It's the culmination of the UK flat racing season on Saturday at Ascot and Tony Keenan has looked ahead to the five main races...
"Mount Moriah was fourth in the race last year on similar ground to what we will have Saturday with the horses in front of him finishing one-three-four in the Ascot Gold Cup and he wasn’t suited by pressing earlier than most."
There have been 44 Group 1s in the UK and Ireland this year and just three have been run on soft or worse: Cracksman's Coronation Cup, Forever Together's Oaks and The Tin Man's Sprint Cup. With Ascot reporting the ground likely to be soft for Champions Day, we are looking at a new challenge this Saturday, which is by turns, fascinating and scary.
At least some form reversals can be expected with so many of the key races being run on a totally different surface, but against that there are times when the supposed soft ground horses become overbet against rivals that are simply better. Their ability allows them to get away with the going not being ideal.
Champion Stakes: Cracksman looks too short on this season's form
Cracksman looks one of the big beneficiaries of the going turning soft but you would be brave to back him around [2.2].
He hasn't looked like the same horse that bolted up in this race last year, seemingly labouring in the early parts of both his last two runs, and his time-figures are behind those which he achieved last season. Perhaps his time off the track will help him return to form, but to my ear John Gosden didn't sound particularly positive about him in recent comments. At least not when contrasted with his enthusiasm for Roaring Lion who reports better than ever.
Despite being the pre-eminent 10-furlong horse of the season, it seems that Roaring Lion is unlikely to run, though if he does his ground preferences could be overdone in the market; he was well able to show his turn-of-foot on good-soft at Doncaster last backend.
In his likely absence Crystal Ocean might have the best form of all; his King George second was achieved in an excellent time and there is a suspicion he was left a bit short for his most recent Kempton run. That race being more of a springboard to later contests than a target in itself.
Softer ground is no issue to him and would help bring his stamina into play, but he may have more gears than is widely believed; some of his finishing sectionals have been quite sharp and in any case Cracksman could be better over a mile-and-a-half too.
One might think the presence of two 12-furlong types at head of the betting would open the door for a faster type. However, the next in is Capri, who may prove best at Cup distances, though Monarchs Glen is not without a chance if in the same form as at Royal Ascot.
QEII: A suitable end of a mixed-up year
This QEII looks a fitting end to a mile division that - Alpha Centauri excepted - has been very difficult to figure out all season. It is no surprise that this is the biggest field of the five Group 1s with 22 runners as most will think they have a chance of some sort. Roaring Lion is possible here - or he could miss the meeting entirely - and looks to have the pace to drop back to a mile judging on how he wins over 10 furlongs.
Outside of him, the runner with the best form is probably Recoletos and soft would be a help to him over a mile as he stays further. There is a nagging doubt about travelling with him after his issues with the vet taking a blood sample at the Royal meeting; it may be nothing as he ran well at this meeting last year.
A greater concern with backing him at around [4.5] is the host of rivals he faces that have form just marginally below his; Expert Eye interests me having met some trouble last time and has run well on the straight track before while
Lightening Spear was not suited by how things unfolded in the Moulin. Still, this looks a race to avoid for now as it seems likely to be four places on the day and is priced quite tight at present.
Champion Fillies & Mares Stakes: Gosden favourite faces some decent rivals
Lah Ti Dar was second in what seemed a really strong Leger at the time - Timeform rated it the best since Conduit in 2008 - and the race is likely to bring her on. It was only her fourth start and she still looked rough around the edges when asked for her effort.
It was concerning that Kew Gardens could manage only seventh in the Arc (albeit that he'd have preferred a stronger pace) while the third Southern France filled the same position when a well-backed favourite in the Cesarewitch.
She does face a few decent rivals, not least Kitesurf and Magical. The former seems to have swerved the Arc for this weaker race and would like a strong gallop, while the latter ran quite well in the ParisLongchamp feature, staying on from an unpromising position out wide. Her season has been a disaster overall, missing chunks of time here and there, but 12 furlongs on soft ground might be just what she wants.
Champions Sprint Stakes: Speed horses hard to separate
The Sprint looked the toughest race of all to me with market about right. I have hoped Ascot specialist and last year's winner Librisa Breeze would be missed a little after a poor run at Newbury, when it likely came too soon after his Maurice de Gheest fourth, but he has been well-found around [6.0].
The Tin Man and Brando are obviously solid and Harry Angel is a fair price for one of his ability even with the Ascot factor but this is a pass at the moment.
Long Distance Cup: Mount Moriah overpriced to repeat last year's run
I've left the first race on the card until last as it's the most interesting of all for a bet. Stradivarius has been a wonder in 2018, winning his four races, but they have not been by wide margins and soft ground is a concern for him; he has lost all his four starts with soft in the going (admittedly often running to a high level in defeat) while he has only been beaten once in nine runs on faster.
Flag Of Honour is rated his main danger in the betting but he won a weak Irish Leger in which the second Latrobe may not have fully stayed; he has improved and knows how to win but the form isn't really there yet. I'd be much more interested if either of his stablemates Capri or Kew Gardens turned up but that seems unlikely.
The one that is interesting at a price is Mount Moriah. He was fourth in the race last year on similar ground to what we will have Saturday with the horses in front of him finishing one-three-four in the Ascot Gold Cup and he wasn't suited by pressing earlier than most.
This season hasn't gone smoothly since his winning return at Nottingham but much of his absence seems ground-related and he does go well fresh. He is worth backing each-way at 20/1 with the Sportsbook.