishing he’d stuck to sprinting to give Saturday’s Diamond Jubilee (G1) another whirl, it’s hard to escape the fact that he’s a brilliant multiple Group 1 winner when the stars align. The way he’s finished his best performances over seven furlongs keeps dangling out the hope that a mile is within his compass. Logically you’d think a flatter track and milder tempo would be preferred, and his excuses for his past failures are wearing thin. Yet with his principal rivals all proven at upwards of nine furlongs, maybe this isn’t so quixotic an attempt after all. #13 YOSHIDA (15-1) might be stabworthy if going off near his morning line, but he’ll need to step up while facing multiple new challenges, so best to watch the market and demand commensurate value. Love him in principle as an improving son of Heart’s Cry, just hesitant about whether he’s poised to deliver a second successive career top.
2ND Race, the Coventry (G2)
#7 CALYX (5-2) rocketed into joint-favoritism for the prestigious juvenile event with a jaw-dropping debut at Newmarket. Eliciting a comparison to freshman sire Kingman’s acceleration, from their trainer John Gosden no less, the Juddmonte blueblood traveled like a dream and shot five lengths clear. That significantly came at this six-furlong trip, and Calyx crossed the line with apparently more up his sleeve. Runner-up Octave, who was a first-out winner for Mark Johnston, was herself six lengths ahead of third. Octave is regarded well enough to be entered in Friday’s Albany (G3), and Calyx dispatched her ruthlessly. It’s not imaginative to make him the top selection, but watch his maiden and try not to swoon.
#22 SHINE SO BRIGHT (50-1) could be the surprise package in a race loaded with unexposed talent. By Oasis Dream and a descendant of the prolific Alborada, the Karl Burke trainee showed more than might have been expected in his five-furlong debut at Nottingham. The gray colt had enough tactical foot to stalk the pace, took a few strides to wind up, but stayed on strongly to pull away in a snappy :58.81. Shine So Bright will face a sterner test here, as will they all, but he stamped himself as potentially above average and will love the extra furlong on offer. As if his morning line wasn’t out of sync to begin with, note that he was supplemented to Monday evening’s Goffs London Sale and brought £375,000 from the Sackville Donald Agency (on behalf of King Power, according to Racing Post).
#20 SERGEI PROKOFIEV (2-1) must be respected as the leading contender for Aidan O’Brien, who’s already won the Coventry eight times, most recently with another son of Scat Daddy in Caravaggio (2016). Greenness cost him on debut, when he was very gently handled, or else he’d be a perfect three-for-three. Although still not perhaps the finished article, Sergei dominated next time at Navan and ran out a similarly authoritative winner of the Rochestown at Naas. The quibble is that he’s yet to race beyond five furlongs, and given the early dash he’s shown, he may be a little vulnerable over the added ground. Connections toyed with Thursday’s Norfolk (G2), and for whatever it’s worth, I’d have kept him at that trip for now. Then again, I famously had a similar reservation about Caravaggio in his Coventry.
#14 INDIGO BALANCE (15-1) created a favorable impression when forging clear in his Curragh unveiling for Jessica Harrington. As a full brother to Group 2 winner Cable Bay, the Invincible Spirit colt is bound to progress further. #4 BLOWN BY WIND (20-1), also by Invincible Spirit, has stakes experience as a fourth in the National S., presaging improvement over this distance. # #1 ADVERTISE (12-1), a stylish winner of a hot Newbury maiden over Godolphin’s strong next-out winner #6 BURJ (20-1), has since been scooped up by Gronkowski’s owner, Phoenix Thoroughbred. I could be underestimating #8 COSMIC LAW (8-1), but will need to see him repeat that Epsom performance against better rivals on a more conventional track.
3RD Race, the King’s Stand (G1)
#1 BATTAASH (9-5) is a machine at this five-furlong trip – if he can keep on his best behavior pre-race. With that caveat in mind, I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to try to beat him at those odds. But I’m willing to give him benefit of the doubt, and trust that trainer Charlie Hills has masterminded how to prevent a repeat of the anxiety that preceded his Nunthorpe (G1) flop. Draw a line through it, and Sheikh Hamdan’s speedster has otherwise won his last five. Battaash comprehensively reversed form with Nunthorpe winner Marsha in the Prix de l’Abbaye (G1) on Arc Day, drubbing her by four lengths, and in his reappearance, he became the first since Airwave to carry a Group 1 penalty successfully in the Temple (G2). Hills reported that the Dark Angel gelding had a wind operation last November, but doesn’t believe it’s had an impact on his performance. Not like he needed any physical help, just mental soothing. If Battaash is on his game, he’ll be tough to beat.
#2 BLUE POINT (7-1) looms as the best value play, given his fondness for the course and proven class. The rub is that the Charlie Appleby pupil’s signature efforts have come over six furlongs, and now he shortens up to five. Yet the way he served it up to Meydan kingpin Ertijaal over this distance at the Dubai Carnival could be taken as a tantalizing hint, especially back over this stiffer track. Forget his subsequent woes – a gate scratch at the Al Quoz Sprint (G1) and ill-conceived tactics versus the crack Hong Kong sprint brigade in the Chairman’s Sprint Prize (G1) – and focus instead on an individual who’s been top-class in every season. A Gimcrack (G2) winner at two who also placed in the Middle Park (G1) and Dewhurst (G1), Blue Point set Ascot’s six-furlong course record in the 2017 Pavilion (G3) over Harry Angel. His only local loss was a third to Caravaggio and Harry Angel in last summer’s Commonwealth Cup (G1), for he came back to win again at Ascot in the Bengough (G3). The Shamardal colt can take advantage of any weakness on the part of the favorites.
If I foolishly probed for vulnerabilities in #10 LADY AURELIA (2-1) ahead of last year’s King’s Stand, and even before her Queen Mary (G2), I might as well remain true to form with greater reason this time. If Wesley Ward is right about her being back to her superlative best, we could see a third special performance at the Royal meeting. But for the first time in her life, Lady Aurelia has compiled a losing streak. Perhaps she did need that reappearance in the Giant’s Causeway more this year than last, as a four-year-old. But her Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1) was demoralizing. And in hindsight, even her getting run down by Marsha – a rival she’d decimated here – in the Nunthorpe may have been a sign that she was past her peak. I wouldn’t by any means count her out, but not confident enough to rank her higher.
Longshot: #9 WASHINGTON DC (12-1) has yet to break through at the top level, but the O’Brien trainee has come close, notably in the 2016 Abbaye. Just a head shy of Battaash in the Temple last out, he’ll get his prerequisite of a fast-run five furlongs. Granted, Washington DC threw in a shockingly bad race in the 2017 King’s Stand despite getting those conditions. But we know he handles the course, having taken the 2015 Windsor Castle and finished third in the 2016 Commonwealth Cup. The son of Zoffany can be a frustrating type who needs things to fall into place for him (a bit of luck he didn’t have when hampered in the British Champions Sprint [G1] in his last Ascot visit). One of these days, things just might. Until then, though, he remains a viable exotics player. A bigger price worth a look is France’s #4 FINSBURY SQUARE (20-1), a close fifth in last summer’s Diamond Jubilee who just landed the Prix du Gros-Chene (G2). He hit a new high right off the bat on the switch to Mauricio Delcher-Sanchez, trainer of Equiano for his first King’s Stand victory (2008). #3 BUCCHERO (20-1) is easy to root for as a dependable type who will run his race; I’m just not sure how he stacks up in this contentious cast.
4TH Race, the St James’s Palace (G1)
#5 ROMANISED (5-1) is the lone classic winner in the field after his Irish 2000 Guineas (G1) score. Although 25-1 that day, the Ken Condon trainee had prior form in his corner as the runner-up to Masar in the 2017 Solario (G3), and his pedigree promised improvement with maturity. A three-quarter brother to former Hong Kong Horse of the Year Designs on Rome, Romanised may be just be reaching the peak of his powers. If there’s a quibble with his Irish Guineas form, it’s that he may well have been flattered by beating a pair of non-stayers in #8 U S NAVY FLAG (6-1) and #3 GUSTAV KLIMT (8-1). Still, Romanised is a pretty nice price for a horse of his profile in an open-looking race.
#9 WITHOUT PAROLE (5-2) has become the favorite precisely for that reason, with all the allure of the unbeaten fresh face. The fast time posted in his Yarmouth romp made him a Guineas dark horse until a foot abscess knocked him out, and Gosden went to Plan B in the Heron at Sandown. Without Parole is better than the margin showed, between his lack of fitness and not loving the ground. The Frankel half-brother to 2016 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) star Tamarkuz is poised to take a substantial step forward, but the class test makes his odds look awfully short. Even Gosden doesn’t believe he should be favored.
#10 WOOTTON (8-1) has upset potential if he’s as effective on this much quicker surface. The French raider won his first three starts, including a scrap over Olmedo in the Prix de Fontainebleau (G3), but was fourth to the same foe in the French 2000 Guineas (G1). If trying to judge the relative merits of the French and Irish Guineas, U S Navy Flag was fifth (after a scary stumble) in France, but stepped up back at the Curragh. So the collateral form doesn’t help decide the issue. Trained by Henri-Alex Pantall for Godolphin, he will try to emulate another son of Wootton Basset who starred at Ascot – 2016 Champion S. (G1) hero Almanzor.
#7 TIP TWO WIN (4-1) is eminently logical as the runner-up to Saxon Warrior in Newmarket’s 2000 Guineas (G1), where he beat next-out Derby winner Masar and Epsom third Roaring Lion. If his 50-1 odds that day weren’t quite fair, he is yet to win a Group race (by international cataloguing standards). It’s tempting to see his Guineas as a perfect storm, where he outkicked horses suited to longer distances or others who were just disappointing. The Roger Teal pupil has been consistent, never off the board in seven starts, and that virtue was amply rewarded at Newmarket. It may be so in this race as well, but he’ll need to beat a few serious rivals to earn a first Group laurel. Hence I view him as more of an honest placegetter than one about to run onto the Royal Ascot honor roll.
Longshot: #2 GABR (12-1), runner-up to Without Parole in the Heron, also has claims to move forward in the rematch. By Intello and out of multiple Group 2 winner Spacious, Sheikh Hamdan’s colt needed a mile to break his maiden at Yarmouth last fall. Sir Michael Stoute pitched him straight into the Racing Post Trophy (G1), where he wound up fifth behind Saxon Warrior and Roaring Lion. The ambitious placement there, and here, by these connections demands a second look. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gabr jumps up and runs the race of his life.
If you’re plowing into the Pick 4, be aware that the final two races, the Ascot S. and Wolferton S., are historically tough sledding for favorites. Depending upon your budget, you might want to take a stronger stand in the first two legs – the King’s Stand and St James’s Palace – to allow for spreading in the final two. Or keep it simple and take a look at the Powell Pick 4.
Good luck and enjoy day one!