Royal Ascot is back. Undisputedly the most classy, elegant and quintessentially British race meeting of the whole fixture calendar, six days of high class action takes centre stage. But beyond the bright colours, fancy fascinators and top hats lays a ferocious beast, the betting ring. Royal Ascot is made for sensationalist stories. In the very first race of last year’s festival, the Queen Anne, Channel 4 reported a £60,000-£50,000 bet on the fractions about Toronado, one very happy punter indeed. What makes Royal Ascot so special is the truly international opposition it attracts. With stars from France, America and the Far East raiding our shores with terrific horses, the betting ring is at constant war trying to identify the wheat from the chaff. Unlike the Cheltenham festival though, punters are often less clued up about the Irish contingent. Such has been his success over his career, Aidan O’Brien has already created what I like to call an ‘O’Brien-centric’ following which sometimes offers poor value. In order to tackle this, the following will analyse the Irish form and give you an informed opinion on this year’s Irish runners and what price they are really worth.
Coventry Stakes (3.05pm Tuesday)
Where better to begin our assessment than the Coventry Stakes? A six furlong group two contest for two year-olds, Ireland holds two of the top three in the betting. The Godolphin owned Round Two is a very warm favourite currently best priced 9/4 to land the spoils. He beat a very good horse in Argentero on his debut as well as an O’Brien horse named Waterloo Bridge. Both have subsequently boosted the form by winning and would both be fully deserved of a mark in the low to mid-90’s. Round Two stepped up again in a four runner contest when dispensing of the well backed Birchwood for Richard Fahey. That form is very solid given Birchwood outgunned Beaverbrook earlier in the season with the latter lining up to have a crack at getting the better of Jim Bolger’s star tomorrow. Mr Bolger produced a very straightforward plan for Round Two at the start of the season and he has a lot of confidence in his speedy newcomer. Tomorrow is a huge step-up and he will have to improve again. I get the feeling Bolger has every confidence he will do that, but at 9/4 does he offer a lot of value to punters in a completely unexposed field?
Air Force Blue is a once raced colt for the O’Brien powerhouse and ranks even more unexposed than Round Two. He was very green on his debut but was given a very good ride by Ryan Moore who got him up by a neck. The fast finishing second Rockaway Valley stayed on to just be denied but did no damage to the form when sluicing up on his next start for Jessica Harrington. I’m inclined to believe with normal improvement, Air Force Blue should really be hitting the placings tomorrow. At 8/1, he is rightly priced and could prove an EW steal.
Round Two is correctly priced ahead of Air Force Blue by 6 points. The former has the better form and has proved more on the racetrack, but I just get the feeling Aidan O’Brien deliberately left a bit to work on with Air Force Blue. I don’t think the 8/1 will be available tomorrow on the board prices and I would rather get a return at 2/1 if he places than have to go all in on Round Two on the win market in the hope that he steps up again.
King’s Stand Stakes (3.40pm Tuesday)
Although not what many would class as an Irish contender given his regular appearances in Britain and Dubai, Sole Power is the favourite for the King’s Stand Stakes. The superstar sprinter has won this race for the past two years and is without doubt one of the fastest animals in racing. You can put a big red line through his run at the Curragh in May when 6th of 9. He ran further than his preferred five furlong trip and the ground was far too soft. He was given a gentle ride once beaten that day and he will look like a completely different horse tomorrow. The ground is exactly as he likes it and the conditions are perfect. The market is in near unity at a price of 7/2 with two firms holding a last ditch effort to attract punters at 4/1. He may be eight years of age but he showed at Meydan he was still the king of sprints as long as he can reclaim his form.
Although trained in Ireland, many in Britain are attempting to adopt him as their own. Given the prize on offer, it’s shocking that there isn’t a single other Irish runner in the field, especially with French and Australian sprinters coming over for the race. If only we could get 4/1 for Sole Power to be the best Irish horse rather than the first past the post of the whole 19….
St James’ Palace Stakes (4.20pm Tuesday)
This year’s ‘class act’ on the flat, Gleneagles lines up tomorrow to add the St James’ Palace Stakes to his already glittering record. He loved conditions at Newmarket when absolutely demolishing a good field in the 2000 Guineas. I was there that day and looking back on it I feel a bit silly for questioning his favouritism at the time. Gleneagles has finished with his head in front on every single start (Note he has technically been beaten when demoted to third in France) and is truly a fantastic racehorse. Many racing fans were a little disappointed by his showing in the Irish equivalent of the 2000 Guineas when plugging on to land the spoils by a very slim margin. People are perhaps being very unfair about his display that day given the ground was completely against him. He thrives on good to firm ground which he will have at Ascot tomorrow. The conditions will suit his devastating turn of foot and if in the right position, Ryan Moore should have enough in the locker to flick the switch and clear home.
A best priced 4/6 with the books makes him unattractive as a single unless you like your odds on shots, but it’s just impossible to find value in him from anywhere else. He will form a huge amount of punters accumulators and if he gets beaten the bookmakers will be in absolute clover. He has the conditions in his favour tomorrow and although facing a couple of nice sorts, should prove himself as the class horse.
Windsor Castle Stakes (5.35pm Tuesday)
The final race on day one of Royal Ascot could either console the efforts of team Ballydoyle or top off a glittering day with their only runner – Washington DC. He’s a very nice horse whose form figures of 212 read very nicely on the racecard. The first two runs were good, solid efforts but in terms of Irish form, I wouldn’t rate them good enough to take this contest. However, his effort last time out behind Round Two at the Curragh puts him right in the mix for this race. If Round Two wins the Coventry, jump on this horse as quickly as you can because he will immediately begin to shorten in price. He was only beaten two lengths when the pair met at the Curragh when holding every chance. He probably didn’t enjoy the ground a great deal that day and with his visually most impressive display coming on good to firm ground, he could be another type that performs far better on tomorrow’s surface. 11/2 is probably a fair price for what he has achieved so far, but it doesn’t scream ‘back me’ with so many interesting runners.
Ard San Aer is another type for Bolger and Manning. A general 14/1 shot, he has finished second and first in two starts but the form of his two races have been nothing to shout home about. I will be mightily surprised if he comes close to Washington DC given the huge gulf in form already achieved. A couple of horses have let Ard San Aer down already and I am not particularly interested in an EW shout either.
Another Irish contender is for Johnny Murtagh, once a prolific jockey at this track who perhaps wishes he was back in the saddle for this fantastic week of racing. Stamp Hill hasn’t shown a great deal on his two starts so far although finishing 5th behind Rockaway Valley (mentioned above) is not to be sniffed at, albeit beaten a fair way. I’ll be mightily surprised if he can even place in this contest given he’d require a great deal of improvement.
A race which depends all about the performance of Round Two. If he wins then Washington DC’s 11/2 will likely be gone within seconds. However, if he should disappoint or run flat, 11/2 may look slightly on the skinny side for Washington DC. It’s not a race I’m mad about either of the other two Irish raiders and would be happy to look elsewhere for some value.