5 Things We Learned From Royal Ascot
After a fantastic week of top class racing at Royal Ascot, it's important to reflect on what we saw and what it means going forward. Today on the blog Stephen tells us five things we learned from Royal Ascot.
1- The jockeys championship is a straight shoot out between Moore and Hughes
Some of the riding on firm ground at this track was quite simply very poor and ill-judged, and the talents of Ryan Moore and Richard Hughes shone out as miles clear of their weighing room rivals. With 43 year old veteran Johnny Murtagh claiming the jockeys title for Ireland with some fantastic rides, both in terms of tactics and strength in the saddle, it must raise some questions about the emerging talent of young riders.
With the exception of James Doyle, who completed a superb treble on Wednesday, some of the riding was certainly less than inspired. William Buick sat at least five lengths out of his ground in virtually every race he rode in (including in victory on the potentially top class Remote), and Jamie Spencer's ride on Just the Judge, (admittedly from a poor wide draw), was hardly his finest hour as he raced fast and wide for two furlongs before apparently changing his mind and dropping out into mid-division. In contrast to Hughes' masterclass on the winner Sky Lantern (drawn in the next stall), it showed clearly the range of ability on show, even among the best riders...
2- Dawn Approach is a miler pure and simple
Those of us who opposed this top class colt after his desperate run in the Epsom Derby, were forced to eat humble pie after a thrilling St James Palace Stakes on Tuesday where he got the better of an epic battle with Tornado. Although the well backed 5-4f was again free in the early stages off this much better gallop, he picked up strongly and gamely prevailed in a finish that will live long in the memory.
With age he seems to get fresher and less tractable (having looked a hardish ride in his juvenile days, finding plenty after coming under pressure early on), and he will now surely be kept away from middle-distances and continue to be very hard to beat in all the best mile races. Speed is clearly his forte and, when channelled correctly by the excellent Kevin Manning, he is out of the very top drawer.
3- Watering of UK courses needs to be used as a last resort and under strict controls
The slipping up on the bend on Saturday of Ektihaam in the Group 2 Hardwicke Stakes was a timely reminder of the dangerous watering that often takes place on UK tracks. In this instance it is hard to attach blame to the clerk of the course, who had been bowled a googly all week by inaccurate weather forecasts that virtually every day predicted heavy rain that never materialised.
Indeed many trainers were unhappy about the very firm nature of the ground with Richard Fahey tweeting "rain on concrete makes an ice rink.?!!", and Mark Johnston adding "Rain on top of watered ground at Ascot. Why, oh why, do they do it?".....and there is little doubt that some of the track preparation this Summer has been nothing short of scandalous.
At any number of meetings, watered ground has produced softish conditions in the middle of summer (when the predicted rain has duly arrived). Major courses such as Goodwood and Haydock consistently produce conditions that keep only the shareholders of the major bookmakers happy, as forecast fast ground rapidly becomes testing, uneven slop. There need to be strict guidelines from the BHA as to when watering is permitted at all. At the moment the taps seem to get turned on at random, with huge draw biases and inaccurate going reports now commonplace and gradually destroying punter confidence in the sport.
No-one wants "hard" ground on a regular basis, but at this time of year, surely fast ground horses should be in the ascendancy and enjoying conditions (within reason) that nature produces.
4- The off-course industry is cutting its throat in a bid to attract turnover
Some of the offers made to punters by this increasing PR driven industry have been truly incredible, with a deliberate attempt by many firms to try to take on the exchange monopoly of "value" prices. The place terms in all the major races have been excellent, particularly when there is a short-priced favourite such as Battle of Marengo, and the more astute players have been hunting out betting shops they had long since forgotten about in a bid to get bets on "under the radar".
However, there is still a major issue when the dictates of PR gurus clash with the under pressure ,"robot" traders that dominate so many racing desks.
One such example was Coral's offer of 2.75 (7/4) about Dawn Approach, a strong opinion (one that I agreed with and expected that the latter, Betfair driven market would mirror). This was clearly a marketing exercise to get punters onto the website and into the companies shops (he was under 2.50 (6/4) on Betfair all morning) but it backfired spectacularly as not only did the horse win, but scores of regular punters reported they were offered hugely reduced, tiny, meaningless stakes when they tried to get on. Now, it is no use traders screaming "arber" when they are deliberately put up arbs, and this publicity "stunt" needs a serious rethink if it is to be repeated.
Some firms now offer these "enhanced" prices for a short period of time and state directly how much each individual punter can have on the selection, and this seems a sensible solution that keeps both the PR men and the punters fairly happy.
5- Mark Johnston's record at the top meetings may be on the decline
"Always follow Mark Johnston at these big meetings" was a reliable saying for most of the past decade as the Middleham trainer has always targeted his enormous string towards both Ascot and Glorious Goodwood. However, this time round he drew a blank, with many of his horses running very poorly and well below market expectations. Just like the annual "Ferdy Murphy Cheltenham Festival winner at 33-1", this system of following his runners in handicaps down South can now be discarded.
Many from the yard do now seem to be running incredibly "in and out”, following a win with a tailed off, dismal performance, and they have simply become far too unpredictable to be backed with any confidence. It may be that the varying ground conditions through this wet summer have something to do with it, and also the rather scatter gun approach to running horses so regularly up and down the country cannot help. Moreover, other trainers have finally caught up in terms of fitness levels with the standards set by this dominant northern yard, and he may now face tough competition to maintain his incredible winners tally each season.
Don't forget to check out the latest bettingexpert Eyecatchers from the Royal meeting.
Follow Stephen on Twitter: @Stephenh61