Gold Cup Preview
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This preview is for the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot this week. Spaces are our Royal Ascot Festival Special are going fast and the first tips for tomorrow will be sent out this evening, so if you’ve been sitting on the fence, don’t hesitate any longer – sign up today.
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Royal Ascot Preview
If the Cheltenham Festival is national hunt racing’s Mecca, Royal Ascot, although arriving comparatively early in the season, marks a pinnacle in the flat racing calendar. Five days of scintillating action, with the best from the UK, Ireland, Europe and further afield all gunning for a share of the spoils. While prize money is far higher in many places around the world, the prestige of a Royal Ascot winner leads many to view this as the greatest flat meeting in the world. When Undrafted won the Diamond Jubilee for US trainer Wesley Ward in 2015, the multiple Group 1 and Breeder’s Cup winning trainer was led to proclaim it as, “the biggest race I’ve won.”
Will Battaash bring his best to trounce his rivals in the King’s Stand? Who will win the battle of the Guineas victors in the St James’s Palace? On Wednesday, will Sea Of Class flow smoothly on return after her long absence? Can anyone topple Stradivarius in his bid for back to back Gold Cups? Can Invincible Army remain invincible this season in Saturday’s Diamond Jubilee?
Gold Cup (Group 1) 2 miles 4 furlongs
One of only two races where the Queen presents the trophy, the Gold Cup is perhaps the most prized of Royal Ascot’s crowns. A race always capable of throwing up great stories, including when the Queen’s Estimate triumphed in 2013. This year’s renewal looks a compelling contest, with defending champion Stradivarius again the one they all have to beat. John Gosden’s stayer may be small but he is all heart and relishes any battle. Last season he carried all before him in the staying division, winning five races in a row, a run which included victory in the Lonsdale Cup at York to complete the final leg of the Stayers Million, scooping the £1 million bonus.
As Ballydoyle would probably attest to, recording back to back Gold Cup wins is no mean feat. The magnificent Yeats recorded a probably never to be repeated four victories in the race, with the last coming in 2009. Since then A P O’Brien has won the race on three occasions, and two of those three victors attempted to defend their crown only to come up short. Remember Order Of St George’s (2016 winner) titanic tussle in the home straight with Big Orange in the Gold Cup of two seasons ago, where he lost out by the narrowest of margins. Before that the vastly talented Fame And Glory could only manage 7th when 4/5 on favourite in 2012 after his victory the previous year.
So, all considered it may not be plain sailing for Stradivarius, who faces some new staying prospects from this year’s 4 year old crop. At 11/8 he naturally heads the market, while behind him are assembled three of his main challengers, their prices ranging from around 4/1 – 6/1. There are also a few runners lurking at larger prices with considerable class and form to their name. Let’s take a look at the Gold Cup field.
Stradivarius – generally 11/8*
The undoubted star of the race and the staying division at the moment. Unbeaten in six starts coming into this race, a run that stretches back to October 2017 and includes the Goodwood Cup and this race last year. John Gosden’s colt could be described as flashy, a chestnut with a prominent blaze and four white socks, but there typically isn’t much flashy about his performances. Not one to win cruising on the bridle, Stradivarius invariably plays his hand relatively early, but it is his ability to give under pressure that marks him out as a star. Remarkably he looks better the further he goes in trip, but such is his versatility he has won at trips ranging from 14 furlongs right up to the Gold Cup trip of 20 furlongs in the last two seasons. He seems to relish any sort of battle in the home straight, having an incredible knack of finding a way to win. Powerful staying prowess is coupled, unusually for a stayer, by a quick turn of foot, something that makes him such a force in the later stages of a race.
Those qualities were clearly seen throughout last season. In this race last year when Dettori brought him wide down the home straight to run down front running Torcedor, then when challenged by Vazirabad at the death he picked up and went again when most horses would have folded. First time out this season at York we were reminded of those traits again as Southern France looked to throw down a serious challenge, only for Stradivarius to get to his quarters, wear him down and then look to be pulling away again at the line. If there is a potential negative that could spoil things next week it may be the ground. Although winning on soft at the back end of last season, he didn’t look as happy than when on a sound surface, something Dettori confirmed after the race.
Regular partner Frankie Dettori has marked Stradivarius out as the horse he is most looking forward to riding at the meeting, which considering his likely quality book of rides, suggests he is expectant. Why shouldn’t he be? This is one of those rare horses that seems to want to win at all costs; he seemingly has all the tricks up his sleeve, the ability to stay, to travel and quicken when asked in the straight, but most importantly as resolute an attitude as you’ll find in a racehorse. Will the others dare to pass him before the line? I don’t think they’ll get the chance.
Cross Counter – 9/2
Cross Counter’s Melbourne Cup win proved that this 4 year old was made of stern stuff, when he had to endure a shocking trip, coming from the back and being forced very wide off the home turn, he still found the legs to run down Marmelo in the last furlong. This then is clearly a stayer on the rise after reappearing with a fairly bloodless win in the Dubai Gold Cup at Meydan. There, he beat stablemate Ispolini, who had by far the easier passage up the rail, in convincing fashion drawing away in the last furlong to score by just over a length. That was only his second attempt at a two mile trip, so there should be more improvement to come this season from the son of Teofilo.
Charlie Appleby’s runner probably didn’t beat all that much at Meydan, with the jury still out on what 2nd placed Ispolini can do after that horse’s moderate 4th in the Yorkshire Cup, where he was well beaten by Stradivarius. Excluding Call To Wind, 3rd at Meydan, the others were all good handicap or moderate Group race performers at best. Looking further back into his form, last season’s victory in the Gordon Stakes at Goodwood catches the eye. There he beat Dee Ex Bee comfortably over 12 furlongs, having too much pace and staying power for that rival. I can’t see Dee Ex Bee turning the form around over this longer trip, which makes Cross Counter likely the biggest threat to Stradivarius. He also had Kew Gardens behind when runner up in the Great Voltigeur at York.
In what is something of a case of little and large, Godolphin’s towering, powerful stayer will certainly face his biggest challenge to date as he takes on John Gosden’s runner at the top of his game. It seems a strange thing to say about a Melbourne Cup winner, especially when he won in the style that he did, but it remains to be seen if Cross Counter has the resolve to match a streetfighter like Stradivarius. When he finished runner up to stablemate Old Persian at York last year, he seemed to carry his head slightly high when truly asked for his effort. I’m rather clutching at straws, but I feel when the time comes to eyeball Stradivarius in the straight, as I believe it will, I know whose resolve I would rather trust at that moment in time.
Dee Ex Bee – 11/2
Mark Johnston’s has looked good so far this season, taking the step up to two miles in his stride as he recorded a brace of Group 3 wins first at Ascot in the Sagaro Stakes and then at Sandown. Form wise the Ascot contest looks weak, and it’s not especially encouraging that 2nd to him then was Raymond Tusk who also lines up in the Gold Cup but rounds off the market at around 40/1. His Sandown form reads slightly better, where he beat improving 4 year old Mekong, who is likely to make into a Group race performer this season and Chester Cup winning stablemate Making Miracles was back in 4th. Grinding out victory was the name of the game that day, with Dee Ex Bee making all and winding things up from the front in true Johnston runner style.
Second in the Derby at 3 he didn’t really go on from that, running in some high quality races including the Irish Derby and the St Leger at Doncaster, never finishing better than mid division. Worryingly he was well beaten on two occasions by Aidan O’Brien’s Kew Gardens and also once by Cross Counter. That would suggest he has some serious work to do to turn form around with those rivals, even before considering Stradivarius at the head of the market.
My worry for Dee Ex Bee is that he lacks a bit of class in this line up, a point that is glaringly displayed by his form last season and his head to head record with some of these rivals. While he should stay the trip, I can’t see it bringing about enough improvement to make him into a serious contender. He hasn’t looked to have much of a change of pace in his wins this season, grinding away has been good enough against inferior rivals. It won’t be here.
Kew Gardens – 6/1
Likely to be the pick of four Ballydoyle runners, Kew Gardens has had something of an unusual prep for this race, having run in the Coronation Cup at Epsom last time out. The fact that he dropped back in trip after winning the St Leger last season suggests there are questions over the best trip for this horse. Re-appearing this season over 1 mile 5 ½ furlongs at Chester he was firmly beaten some 8 lengths into second (Magic Circle behind in 3rd). That doesn’t tell the full story though as Morando was given an expert ride off the turn by Silvestre de Sousa, leaving Kew Gardens an impossible task of closing the gap in testing ground. Subsequently, in the Coronation Cup he looked to have the race at his mercy when hitting the front before being passed late on by a closing runner up the rail.
This colt has some previous head to head form with some of these rivals, having beaten Dee Ex Bee and Southern France in last season’s St Leger. Before that his run in the Great Voltigeur saw him finish 3rd behind winner Old Persian and notably over 1 length behind Cross Counter.
He looked to have come on from his Chester run when shaping better at Epsom, which suggests he should be in perfect condition for Ascot. This is a big step in trip though for a horse that is yet to run beyond 1 mile 6 furlongs, but I can see it suiting him based on his long sustained efforts in races like the Coronation Cup, where he came off the bridle quite early on but closed from the back of the field to lead in a good sustained run. At this trip he shouldn’t get so out paced and if he has the reserves of stamina to maintain a run at the finish, I can see him going close and forcing his way into the frame.
Southern France – 10/1
An admirably consistent, if not quite top-notch performer. His run behind Stradivarius last time out was a good one, however his proximity in finishing as close as he did to the Gosden horse probably flattered him. When challenged, Stradivarius easily mastered the Irish raider and with Southern France having had a run already I would have thought that leaves him with little hope of reversing placings.
Flag Of Honour – 11/1
Beaten three times so far this season by Magical, each time over 10 furlongs. In playing understudy to his stablemate he hasn’t done anything wrong each time but has just lacked the speed to live with the Prince Of Wales Stakes hopeful. That must be seen as an inadequate trip for this Irish St Leger winner, whose only career successes since running as a 2 year old have been over trips of at least 1 mile 6 furlongs. It is also worth noting he was sent off second favourite behind Stradivarius when they clashed last October in the Champions Day Long Distance Cup, where he wasn’t disgraced in finishing 4th beaten just 3 lengths.
Expect an improved display now upped markedly in trip and while I can’t see him winning, he’s the sort of performer who could sneak into the frame.
Capri – 16/1
Probably would have been Aidan O’Brien’s initial hope for this race when he outlined the campaign for his string at the beginning of the season. High class at his best, as a Leger winner and 5th in the Arc where he finished ahead of stablemate Kew Gardens, this season has been a bitter disappointment so far. Twice he has been turned over at short odds. Last time out in the Saval Beg Levmoss Stakes he travelled kindly on the front end, only to find virtually nothing when challenged in the straight.
While he may be the sort of horse who can now only thrive at a marathon trip, such a tame weakening should set alarm bells ringing. A further worry is that he hasn’t won since his re-appearance run at the beginning of last season after which he lost his way. Clearly has the back class to be a serious threat, but he is impossible to be interested in given his current mode.
Called To The Bar – 16/1
In last year’s race the horse to put Stradivarius most to the test was French raider Vazirabad. Sadly, that horse faces a season on the side lines through injury, but the French challenge is taken up by Mme Pia Brandt’s Called To The Bar. Having run three times this season, he has recorded two successes with both coming over a 1 mile 7 furlong trip. The most recent of those was at Longchamp, where I was impressed with the ground he made up from the back of the field, despite being forced about four wide rounding the home turn. Of further interest is the fact that Call The Wind, a horse that had been beaten by Cross Counter in Meydan was back in 3rd. I think that probably says more about the Meydan form than the performance of Called To The Bar, but he looks a nice prospect and can run well.
Magic Circle – 16/1
A runaway winner of the Chester Cup last year, he finished just behind Kew Gardens in the Ormonde Stakes at Chester when last seen in May. While that run marks him out as potentially interesting, he is yet to make himself an established Group race performer, with just a Sandown Group 3 to his name. That’s less than most of the field have achieved at Group level and shows he requires improvement to make an impact on Thursday.
Thomas Hobson – 20/1
Willie Mullins brings his dual purpose 9 year old to Ascot for a fourth time, but for a first stab at the Gold Cup. His best form would put him in the mix, having only lost out to Stradivarius by 1 ½ at the back end of last season. It’s two years since his last win however, which came in the Ascot Stakes handicap at this meeting, and now being considerably longer in the tooth than most of his rivals here I can’t imagine him playing much part in the finish.
The others Master Of Reality, Cypress Hill and Raymond Tusk have it all to do in this kind of company and can be safely discounted.
*Prices correct at time of writing.
8/10 of the most recent winners had won at least one race at Group level before lining up in the Gold Cup.
8/10 winners had only had one prep race before arriving at Ascot.
6/10 of the last winners have been a 4 year old.
6/10 have been sent off the favourite. Only Trip To Paris (2015) and Rite Of Passage (2010) were sent off at odds larger than 10/1 – 12/1 and 20/1 respectively.
5/10 had won at Group 1 level before.
Only 1/10 has successfully defended their Gold Cup (Yeats in 2009).
I expect STRADIVARIUS to have too much for the new 4 year old brigade of stayers. He has the best form, including at Ascot, from everything we know the most ability and an attitude that you just can’t fail to admire in a racehorse. That said I think he will be tested on the day, most likely by Cross Counter, who looks like a really top prospect for future staying contests. I can see him having a ding-dong battle with Stradivarius in the straight with the Gosden horse winning the battle of wills. Speaking of wills, Ballydoyle always have a will to win at Royal Ascot and typically have a strong contender in the Gold Cup, but this year with four in the race it shows their lack of a standout staying proposition. Kew Gardens is a horse I like, and he clearly has the quality required to be involved, especially as the trip is likely to bring about some improvement in him. Similar comments apply to Flag Of Honour who I also expect to be on the premises also.
1 – STRADIVARIUS
2 – CROSS COUNTER
3 – KEW GARDENS
4 – FLAG OF HONOUR
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