The biggest issue during the first two days of Royal Ascot has been the weather: it's been raining like mad in Jolly Olde England, and most of the Wednesday races were run in an absolute downpour. This has turned the turf at Ascot soft, and favored the runners who prefer the going to have a cut in it.
The results have also been chaotic, and the rain probably has had something to do with that. In the graded stakes races on Wednesday, which comprised the first four contests on the card, the winners were 32-1, 12-1, 7-1, and 21-1. It was a bad day for the headlining horses, and it was a bad day for the chalk players backing them.
But each racing day is a fresh start, so we'll wipe the Wednesday slate clean and move to Thursday. And it's another group of good races. Here's the lineup of the day's Group races (all times are Eastern; all races are on turf):
Race 1 (9:30 a.m.): Group 2 Norfolk Stakes, 2-year-olds, 5 furlongs.
Race 2 (10:05 a.m.): Group 3 Hampton Court Stakes, 3-year-olds, 1 1/4 miles.
Race 3 (10:40 a.m.): Group 1 Ribbesdale Stakes, 3-year-old fillies, 1 1/2 miles.
Race 4 (11:20 a.m.): Group 1 Gold Cup, 4 & up, 2 1/2 miles.
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The Norfolk drew 15 entrants. The headliner here is 5-2 morning-line favorite 13-Sunday Sovereign. This Paddy Twomey trainee has won his last two starts, both in Ireland, impressively. He is a deserving and worthy favorite.
We talked Wednesday about American trainer Wesley Ward's emergence as a force in these Ascot juvenile races, and while we didn't like Ward's runners Wednesday, he has one in the Norfolk that we fancy quite a bit. It's 8-Maven, who became Triple Crown winner American Pharoah's first offspring to win a race, wiring the field in a juvenile race on dirt at Aqueduct in April. His performance in that race was workmanlike, not dazzling, but we think he's going to improve in his second career start. He has abundant speed, and we think he will handle the soft turf just fine. We will bet him to win at 7-1.
Ascot Race 1
$30 W on 8-Maven
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The Hampton Court has a good and deep field of 15 3-year-old runners. A handicapper could go in many directions with this one, but we're going with a tried-and-true one. The Aidan O'Brien-Coolmore team in a major European stakes race. They have 4-Cape of Good Hope in here, a son of superstar stallion Galileo, who ran a decent fourth in his last, the Group 1 Prix du Jockey Club at Chantilly Racecourse in France. He's another horse we're expecting to improve, and we think he simply outclasses the rest of these horses. We will bet Cape of Good Hope to win at 4-1.
Ascot Race 2
$35 W on 4-Cape of Good Hope
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The Ribbesdale is another good race, filled with very, very talented fillies, like 3-Fleeting (5-2), 4-Frankellina (7-1),and 8-Queen Power (2-1). But we like a price here. It's 11-Star Catcher, who's trained by John Gosden and who will be ridden by Frankie Dettori. This daughter of ace turf sire Sea the Stars has run well in both of her starts this year, a win in a maiden race and a good third in a listed race (comparable to an allowance race in the U.S.), both of which were at Newbury in England and both of which were 1 1/4 miles on turf. She'll need further improvement to win this, but we think that she's capable of that. And we're getting a big price. She's 10-1 on the morning line. We will bet her to win.
Ascot Race 3
$25 W on 11-Star Catcher
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The last stakes race of the day at Ascot is the Gold Cup, and it's a 2 1/2 mile − that's 20 furlongs! − marathon. The 6-5 morning-line favorite is 4-Stradivarius, an Irish-bred, 5-year-old John Gosden trainee, who's won six races in a row, including last year's Gold Cup. He's going to be very tough to beat.
But we think there's a horse in here who can beat him. It's 6-Cross Counter. This 4-year-old Godolphin home-bred is trained by Charlie Appleby, and he won the Melbourne Cup in Australia two back, and this that is not only one of the most prestigious horse races in the world, but one of the most difficult in the world to win. He proved that the Melbourne Cup win was no fluke by taking the Dubai Gold Cup at Meydan in the United Arab Emirates. Both of these races were at two miles, but we do not anticipate the extra distance giving him problems. Put bluntly, Stradivarius is good, but we think that at his best, Cross Counter is better. And at 4-1, he represents parimutuel value, so we are going to bet him to win, and we will do so enthusiastically.
Ascot Race 4
$50 W on 6-Cross Counter
That's all for today. We'll be back tomorrow with more action from Ascot. Until then, good luck at the windows.