Royal Ascot Week

Royal Ascot Week

Thursday, June 22, 2017

In my first column of the year I wrote about our hope that Paco's Angel could win a nice prize this year. She has a chance to do just that when representing us at Royal Ascot in Wednesday's Sandringham Stakes.

She finished fourth last backend in a solid running of the Oh So Sharp Stakes, which is a Group 3, so I'd say she is bordering on Listed class, which is the Sandringham's status.

Had she already won in Listed company she would probably have been on too high a mark to be competitive on Wednesday, whereas right now I'm inclined to think she might just be well enough handicapped off 97 to run well.

I once rode a filly who had been placed in the French Guineas but then wasn't good enough to win this as she ended up with too much weight. In that sense it can be a tricky race. It demands a filly who, with hindsight, you would say was nicely treated. Another factor about the race is you need to stay well, which I think Paco's Angel will, and we also know she loves firm ground.

Her first run of the season on the Lingfield all-weather was respectable but we thought she would have been more effective on the track than was actually the case. We then had her pencilled her in for a conditions race at Leicester a couple of weeks ago but I didn't want to run her on slow ground, so we skipped that. That doesn't matter, though, because she is a clean-winded filly who goes into the race in good form and really fresh.

It is bound to be an enormously tough task, so we're really just hoping she can be placed. Anyone who ends up in one of those four spots in the Ascot winner's enclosure is likely to be delighted.

Although I won't be represented outside of the Sandringham, like everyone else I'll enjoy watching the action. One thing I'm expecting is for Wesley Ward to have a particularly good week, even by his own high standards.

Wesley says this is the best team he has sent to Ascot, which doesn't bode well for everyone else.

Although his juveniles aren't necessarily better than ours, they tend to be better than ours on the day because they are more streetwise. There is also not an ounce of greenness in them by the time they reach Britain. They are like five-year-old handicappers who jump and run. They have already done loads of travelling and so know more about life than their British and Irish counterparts.

The only times Wesley's horses haven't performed well is when jockeys have let them run too fast too soon. The best way to get the most out of them is to to simply ride a race because that exploits the fact they travel so easily. Most juveniles at Royal Ascot don't. As soon as the gates open they are playing catch up, while most will have been on edge in the preliminaries. They find themselves racing as fast as they can. Overall, the experience can terrify them.

I haven't seen many two-year-olds in this part of the world that have made me go "wow" this year. I did like Tom Dascombe's Dark Angel colt Frozen Angel when he won at Ascot, and although he was then beaten at Sandown I could see him going close in the opening afternoon's Windsor Castle Stakes.

On Tuesday I also expect Wesley's Lady Aurelia, a very special filly, to win the King's Stand. The St James's Palace Stakes, which comes next on the card, will be fascinating.

Barney Roy was probably unlucky not to finish closer to Churchill in the 2,000 Guineas, in which he looked very raw, but I don't think we've yet seen the best of Churchill. He wasn't especially impressive at either Newmarket or the Curragh but is a bull of a horse who keeps winning. Up to now he hasn't been doing a stroke of work. Despite that, he has collected two Classics.

I'm particularly looking forward to the Commonwealth Cup, which has been such a great addition to the programme. Caravaggio will surely be hard to beat. I keep hearing great reports about him, with people saying he is an aeroplane. There are a number of hotpots at this year's meeting. Few make more appeal than this colt.

Big Lad bids to make it a big Saturday

We've been enjoying a decent spell with more winners for Weathercock House this week. We have chances of boosting the tally at three meetings today.

The Big Lad will need a bit of luck in running in Sandown's 5f handicap (2.10) but I wouldn't discount him.

He has been given a rotten draw out wide in stall 11 but he will be coming from last and will be ridden for luck. If they go hard and stop he could win. He was well in front a few lengths after the line last time out, so he's clearly in good enough form.

Pat Gallagher is a big supporter of the yard and we're looking forward to Dr Julius No carrying his colours in the 1m1f handicap at Sandown (4.25).

Pat wanted to buy a Saturday horse but for this lad's first start for us I had to ask Pat if he would settle for a Friday at Epsom! That fourth place effort on Oaks day was really encouraging as we knew 7f would likely be too short for him. Even so, he still ran a blinder.

We want to find out if he will stay 1m2f, so I could hardly have framed a better next race for him than this 1m1f contest. We're entering unknown territory but everything we've seen makes us believe he won't have any problems with the trip.

When you see what Goodwood Crusader has been doing recently it's hard to believe he kept being beaten off marks in the early 60s. At Leicester on Saturday (7.10pm) he tries to complete a four-timer off a career-high rating of 81.

The key with this horse is we've learned how to ride him. In the last race he lost, at Wolverhampton in March, he was drawn perfectly against the fence but missed the kick. He ended up at the back of the field and wasn't able to lay up, but the way he ran on made me think he was telling us he needs time in his races to warm up. Since then the riding instructions have been to let him be where he wants to be.

He won twice at Bath, which was a sensible place to send him as they run fast and don't maintain the speed. After passing one or two rivals he picked up great for the first of those wins and then dead-heated seven days later.

I would readily admit he was helped by circumstances last week at Brighton as they went bananas up front. However, Finley Marsh has already showed he has a clock in his head and he was clever enough to make the most of the crazy early pace.

At some point the handicapper is bound to get hold of the horse, while his chance is always going to be out of our hands as it depends on how a race pans out, but it would be lovely to see him win again.

Bluff Crag, who runs in Lingfield's 1m2f handicap, is the horse I rode in the Leger Legends charity race at Doncaster.

I felt he would benefit from moving up beyond a mile, so I bought him. He ran badly at Newbury last time, and I don't know why, but before that he had hit the crossbar for us on a couple of occasions. He was a good second the last time we ran him at Lingfield and I think he's in the best form we've ever had him.

You sometimes see a change in horses - and I've seen a change in this one. He now looks a bit rounder in shape, which I love, as it signifies a horse has dropped down and is at ease. A skinny horse is often a stressed horse. Bluff Crag is not stressed.

A silent starter would be a massive help

The connections of Just Marion were understandably devastated when she died after running loose wearing a blindfold at Brighton on Monday. They were entitled to be angry as well.

This was a death that need not have occurred.

Firstly, I want to say I totally agree with Mark Johnston regarding his view that a Velcro strip attached to the hood by a strap would be a significant help.

What would also help would be silence from the starter and someone in the stalls to remove the hoods.

In this country jockeys have to pull off hoods themselves. Around the rest of the world a member of the stalls team does that. When international riders come over here they cannot believe they have to do it themselves because having someone whose mind is fixed on the hood and nothing else would have to be a positive.

Most horses who need a blindfold are far from quiet. Sprinters, in particular, sometimes bob up and down in the stalls. For that reason you have to put the hood on tight and then wrap it around the bridle to prevent it coming off. Otherwise, as soon as you touched the hood to try to remove it, an older sprinter would be off like a flash.

The problem in this part of the world is the starter asks the jockeys if they're ready before he then shouts "jockeys" and presses the button.

Sprinters become used to hearing the starter shout that and it causes them to anticipate the break.

I pleaded with the authorities over many years to change the guidelines so that starters say absolutely nothing. In France you wouldn't hear a pin drop. All that needs to happen is for the stalls team leader to indicate to the starter all the horses are loaded and his team are off the track.

In Hong Kong they have traffic lights in front of the stalls, which is a better system, but riders shouldn't even require that. Put bluntly, if a jockey does not realise all the horses are loaded and the off is imminent, he or she shouldn't be riding.

There was a suggestion from some that Just Marion's death was one of those freakish accidents that cannot be prevented. On the latter point, I don't agree.

Hughesie's Hottie

When I saw September win a Leopardstown maiden for Aidan O'Brien the other day I think I saw next year's 1,000 Guineas winner. If she runs at Ascot next week in either the Albany or Chesham I'd be confident she'll underline her Classic claims.