Tag Archives: Dermot Weld

British Champions Day or the end of the flat

Ascot Grand Stand, by Florian Christoph

British Champions Day is synonymous with the end of the flat season – hard to believe but the end of 2016 renewal is nearly upon us! It certainly passed me in the blink of an eye – or so it felt!

Honestly, I never really got into it. I missed out on many big days. Was just too busy with other stuff. I went to the Curragh just twice. Which is a crying shame.

Take simply: I never got emotionally involved in this season at all.

It didn’t help – I guess – my betting was brutal the first half of the season, slightly improved in the second half, though without ever coming close to making something like a profit.

Gotta to get going in the All-Weather season again, which usually works quite well if I put in the time and the effort. It’s something I enjoy. But for one last time, let’s have a look at those races of British flat season that do stand out.

Thoughts and selections are below – follow them may lead to bankruptcy. So do it on your own responsibility:

2.00 Ascot: Don’t Touch E/W @ 66/1 Coral (1/5, 5places)

Wide open race and Don’t Touch is surely not a prime chance in this competitive race, given he has yet to prove his class beyond listed level. Nonetheless he’s a speedy sort with an impressive record over six furlongs and if the first time blinkers can edge out a bit of improvement then he is in with a shout to content for the placing at least.

2.35 Ascot: Zhukova @ 5/1 Bet365

Potentially a minefield this race, but Dermot Weld’s filly has the right profile to win it.
Still not too many miles on the clock, lightly raced this year while unbeaten in 2016, she usually is not too far off the pace which I feel could be crucial today.

3.10 Ascot: Hit It A Bomb @ 25/1 Ladbrokes

Hasn’t hit the heights of last season in  two starts since his return, but may improve from those two runs and the light season could be an advantage today if he is still as good as he promised to be as a juvenile. Conditions should suit him. Of course he has a bit to find on form and the ratings with the likes of Minding and Galileo Gold.

However one shouldn’t forget they have had a hard and long season that started quite early as well, so they may well run not to their true form today. A bit improvement from HIAB and a bit regression from the key contenders, and the 25/1 looks a huge price.

3.45 Ascot: Jack Hobbs @ 14/1 Ladbrokes

It’s probably a stupid bet trusting a horse that has been pulled up when last seen over half a year ago, running after a long lay-off in a race as deep as this is. But regardless, I feel the price is too big. In theory Jack Hobbs should be getting better the older he gets.

Now more mature after a summer off, John Gosden can get his horses ready first time out and Jack Hobbs won FTO in the past – I like the fact that he should be in the right spot when they turning for home, given he is usually right up with the pace, so does not need in-running luck, which will inevitably play a role today for some of the more fancied runners.

4.05 Catterick: Machine Learning @ 5/1 Bet365

Fine winner on penultimate start, probably should have won under penalty the next time. Still on a fair mark and now heading to Catterick for the first time. Michael Bell has an excellent record here, even better with those he brings here for their first run at this odd track. Fine Apprentice is booked, trainer and jockey enjoy some success together – from bottom weight Machine Learning must have a big chance.

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Epsom Review: Minding The Gap

A historic day for Irish trainer Dermot Weld, who celebrated a first Derby success thanks to his brilliant Sea The Stars colt Harzand, who followed in the footsteps of his prominent daddy, who himself now sired a first Epsom Derby winner!

It was not a trouble free preparation, though. In fact it was touch and go in the morning whether Harzand would take his chance in the most famous flat race and the ultimate call was actually with Pat Smullen cantering down to the start! He went into the starting gate, thankfully, as we know the outcome by now.

Under a masterful ride by jockey Pat Smullen – also for him a first Epsom Derby success – the inexperienced colt was patiently guided through the field; Smullen settled him in a good position somewhere in midfield and rode with a cool head when gaps didn’t open up immediately in the home straight.

Harzand ultimately fend off a late surge by favourite US Army Ranger. He dug deep and found another gear when it really mattered. Given all the foot problems beforehand, it was a brilliant performance!

And The Ranger, whom I’ve been so keen on? Finished runner-up with plenty of credit. He clearly proved to be a classy individual. However it didn’t go to plan for him. Ever so slightly, yet decisively, he missed the break and didn’t seem to travel particularly well early on, subsequently lost every chance to be in a decent position. In a race where small margins can be the deciding factor about victory and defeat this was surely a tough ask to overcome.

Good Ryan, Bad Ryan?

After the less than ideal start, Jockey Ryan Moore took it easy on US Army Ranger, settled in rear, relaxed the horse and let him find his rhythm. Commentator Richard Hoiles called it during the race: “Us Army Ranger is given time” – which was the only real option in my mind. He was still third last turning for home but Moore gradually edged to the outer of the field to get a run. Gaps didn’t open for him and only inside three furlongs Ranger finally got into the clear.

Winner Harzand was already flown towards home at this stage, still Ranger produced a stunning change of gear and loomed large with 200 yards to go. But the big effort to make up so much ground in such a short space of time showed its effect and he ran out of gas in the final furlong.

Ryan Moore has come under scrutiny for his ride on US Army Ranger. As often in this game, opinions are divided. In my view this was a class ride by the world’s best jockey. He proved, despite defeat, why he’s simply the best. In difficult circumstances he gave his mount the best possible chance to finish as close as possible. Not always is a winning ride a good one and a losing ride a bad one.

Sure, it wasn’t the game plan to travel as far back as second or third last for large parts of the race. But inexperienced Ranger didn’t help the cause when he bottled the start. What other option did Moore haven than let the horse find his stride, relax him and try to preserve as much energy as possible? Hustling him up to make up ground would have been detrimental to Ranger’s chance, in my mind.

The fact that gaps didn’t open up when Moore (and I as a punter) would have wanted it is not his fault. These things happen in racing. Imagine the gap would open up over 4f out though – Ranger cruises through it, and maybe wins the race. You know what happens then? Moore’s going to be the hero!

It wasn’t to be. The gap didn’t open, Moore had to delay and ask Ranger for an almighty effort when the road was finally clear. In the end it was all a bit too much for US Army Ranger who still finished second – what is in fact credit to his class and the one of his rider.

In the end inexperience cost him, and for that reason it’s fair to say the best horse on the day won. Harzand was more professional, mastered the difficult test Epsom provides and is without a doubt a really good winner of the world’s most famous flat race.

Minding and the Beauty of Racing

These last two days were yet again a wonderful reminder why I personally love flat racing so much. Yes, it was a disappointment not to back the winner  in the Derby with US Army Ranger, still I enjoyed the coverage, the races leading up to the big one, Postponed’s brilliant success in the Coronation Cup, the joy and emotions on Weld & Smullen’s faces after they won their first Derby….

However it was Friday’s performance by Minding in the Oaks that is the standout of the two days – she simply blew me away! When I saw her overcoming all the trouble in the Oaks, when I saw her blistering turn of foot, changing gears so smoothly like Formula 1 cars usually do, her wonderful attitude and enthusiasm – it was something else!

The speed, the beauty, the power, the elegance – it’s what flat racing is all about and it’s epitomized in this dramatically good looking and at the same time incredibly talented filly Minding. Her Oaks performance was one of those special racing moments you have to see to believe.

And no, I didn’t back her. It has nothing to do with money whatsoever. I’m just grateful for having witnessed her performance for the pure love of the sport. And on that front isn’t it  wonderful to know our sport is yet again blessed  with brilliant talents like Minding, Harzand and US Army Ranger? I love it!

Photo Credit to citizen.co.za

Curragh Opener – Review

And they’re off! The 2016 Irish flat season is under way and it started with an excellent card and some promising performances on Sunday. Here’s a quick round-up of the day and some photos – Find a complete photo gallery here.

Promising Kick-Off: The first race of the new year was a 5f maiden, won by Mister Trader who made all and quickened nicely. Could be a nice type for the early 2yo races but he may not necessarily turn out to be best of this lot.

Callender in third travelled eye-catchingly well off the pace and had loads to do from his position, he wasn’t knocked over but finished with plenty of promise given first and second were the pace setters. He’s extremely well bred and could develop into a nice sprinter.

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Cosy Club

A mentioning also for Cosy Club, the first So You Think son we’ve seen at a racetrack in Europe I believe.

Considering that the 5f trip is probably way too short, he travelled well enough actually, though it was obvious that he wasn’t quick enough when the pace quickened over 2f out.Subsequently he didn’t get the best of runs but also appeared to be green. It was a good debut nonetheless and he should improve once he steps up in trip.

New Star fo Bolger? The 6f maiden was won by an interesting Bolger newcomer in Stenographer. He cost $450.000 as a yearling and impressed physically as a big and scopey type. He was badly outpaced in the middle part of the race but stayed on strongly to get up on the line eventually.

He obviously needs further, given the visual evidence here in combination with his pedigree given he’s  son of Distorted Humor and out of a Sadler’s Wells mare. Jim Bolger likes to introduce good ones at this very first meeting, so Stenographer is clearly one for the notebooks.

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Stenographer

Upset the Group 3 Park Express Stakes: Nobody gave a toss about Queen Blossom. She was unfancied in the betting – though in my preview I called her out as a 20/1 value shot for the race – and travelled in rear of the field for most parts of the race.

Favourite Devonshire looked to have things his own way entering the final two furlongs, but then Queen Blossom worked her way through the field and made a fight out of it. The three year old filly eventually piped Devonshire on the line to land the big price. Surprising in a sense, but it has to be said in her two starts as a juvenile last year she already appeared to have some potential. It remains to be seen whether this was a fluke or if she can build on it, whereas runner-up Devonsire continues to find ways to get beaten over one mile.

Irish Guineas for Awtaad: There was some talk about the son of Cape Cross over the winter after he impressed in two starts as a juvenile. Then, a massive drift in the betting before the off of the Madrid Handicap on Sunday was a major worry. Did he not train on?

There was nothing to worry as the top weight made light work of his rivals in what looked a pretty good and deep race beforehand. He was simply too good for this lot, despite possibly still a bit light of fitness, as connections mentioned afterwards.

Awtaad really impressed me with the way he kicked clear against a good bunch of three year old’s and confirmed what I saw in the parade ring before. He looked a nice, athletic and scopey type. According to his trainer the Irish 2000 Guineas is the plan.

Sruthan’s Lincoln Romp: I didn’t fancy him, feeling a mile in soft ground with a big weight on his shoulders in a deep field may just stretch him, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Sruthan in hands of Chris Hayes, slaughtered his rivals in the Irish Lincoln. Two furlongs out and you could count your chickens if you backed him, Hayes sat motionless in the saddle.

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Sruthan romps home

Once the button was pressed, Sruthan stepped up a gear and romped home by 4 and half lengths to win the feature of day one. 11/4 favourite Ashraf finished down the field but was found to be wrong afterwards. It’s best to ignore this performance and to give him the benefit of the doubt. He could still develop into a a very good horse.

Intriguing 1m Maiden: The final race on the card shaped as quite a good race on paper and turned out to be exactly that. The winner Embiran looked extremely promising on his sole start in 2015, when he was unlucky not to beat a subsequent listed winner. He didn’t encounter any problems this time. He travelled like a dream until Smullen said “Go” – in a matter of strides the son of Sharmadal put the race to bed.

He’s nicely bred out of Group 3 winning mare Emiyna, and Dermot Weld said it shouldn’t be a problem to drop back to 7f for a bid of black-type in the Tetrarch Stakes in May.

The runner-up Stellar Mass makes a habit of bumping into the “one too good”. He was a one lengths beaten 4th in the Group 2 Beresford Stakes last season but still remains a maiden. He travelled very strongly here but was simply beaten by a better horse on the day. That says the son of Sea The Stars appears to have strengthen up over the winter and is not a lost cause.

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Claudio Monteverdi

Eye-catcher of the day was Claudio Monteverdi. Aiden O’Brien’s inmate was well backed but met considerable in-running trouble at a crucial stage. Once in the clear he thundered home to finish an excellent fourth.

He finished similarly promising on his sole run last year and is one of the most exciting prospects for the new season. A full-brother to super filly Lush Lashes, he’s a a candidate for the Derby, no doubt. You can find far worse 40/1 ante-post shots.

I expect him to come on an awful lot for this pipe opener and look massively forward to seeing him next time because the more I watch the replay from Sunday, the better it gets.

Cook Islands a potential star: Another one for O’Brien I really look forward to see racing is Cook Islands. I loved what I saw from him in his two starts last year and he did impress me when working at the Curragh on Sunday. He looks to have strengthen up over the winter, is very athletic, though a bit a tricky character all the same.

Whether or not is was significant, but Pat Smullen was on board for the workout and you’d may want to think for a reason; and if it’s only for a feedback from one of the best in the business. Cook Islands may turn out to more like a French Derby type, one who could really excel over 10 furlongs.

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Cook Island

All photos credit Florian Christoph

Leopardstown Preview: Juvenile Stakes

Aiden O'brien

4.05 Juvenile Stakes (Group 3), 1m

Tricky renewal with some hot prospects in the line-up. Bolger’s Sanus Per Aquam makes plenty of appeal with excellent form in the book and the step up in trip sure to suit. He’s a very short price though in a race where plenty of potential is still unlocked.

Ballydoyle has a strong hand in this renewal, which Aiden O’Brien won with John F Kennedy last year. Shogun looked smart when he got off the mark at the Curragh earlier this year, but didn’t enjoy soft ground subsequently. So the overnight rain is a big concern, as the inside track is unlikely to dry out enough to suit him.

Seemingly second string, albeit you never really know with this yard, is Johannes Vermeer. Equally an exciting prospect, he impressed me with his nice action and change of gear at Killarney. He put stamina questions to bed as he never seemed to stop in the 1m 100y contest. He may not be too inconvenienced by the ground, given his pedigree.

Dermot Weld’s True Solitaire is another one to like. A big winner at the Galway Festival, he doesn’t mind rain softened ground and is sure to respond well to the step up to 1m.

Restive for Ger Lyons looked a bit lazy, albeit smart enough to held off his opposition in a Curragh maiden recently. He’s a scopey individual, but may not run due to the ground. His other charge Waipu Cove has been in excellent form lately and could do still better, however is more exposed than others here.

Conclusion: Hard to predict what happens. Nonetheless I believe the 7/1 for Johannes Vermeer is rather over the top. I like his pedigree, he’s bred to be precocious, gets the trip, has a good draw and should be okay on the ground.

Johannes Vermeer @ 7/1 Paddy Power – 5pts Win

Preview – Irish Derby Day

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The Irish Derby weekend has landed and it all started quite nicely yesterday – Algonquin was a fine winner @ 5/1. This week is a huge boost so far after a disastrous Royal Ascot. But that’s the good thing about racing: You can have a hard time but two winners later you’re very much back on track.

So today, Irish Derby Day! Some serious racing on offer at the Curragh. The sun is out, the ground is fast, the Derby poses an 8-runner strong field and the supporting card is sensational. Let’s try to find some winners!

4.10 Curragh: Summer Fillies Handicap, 7f

Three year old Military Angel should go close. She was unlucky the last time at Naas in Listed company and may be ahead of her mark. But she is small in size and this is not exactly a small field. Fighting for position is not her strongest asset, so I oppose her at a price that looks fair, but nothing more.

Colour Blue is a consistent filly. She should run her race. On a fair mark at the moment but others are better handicapped. Slipper Orchid may struggle of top weight, while Duchess Andorra is very progressive but has to overcome a 10lb rise in the mark for her most recent success at Gowran Park.

That day she beat Dermot Weld’s Sparkle Factor in second. This lightly raced four year old makes plenty of appeal. She should come on from her seasonal debut at she travelled really well and got just bit tired in the end, beaten by a fit and well handicapped rival. She came well clear of the rest of the pack nonetheless and is only one pound higher today.

She loves the ground and the trip, has a CD win on her CV and looked to win a Listed race at Killarney last year, when she travelled much the best but found the 1m trip a bit too far in the end. She looks progressive and well handicapped here today.

Sparkle Factor @ 13/2 Coral – 5pts Win

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4.45 Celebration Stakes (Listed), 1m

Nice little field, really competitive race. Looking very much forward to see how it pans out. I guess you know what you get with most of these runners. That says War Envoy is a poor favourite in my mind. Yes, he was probably well in at Ascot the other day, but now back in Listed class, he isn’t certain to follow up by any means.

I like progressive Tennessee Wildcat, but feel a track like Leopardstown suits him much better than the open, wide space at the Curragh. Bolger’s Flight Risk proved his 50/1 shocker in a Group 3 earlier this year was no flash in the pan. While Sovereign Debt may find this trip at this track beyond him. Though quick conditions should suit.

The one unexposed and potentially underestimated individual is Shepherd’s Purse. He was a bit unlucky in a hot Group 3 at Leopardstown nine days ago when the route on the inside was clearly not the one to glory. He had only five starts to date, won on his debut in taking style here at the Curragh last season, was subsequently far from disgraced when 4th behind Cappella Sansevero in a Group 3 but didn’t handle soft ground in his next two outings.

Quick ground today is very much what he wants. He has seemingly trained on and physically improved from two to three and travelled strongly the last time until meeting in-running trouble. He’s a very big runner today with the weight for age allowance – if he stays the trip. It’s far from given on pedigree. Although not impossible. At 15/2 he’s a price I feel is too big and I give him the benefit of the doubt.

Shepherd’s Purse @ 15/2 Betfred – 5pts Win

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Handicap (3YO plus), 1m

Plenty of interesting runners. Favourite Hasanour is expected by many to run a big race. He probably will  do so but has to overcome a big hike in the mark. Others appeal more to me. I like Ger Lyons’s Trinity Force. Reportedly he had a wind op over the winter which seemed to have helped as he looked good over 7f this year. Ground and trip may suit. Bolgers maiden winner is another interesting prospect.

But for a price I select Burn The Boats to go well. He has a strong record over this trip and needs fast ground and a fast pace to see him to best effect. He’s 2lb above his last winning mark but has shown some fair form this year. He was certainly not advantaged at Dundalk on his penultimate start when he travelled much the best but got a run too late. He wasn’t disgraced in Listed company at Navan when seen the last time either.

It’s a tough race, others might be better handicapped and he heeds things to fall right. But at 20/1 Burn The Boats is certainly a price to have an interest in. If he gets a clear run then I expect him to be bang there when it matters.

Burn The Boats @ 20/1 Paddy Power – 5pts Win

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5.50 Curragh: Irish Derby (Group 1) 1m 4f

Despite half the field trained by Aiden O’Brien, this is one of the better line-ups for the Irish Derby in recent years. Epsom Derby runner-up Jack Hobbs comes here as the clear favourite and takes all the beating if he can bring his A game to the plate today.

Storm The Stars was third at Epsom, though a long way behind Jack Hobbs. He finished the race well enough, but you wonder if he isn’t more of a Leger type? He would need a soft lead today to have a real chance to win I feel.

Giovanni Canaletto was fourth in the Derby, he ran okay but not as good as many would have hoped. Though the big race may came a bit too soon for this inexperienced full-brother to Ruler Of The World. He remains with potential for improvement. His comeback run when runner-up to subsequent Riblesdale winner Curvy looked disappointing back in the day but turns out to be very strong form. In my eyes he’s Ballydoyle’s number one today.

However a shorter price is stable mate Highland Reel. Yes, I was eagerly awaiting his seasonal reappearance, hoping he could develop into the superstar he promised to be after exciting performances as a juvenile. He didn’t quite fulfil these hopes. A poor French Guineas run, followed by a much improved runner-up effort in the French Derby. Nonetheless I feel he is not as good a three year old as he was a juvenile and I fail to see how the 12f trip will bring out any more improvement.

Dermot Weld’s charge Radanpour is a fairly progressive individual. Though his dead heat in a listed event three weeks ago doesn’t inspire me. You’d be disappointed if he’d come out on top today. Same goes for Kilimanjaro, who’s simply not good enough.

Surprise Oaks winner Qualify is a different proposition. She is really progressive and I don’t think her Epsom success was a fluke. She is that good. She needs a fast pace and then stays all day long. Not sure if these conditions are given today, but she can’t be underestimated.

But the value lies with Giovanni Canaletto in my mind. He has a lot to find with the odds-on favourite on the Epsom Derby form, but it is far from unlikely that there is more improvement to come from him. He is a lovely looking individual, raw but inexperienced. Epsom could bring him along nicely for the Irish Derby, so at 12/1 I side with him.

Giovanni Canaletto @ 12/1 Coral – 5pts win

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7.15 Curragh: Handicap (60-100), 2m

It was utterly impressive the way Sang Tiger made up ground late at Leopardstown recently when he had clearly the run of the race against himself. He came from a near impossible position to score cosily in the end.

He’s five pounds higher today but not too exposed yet, so he may be able to overcome this new mark. Quick ground is what he likes, and despite an ultra competitive field, he has as good a chance as anybody here and is a rather big price.

Sang Tiger @ 10/1 Sportingbet – 5pts Win

Preview: Royal Ascot – Gold Cup (Group 1)

Ascot Grand Stand, by Florian Christoph

What a race in prospect – even if turns out that favourite Forgotten Rules isn’t going to run – which looks increasingly likely given the fast ground. My short-list is long because if you want, you could make a serious case for at least half the field. It’s that strong a renewal of this prestigious stayers contest.

Of course if Dermot Weld decides to run Forgotten Rules, regardless of the ground, you have to give this lightly raced five year old a big chance. He’s such an exciting prospect in this division, unbeaten in four starts, and already a Group 2 winner over 2 miles. However the fast conditions are a serious concern, and I’m prepared to take him on for this reason. So let’s check in on all the other runners.

Bathyrhon: Excellent prep run in France last month. Runner-up in Group 1 Prix Du Cadran last season over 2m 4f. So stays the trip and best form came on sound surface. One would think the quick ground isn’t an issue. Has a turn of foot and can be ridden any way. Classy prospect.

Biographer: Has some fair staying form. Second in Long Distance Cup last season. But overall profile suggests he’s likely to fall short in this class.

Havana Beat: Career best in Dubai Gold Cup over 2m earlier this year, followed up with another good performance at York. Stamina a big concern over this trip and long way beaten in this race last year.

Kalann: Fair Irish stayer. Runner-up in last years Doncaster Cup but should find this here way too hot.

Simenon: Done well in the Gold Cup in recent years. Consistent performer and can’t be underestimated. But lacks a change of gear which is required to win, and therefore likely to fall short yet again.

Tac De Boistron: Classy stayer, multiple Group 1 winner. Would be major player if the ground comes soft. That is unlikely, though, and will make life difficult for him.

Forever Now: Tried 2 miles twice this year. Ran okay without setting the world alight. Hard to fancy.

Kingfisher: Well bred individual. Runner-up in 2014 Irish Derby. Aimed towards staying contests this year and did well to win prep race at Leopardstown a fortnight ago. Definite player and likely to relish this test but merit of form is debatable.

Mizzou: Top class prospect. Won Group 3 over 2 miles at Ascot on his seasonal reappearance. He looks a real stayer and will be better the further he goes. Still lightly raced, he is open to any amount of improvement and quite clearly a key player in the Gold Cup.

Scotland: Zero chance.

Trip To Paris: Improving stayer. Will relish the trip. Won Chester Cup earlier this year and slightly unlucky when last seen. Conditions will suit and big chance if this race isn’t one too many after a very busy campaign in recent weeks.

Vent De Force: Exciting prospect. Big, bold, raw. A stayer. Bit unlucky on his seasonal comeback at Ascot when runner-up behind Mizzou. But made no mistake the next time at Sandown when ridden from the front. He’s a scopey galloping sort, one who has plenty of stamina on both sire and dam side. Will love the conditions.

Windshear: Good fourth in last years Leger. Has been disappointing on most occasions ever since.

Verdict: Regardless of whether Forgotten Rules is going to post, this is an ultra-competitive contest. That says it may well be worth to side with the improving individuals. Mizzou is one of those. He looks a real stayer and must have a prime chance. However he’s a rather skinny price and I fail to see why Vent De Force is twice his price.

This Vent De Force didn’t get a clear run when these two met at Ascot earlier this year but he made no mistake the next time. He looks a very exciting prospect, is sure to relish trip and ground and is one I feel should be a shorter price.

I like to see Kingfisher to improve again. He’s a very interesting contender, but I question his form and others have stronger credentials. Trip To Paris is one of those. I feel though, he has done so much this season already, he might run out of gas this time.

That won’t happen to French raider Bathyrhon. He’ll stay every inch of the 2m 4f trip. He has top form to offer and is a very big price in my book. Connections expect a big run, as long as he handles the preliminaries of parade and the large crowd.

Vent De Force @ 8/1 Coral – 5pts Win
Bathyrhon @ 10/1 Coral – 5pts Win

Preview: Royal Ascot – Prince Of Wales’s Stakes

The Grey Gatsby

Probably the most intriguing contest at this years Royal Ascot, the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes enjoys the presence of some of the best middle-distance horses from all around the world. A truly fascinating contest to see all these international stars going head to head.

The Favourite

The waiting is over; the eagerly anticipated return of Dermot Weld’s Free Eagle has arrived. Thought to be a potential Derby winner as a juvenile, he had his fair share of problems as a three year old but came back from a year long break on Irish Champions Weekend to win a Group 3 in scintillating style. He ended the season with a fair 3rd place in the British Champion Stakes, when the soft ground was probably against him.

Ascot’s 10 furlong track and fast ground should suit this exciting individual down to the grounds. I can’t wait to see him back on the track. Big things are expected and Mr. Weld has proved in the past to be well able to produce Free Eagle first time out. He is the horse they all have to beat here.

The Domestic Challenge

Last seasons brilliant Irish Champions Stakes winner The Grey Gatsby has been slightly disappointing in two starts this season. While one could say he came up against a superstar at Meydan over a trip slightly too sharp, there weren’t too many excuses for him at the Curragh the next time.

He’ll appreciate the quick ground here but has to produce his brilliant best if he wants to play a prominent role in the outcome of this race. That says it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him bouncing back to his brilliant best with conditions very much to suit.

Already a Royal Ascot winner, Cannock Chase must be respected. He’ll love the ground and the track. You could make some excused for him in his two stars this year, although he doesn’t seem to have physically improved over the winter and my perception is he’ll find it tough against top class older horses.

Western Hymn has been a revelation this year. He proved to cope with quick ground at Sandown when winning the Brigadier Gerard Stakes last month. He’ll need to take another step forward to feature prominently in this race, though. The same goes for The Corsican. An improving sort, but much more is required here.

The Foreign Raiders

The French Ectot was a 6/1 fancy for last years Arc. For all the right reasons. A Group 1 winner over 1m as a juvenile, he stepped up to 1m 4f winning the Prix Niel as a prep for the big one. He was disappointing in the Arc itself and hasn’t been seen since then. That’s a major worry of course, but if he’s fit, healthy and improved, he’s a major player.

The other French horse Gailo Chop has been beaten by Solow on his seasonal reappearance last month. He’s a good middle-distance horse, but has, however, doubts about his ability on this top level as well as on fast ground.

Potentially the most interesting raider from overseas is Australia’s Criterion. His record in Group races is staggering. He won big races from 6 furlongs up to 1m 4f and has been competitive against internationals before. After smashing his opposition in the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth Stakes over 10 furlongs at Randwick, connections came up with the idea to ship him out for some of the big races in overseas.

First step was Hong Kong. Criterion was far from disgraced in the QEII at Sha Tin, finishing a fine third. He’s now over in England, reportedly has settled well in to his new surroundings and a big run is expected. He’d probably prefer a bit of rain, however his Hong Kong performance proved he can be competitive on quick ground as well.

The Japanese send out Spielberg. He’s a Group 1 winner at home, beat super mare Gentildonna back in November and acts on fast ground. He’s a serious horse & also stays further, though usually seem to take a while to hit top gear and that might find him out around Ascot.

Verdict: Assuming Dermot Weld has worked his magic again, one would think it takes a special horse to beat exciting Free Eagle. If you want to say something negative about him, then it is the form of his Leopardstown win, which isn’t great. Whether he has improved from three to four is another question mark. Nonetheless I am seriously tempted to take the 3/1 on offer as I thought he’d be a bit shorter. But….

…. I find it impossible not to have a bet on Criterion @ 11/1, which is way too big in my book. Fast ground isn’t ideal, but he handles it fine. He has a high cruising speed and is likely to be in the perfect position turning for home, chasing the pace. He’s able to sustain a high tempo for a lengthy period of time and Ascot as a track may suit absolutely perfectly. He’s the value for me.

Criterion @ 11/1 VCbet – 5pts Win